Today I want to talk about story pacing.
I’m currently reading one of those books that’s really gotten into my head and I’ve been thinking about why. The book is Princeps Fury, book 5 of the Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera epic fantasy series. I’m really enjoying the book and the series, although I need to finish it soon so I can get it out of my head and focus on my own writing.
Two things in particular have jumped out at me while reading this book. First, it is a big fat epic fantasy, and yet it is paced more like a military thriller: fast, unrelenting, with constant twists and escalations. Second, every scene drives the plot forward, escalating the conflict or twisting the plot. There’s no downtime, no reprieves.
For me it works, even though it’s hard to maintain such a pace for such a long book. For my wife, it doesn’t. She prefers stories where there are breaks in the tension, where the action comes more in cycles than in one long, continuous sprint toward the end. She needs the periodic emotional rest or she finds a story overwhelming.
Different readers have different preferences. As authors we need to discover what pacing our story requires. Then we need to deliver it. Some readers will like it. Some won’t. But if the story isn’t paced properly, no one will.
In a thriller or a fast-action story a hard-hitting, constantly escalating pace is required or there’s not enough emotional tension for the author to achieve the sought after experience for the readers. On the other hand, some stories have different objectives. Some epic fantasies explore the milieu (the environment, culture, history, and customs of the worlds they’ve created). That’s fine too. Many readers love this type of story as long as it doesn’t get too bogged down by all the side-tracks.
The pacing needs to be appropriate or the story dies. A common mistake that can derail the correct pacing is including the wrong scenes. Imagine a story like the movie “Die Hard” where, in the middle of the action, the hero John McLane decides to take a hot bath and drink some tea.
That example’s a bit extreme, but new authors often fall into the trap of including scenes just because they’re the next sequential step in the character’s journey, even if they’re just filler material between the scenes that really matter. Experienced authors have learned to recognize those filler scenes that do nothing in and of themselves to drive the plot forward in any meaningful way. They learn to cut those scenes and move on to the next important action.
For authors who do a lot of exploratory writing to “find’ the story, this can be a greater challenge because the very nature of that exploratory writing will result in scenes that are useful to the author but not to the finished work. In subsequent drafts as the author is paring the story down to its core plot line, those scenes must be removed or they will drag a story down and ruin it.
I’ve learned this the hard way. In the early drafts of one novel I wrote I included several entire chapters that, although interesting and well written, did next to nothing to drive the plot forward. It was hard to recognize that they had to go because in a slightly different story they would have been perfectly appropriate.
Just not in the story they happened to be in.
I had to learn to ask the question: “If I remove this entire scene, will the reader even notice?” The answer was “No”. I cut the scenes and no one blinked an eye.
On the other hand, in the same novel, I got a little carried away with trimming the fat and cut an entire POV and all of its related scenes. Beta readers didn’t know what was missing but they sensed that something was lacking in the story. I put the scenes back and readers confirmed it filled the gap.
It can be a tricky process, but it is vital. We as authors need to make sure we understand what emotional journey our readers will be taking as they follow our characters through the torturous adventures we throw them into. Extraneous scenes need to go. Scenes that do not deliver the correct tension, pacing, or emotional beat have to go or have to be corrected.
What techniques have you developed for identifying scenes to chop?
While Die Hard is short on hot baths, it does have lulls (including one cutaway from the terrorists where we watch a police officer shop for snacks). The smartest writers of thrillers both screen and page will reduce the pace and intensity of certain scenes, still making them important in some way, but not as immediate or demanding as previous ones. It’s like switching between speeds during exercise or running. Keep progressing, but don’t run yourself or the audience out. And if it doesn’t go forward at all, then it’s probably time to chop.
Boredom. If I’m getting bored writing a scene then there’s definitely something wrong and it’s usually just too much mediocre movement. Down time can be good as long as it’s still pushing the story forward in an engaging way.
It’s funny you posted this today of all days. I’m about halfway finished with a chapter on my current WIP and decided I’m going to delete almost the entire thing and start over. I’m meandering around too much instead of getting to the action and showing the information I’m trying to get across as I go.
Good point. I’ve been thinking about John’s comment also and how I didn’t make my point very clear. Some down time in a story can be perfect, as long as it’s productive downtime. Characters do need a chance to feel safe, to recharge, to catch their breath. In fact, most stories absolutely need moments like this. But that can’t be all that happens.
To continue with the movie ‘Die Hard’ example, the slower scenes were still useful. The scene where the copy is buying the twinkies is giving us a glimpse at his life before he gets caught up in the action, and then that’s referenced again when they talk about the twinkies later. Another scene where the hero and the cop are talking is a great character moment because it’s drawing them closer into a friendship that will save the hero’s life in the end. Productive. Useful.
Like you mentioned, Colette, downtime scenes that are just slow because we as the authors haven’t given the scene a mission have to go because they’re in the way, they bore the readers, and they detract from what we’re trying to accomplish in the story.
Oops. I said you posted today without looking at the date. I pressed the wrong arrow. 🙂 Still timely for me, though.