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  • Writer's pictureJabe Stafford

Write Good: Pacing

Write Good: An Absurd Storytelling And Adventure Blog


Time for a serious writer blog, but with the absurd swear words still included.

Best advice I ever got from a literary agent: A writer can best serve his or her career by mastering pacing.

All the wondrous, absurd, sensual things you want to do as a writer can tank like a tank dropped in the ocean if the pacing doesn’t work. Pacing that’s too slow (like Lord Of The Rings at times) and pacing that’s too fast (like the Maze Runner series) will absolutely destroy the reader’s experience reading your story. If you seek to publish and publish well, pacing is at the heart of what you need to learn.

Why? For a frick-bunch of reasons you might not expect until you’re looking for them. Pacing doesn’t mean gunning it faster and louder than a Michael Bay movie. That shiz doesn’t hook readers. It turns them off because: Why pay attention if the characters are going so fast that they’ll figure out the plot before you do anyway? It also doesn’t mean jeopardizing the protagonist’s life right away in the first line and then lining their life with explosions or murder attempts every page. Readers gotta have something to care about AND non-world-shattering stakes right from the beginning, or it becomes impossible to get invested or believe.

Three tricks to thoroughly tubular pacing:

-Chapter Length

-Hooks and Cliffhangers that are relevant and impactful

-Stakes Rising at a fitting rate

First trick. Chapter length. A shorter chapter (5-10 pages) makes the reader think things are moving faster. With chapters this long, protagonists tend to notice fewer details in the setting or with their senses. They tend to have just enough scene dressings to give the reader an image of where the characters are and how they move through the scene (known as blocking). Then it’s on to the action or the dialogue (which needs to be genuine dialogue relevant to the scene, not a dozen candy coated cliches casually tossed in to fill space). A longer chapter (11-25 pages or more) gives the readers the feeling of slowing down, since you as the author are using page space to give more details. Or longer dialogue among numerous characters. Or two scenes that move the plot or the characters from point A to point B in a realer-feeling time frame.

Use the Chapter Length trick to measure when you think readers have had too much fast-paced story, or too much slow-paced story. Got several fast chapters in a row? Might be time for a one-long-chapter break before cranking the speed up again. Got more than one chapter in a row that is so full of description or dialogue that the characters aren’t doing anything to move the plot forward? Jam a short chapter in between so the characters have JUST enough information to move forward, but not so much that they need to stay bogged down in an info-dump hell.

Second trick. Hooks and Cliffhangers. A hook is the first sentence or two of the chapter, and it has to carry a lot of weight or be attention-grabbing enough to get readers reading more. For spiffy as all hell hooks, read the opening lines of Elantris, most Dresden Files books, or the openings to This Savage Song or The Martian. Those first lines? They’re ROCKSTAR level hooks. The start of each one of your chapters has to be as hooking, addicting, and holy-shitting as those openings. No excuses. (The best part of writing good hooks is they can be SERIOUSLY fun and let you show off just how good you are at dropping huge attention-hooking and meaningful lines.)

A cliffhanger is the opposite of a hook. It goes at the end of a chapter. The last line or the last paragraph is the cliffhanger, but even I can’t remember the exact TV show that coined that term. (A character was hanging by their hands from a cliff at the end of an episode. Hence, cliffhanger.) Cliffhangers gotta be relevant and impactful too. No surprise, “HA, GOTCHA” kinds of cliffhangers. That shiz ain’t permitted ‘cause it makes readers feel cheated.

Remember the last time YOU fell for a cheap-o end-of-episode schtick where the danger was always fake to begin with? Or the scary noise was just the cat? Yeah, it’s up to us to write better cliffhangers than that. How? By stopping the chapter at a moment that makes readers WONDER the hardest. Maybe your protagonist opens a door and the threat of death is there, but only the protagonist sees the danger. The reader doesn’t get to see it until the next chapter. (If you do that, make the danger real, present, and one that REQUIRES huge effort on the protagonist’s part to overcome.) End the chapter right as a fight starts. End the chapter right when the stakes have shifted in a surprising but inevitable way. (Remember that. “Surprising but inevitable.”) That way, the protagonist’s reaction isn’t seen until the opening of the next chapter.

See? Use the Hooks and Cliffhangers trick, and that gets readers flipping pages until late-thirty at night.

Third trick. Stakes Rising at a fitting rate. What’s a “fitting” rate? That’s something YOU have to measure based on what you’re trying to accomplish with your story. But here’s the soul of the trick: The stakes at the beginning of your book/chapter have to be high enough to be a threat, but not too high or too low. Too high and the reader won’t think your protagonist can handle them. (Even James Bond could not catch a nuke bare-handed and throw it back at the bad guy. BUT Tony Stark could. At the end of a movie. After it’s been established he’s capable of building an Iron Man suit and using it to sorta-gently re-direct a nuke. See how the stakes and their timing matter now?) Too low and the stakes won’t seem to matter to the reader at all. If your protagonist can just blaze through every obstacle like it’s nothing, then the stakes are too low. Or even worse, if the “stakes” at the beginning are really only there to hook a reader and then they become irrelevant half a chapter later, that’s an ass disaster.

Yep. I said it.

Measure how much your stakes go up at the end of each chapter. It doesn’t have to be super-formal on an uber-detailed outline that would put supervillains to shame. Maybe start with the establishing of a time limit at the end of the first chapter. Then the next few put bigger and bigger obstacles in the protagonist’s way. Then a big, satisfying success has unseen consequences that plunge them even further into the shit. Half way through the story, a huge climactic confrontation just before the time limit expires could seriously shift the power of characters, and the fallout of that can cause rising stakes in the next several chapters. All useful and genuine ways to raise the stakes at the right pace.

Bonus trick: Communicating With Beta Readers. “Hey, does this story go at a fast pace? Where do you feel it slows down?” Don’t got beta readers? That’s part of the bonus to this trick. Reach out to people you know who love stories (movies, comics, books, anything) and ask ‘em to geek out over your story.

Then ask ‘em how the pacing was.

And boom. Now you’ve got friends who can use their innumerable years consuming stories as expertise in telling YOU how close you are to becoming a master of pacing. Connections make a writing career as much as the writing itself. There. Another bonus trick.

I better get a beer or something after sharing all those tricks. Heh.

Happy writing fellow badasses!

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