Situation Critical! Pacing’s Need for an Unknown Outcome

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes, Chief Alchemist of Pitch University

“What happens next?  Let me guess….”

Guessing. That’s the game readers play with the stories they read.

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Being  Wrong vs. Being Unable to Guess

You know from your own reading experiences that if you can guess what’s going to happen next, AND IT DOES, then the story is boring (even if things are exploding and people are bleeding).

As you read, you’re turning pages in order to find out what happens next. And, get this, you want to be wrong. Horribly or delightfully or amazingly WRONG.

But not everything is about being wrong.  It’s just as powerful for the reader to be unable to guess and to know it.  We’ll talk about that too.

Expectations: Big & Small

So readers have expectations, they play along, and they want you to provide something better than what they’ve come up with in their own imagination.

More exciting.  More entertaining.  More outrageous.  More clever.  All those mores.  Be more.

But here’s what we don’t usually talk about as writers.

  • Reader want to be wrong on the big scale, because there is nothing better to a reader (or viewer) to get to the end of the story and say, “I never saw that coming! What a great ending.”
  • But they also want to be wrong on the small scale as well.  It’s not just a matter of avoiding clichés or writing original dialogue.  They want to play along and BE WRONG.
  • The Reader-Character Link

    Warning:  Might blow your mind here.

    Okay, so the reader is playing along, hanging on your every written word.  And they’re reading about characters who are “living” the story.

    These characters are also trying to figure things out, play along, get the upper hand.

    It’s a pretty cool magic trick to pull off.  The fake character is “really” living the story, and the “real” reader is experiencing the “fake” story through the fiction and character that you’ve created.  Pretty awesome.

    This link is important to understand.  When talking about expectations, especially small scale outcomes on the scene, page, and paragraph level, it helps to keep in mind that BOTH the character and the reader need to experience “being wrong.”

    If the character can anticipate what’s going to happen…, and that’s what happens, then you have just as much of a problem as you do when the reader can do it.

    (And yes, the reader and character can be anticipating different outcomes. Beauty, eh?)

    The Pause of the Unknown

    As stories unfold, readers are asking themselves, “What does this mean?”  This can be plot, dialogue, anything.  And then they guess. They extrapolate.

    • They compare this story to every story they’ve read (or seen), and they come to conclusions.
    • They put together all the clues in your story, and they fill in the pattern.
    • They put themselves into the role of the writer and Story God ™, and they invent what they would do.
    • And they step into the protagonist’s (and all your viewpoint characters’) shoes.

    But between that millisecond between reading and deciding is a grand expanse of Unknown.  And sometimes, deliciously, the reader realizes she actually can’t guess what will happen next.  The Unknown has thrown her off-balance and won.  She is hooked!

    Be careful here.  This is not about confusing the reader or being so convoluted that you lose all sense of logic and story.

    This is about being original and crafting a story where, for one scene or twelve, the reader is left in suspense about one or more elements.

    Example #1 (big):  If you have a story where the protagonist’s mother is accused of a crime.  You might truly be concerned because you don’t know if she did it or not.  And you can’t even guess, because there’s logical reason to come up with more than one answer.

    Example #2 (small):  If a character announces to his girlfriend that he was offered a job on another planet, you might not know what response he’ll receive.

    In all instances, remember that your job is to do something that will captivate the reader.  And you know what that means.  It’ll probably involve conflict. 😉

    Guessing and the Affect on Pacing

    Okay, here’s the deal.  When a reader can pretty much guess what’s in the next sentence, in the best cases it generates a silent, internal, “Yeah, okay, fine.”

    In the worst cases it generates at, “Gah, I’ve seen that before.”

    Let’s look at the best case.  When the reader can guess your moves, especially in the smaller units of sentences, paragraphs, and scenes, their internal response (all those yeahs) sound like this: “Blah, blah, blah, blah.”

    Your pacing is blah.

    That’s a far cry from, “Wow, wow, wow!”

    And I’ve said it before, but here goes one more time.  Even small, quiet scenes can have great pacing and cause the reader to say,”WOW.”

    Situation Critical: How It Works

    Here’s an example from Elmore Leonard’s novel, Pronto.  Watch for the unknown outcomes.

    BONUS: Watch to see how the situation goes from ordinary to critical, because the protagonist (and the reader) met up with an unknown outcome.


    One evening, it was toward the end of October, Harry Arno said to the woman he’d been seeing on and off the past few years, “I’ve made a decision.  I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before in my life.”

    Joyce said, “You mean something you did when you were in the war?”

    It stopped him.  “How’d you know about that?”

    “When you were in Italy and you shot the deserter?”

    Harry didn’t say anything, staring at her.

    “You already told me about it.”

    The scene ends with…

    They were in Harry’s apartment at the Della Robbia on Ocean Drive listening to Frank Sinatra, Frank and Nelson Riddle driving “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Harry speaking quietly, Joyce looking distracted.  Harry all set to tell her about the time in Italy forty-seven years ago and then ask—this was the decision he’d finally made—if she would like to go there with him the end of January.  Right after the Super Bowl.

    But now he wasn’t sure he wanted to take her.

    For as long as he’d known Joyce Patton—Joy, when she was dancing topless—he had always wondered if he shouldn’t be doing better.

    What will happen next?  This is a great use of not only thwarting expectations but also leaving us hanging.  I have no idea what will happen next… in a very good, compelling way.



    • Can the character guess exactly what will be said next, revealed next, happen next? In the next minute? Day? Week?
    • Can the reader guess exactly what’s in the next sentence, scene, act, or finale?
    • Are they right?
    • How can you write something more powerful, more original, more unpredictable, yet stay true to what is reasonable and logic? True to your story?
    • How can you get the unknown to work for you?

    Bottom line: What is unknown?  What is expected?  Now, blow the reader’s mind and improve your pacing at the same time.  Make ‘em say, “Wow!”

    This article is the 8th in Diane’s craft-of-fiction-writing series on Pacing:

    1. How to Be a Pacing Genius
    2. Pacing and the Thirst for Something Fresh (Blood Optional)
    3. You Can’t Look Away: Pacing & The Riveting Story
    4. Shot Through the Heart: Threat, Consequences, and Emotions Equal Pacing
    5. BONUS: Don’t Hold Back – Pacing Advice by Literary Agent Donald Maass
    6. BONUS: Using Major Turning Points – Pacing Advice by Christopher Vogler
    7. FREE OFFER (closed)
    8. The “Oh, Crap!” Factor: Pacing in Real Time
    9. Bam! Pow! Wham! Good Pacing Causes Immediate Reaction
    10. Situation Critical: Pacing’s Need for an Unknown Outcome
    11. Game Changers: Pacing, Plot Twits, and Reader Engagement
    12. Pacing that Matters: It All Comes Down to Characters
    13. Your True Opponent: Pacing’s Race to Outwit the Reader
    14. 9 Pacing Techniques, 1 Scene on Fire


    clip_image004Diane writes two alternating columns for Freelance-Zone:Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.

    She’s the Founder and Chief Alchemist of Pitch University