It’s October, and that means it’s NaNoPrep month over at NaNoPlotMo. Check out the first workshop of the month on pacing and character arc, written by yours truly, and co-organizer, Grace Sabella, AKA illuminara.
HOW TO PACE SCENE PROGRESSION
The pace of your novel will have a huge impact on how your readers interpret events that are happening, and it will also determine how engaged they are throughout the story’s progression. If your pace is too slow, readers may feel that the story is dragging on, and they could become bored. If the pace is too fast, readers become disoriented and mentally exhausted as they try to keep up.
What Is Pacing?
The pace of your story is the rhythm of events, the speed at which the action and plot of your story unfold.
It’s important to understand that there is no set standard for pacing. The length, style, tone, and genre of your story will all help determine what pace is right for you.
Controlling the Pace of Your Outline – The Road Trip Edition
The pace of your outline is the overall speed that your novel progresses at. An easy way to think of this is as a road, where each event in your story is a landmark along the way. The bigger the event, the bigger the landmark.
Your first workshop challenge of the month is to draw out your roadmap on a long piece of paper (or digitally, if you’re that way inclined). Make a line for the road, and imagine that it’s a timeline for your story, e.g. if your story takes place over one year, a quarter of your road will be about three months. Use an X to mark each event in their approximate positions along the timeline, and give these a brief label.
Events might include:
- Meeting of important characters
- A victory or success of your character
- A failing or obstacle of your character
- External events that impact your character’s ability to progress the story (like a hostage situation)
- A new discovery by your character (like aliens)
- A turning point in your character’s arc or relationship
- The death of a character
Events do not include:
- Brushing teeth
- Getting coffee (unless that trip to the cafe is followed by a hostage situation)
- Talking to friends about what your characters did on the weekend (unless one of them was abducted by aliens, and this is directly relevant to the plot)
Take a look at your roadmap. How far apart are your Xs? Do you have long stretches in your story where nothing of plot-relevance happens, or are several major events all jammed up together?
Neither of these scenarios is bad. What you want to consider, though, is how you handle the time between these events. A few weeks of idle activity for your characters may be summed up in “they continued this way for the next three weeks.” Broad summary statements like this will make your pace quicker, as we are covering a lot of space in a short amount of time (or words).
If you want to slow down the pacing, you can do this by describing some of the activity of those intervening weeks. Perhaps you actually write out some of the smaller, menial tasks that took place (but not brushing teeth; you never need to sink that low). This will make your readers feel as though time is progressing more slowly.
So which do you use? Again, this is going to be impacted largely by your tone and genre. As an example: thrillers tend to move at a very fast pace, with events happening almost immediately after one another and little or no downtime in between. Romances will often move at a slower pace, focusing on the time between events as well as the events themselves, so as to give the characters and relationships more time to grow (learn more about character pacing below).
This is where we come back to our roadmap. Take a look at those long empty stretches and decide whether the time covered is valuable for the reader, or not. Try closing that section by folding the paper over — this is the equivalent of our summary statement earlier. How does this impact the overall roadmap?
- Draw a line (or road) on a long piece of paper, and treat this as a timeline of your story.
- Mark an X for each event that occurs in your story (see examples above).
- Look at the spacing of these Xs. Try folding the paper to bring some of them closer together and consider how this might impact the story.
Balancing Action and Reflection – AKA Highways and Viewpoints
Every good road trip needs a few viewpoints where you can park the car, stretch your legs, and take in the scenery. If you just keep driving non-stop, you’re going to miss out on half the fun of the trip and be exhausted when you arrive. But if you stop too often, you’re never going to get to the end of the road.
This is the same in your novel. Any time you’re driving is an action scene. Any time you stop to look around is a reflection scene, and balancing these is very important.
Now, when we say “action” we don’t mean gunfights and car chases. We just mean a scene wheresomething is happening. This could be a conversation between characters, or characters who are going somewhere, or doing something. These are the scenes that progress your story, because you can actually move the plot along.
**Pro tip: all those Xs on your roadmap are going to be action scenes.
Now for reflection scenes. These are exactly what they sound like: the moments when your characters pause to reflect on what has happened (or what might happen). These scenes are important for showing your readers how the character was impacted by whatever events just took place. It also gives us an indication of what they are concerned about in the future, and where their mind goes when it wanders. All of these points will contribute to making your character feel more developed and will give your reader a better connection to them.
Too much action is exhausting, and your reader may become disconnected if they are simply following one event after another with no time to actually grasp the ramifications of those events. Reflection scenes also give us a good opportunity to let an event sink in. They also help slow the pace a bit, so if you feel that you’re going too fast or have too many events crammed in together, consider inserting a reflection scene in between to give your reader some breathing room.
Bringing us back to our roadmap: the larger the landmark, the bigger the viewpoint. This is the same for your story. A major event should have a decent reflective period. A good example is if an important character is killed. If you simply jump right into the next piece of action, neither the characters, nor reader, has a chance to properly feel this loss. If your character has a reflection scene following the death, then we as the reader can actually understand the magnitude of the event, and feel the character’s pain.
It is important to note that a reflection does not have to come immediately after the action. Sometimes in an action sequence there is simply too much going on for you to pause and reflect. In this instance, it is perfectly acceptable for your characters to finish the action sequence and then go into reflection at the end. An example of this is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The big fight at the Ministry is a large scale event, and results in the death of Sirius Black. This stuns Harry, but with so much going on, there isn’t time to process it. It’s not until later, in Dumbledore’s office, and again when Harry is packing his trunk to leave, that he is able to properly reflect on the loss of his godfather.
Look at your roadmap, and using a different colored pen, mark in the reflection scenes following the events. Which ones take place immediately, and which ones need to be saved up for later?
Be wary of having too many reflection scenes strung together, as this will feel like someone applied the handbrake to your story. Many reflection scenes can be coupled with some small amount of action to give the same effect, but still let your readers feel like the story is moving.
- Use a different colored pen to mark in your reflection scenes
- Consider spreading your reflection scenes out between the action, or deferring them until later in the story
HOW TO PACE CHARACTER ARC
Everyone loves stories about underdogs pulling off a big win and the likes of Han Solo picking up arms to fight for what’s right. But what about when a character just can’t make up his mind to do anything? Or the girl who’s always right no matter what and never has a bad thing happen to her? Those stories just aren’t as interesting.
So how do you fix them? You’ve got to plan the pace of your character arc, your character’s journey of transformation, from the very beginning.
What Is Character Arc?
Character arc is a change in your character physically, emotionally, or spiritually from the beginning of your story to the end. It’s called an arc because it spans the length of your story in an arcing fashion. This change can be for the better or worse—growth or regression—but something has to change. If your character ends up the same as he or she started, well, that doesn’t make for a very compelling character we all want to root for.
Why Is It Important to Pace Character Arc?
Creating a believable character arc is crucial to a good story, and pacing ensures that it happens in a way that makes sense to the readers in the context of your story world. You want your character’s journey to captivate your readers, and you want them to easily feel something at each moment in your character’s journey. Pacing is key to achieving this.
If character arc is a new concept to you, I highly suggest checking out these resources before you dive any deeper into this article:
How to Pace Character Arc
Okay, so you’ve got a working knowledge of what character arc is and how your character will change throughout your story. You’ve got the song, but what music do you put it to?
Pacing isn’t something that happens by happy accident as you write. It takes work and planning, so start by brainstorming all the ways your character could possibly get from point A to point B. There are a thousand ways any story could take shape, and none of them are right or wrong in the beginning. So just start listing them all out and then ask which ones will line up to make the most compelling story? The most dramatic character transformation? Which will make your readers root for your character and maybe even relate, and which will make them cringe and stop turning pages? Which possibilities excite you and make you want to immediately start writing the story? Circle the good ideas and cross out the bad, then start forming them into a story with some recognizable shape. This is the beginning of your story’s structure.
This is where pacing comes in. How you order the sequence of events in your story and how much time you spend on each of them determines the pace. It’s the heartbeat that keeps your story alive, but every heartbeat has a pattern. The heartbeat of a character arc looks like this:
This is the pattern that repeats in escalating succession until the climactic event of your story takes place and your character makes the decision and subsequent action that leads him to victory—or tragedy. This is the moment your readers have been waiting for, but they have to get there first. The journey must be worth it and pave the way for a satisfying ending, one that’s both surprising and inevitable. Sounds like a tall order, but every great story pulls it off.
Let’s break down the sequence.
This is a moment in your story where something happens to your character. Most of the time, these events should happen as a result of something your character does or something inherent in the environment around them AKA the world of your story. As Tom Clancy said, “Fiction has to make sense,” so make sure these events don’t come from nowhere and aren’t random. They should all add up to something.
I won’t go into detail of every event that needs to happen in order for your character’s arc to be released because there are tons of existing resources to help you with that, but I’ll highlight a few of the main sequences of character arc as examples.
The first big event that kicks off your story is called the Inciting Incident or Call to Adventure. This is the thing that sets the rest of the story in motion and puts your character on her path toward change. Without this event, you wouldn’t have a story.
For example, an inciting incident would be the Capital coming to District 12 to draw names for the Hunger Games or Wade Wilson getting cancer in Deadpool. Or it can be a direct affect of your character’s (typically bad) choices in the beginning of the story. My favorite example of this is in The Emperor’s New Groove. Kuzco is a real jerk in the beginning of the movie and fires Yzma. In retaliation, she becomes the story’s villain when tries to kill him but accidentally turns him into a llama instead, thus setting the story in motion.
Note: Any event in this pattern could also be a twist or reveal that gives your character access to new information that will determine his next reaction, decision, and action.
The next step is your character’s reaction to this big, crazy, often life-altering event. Remember that the whole goal of your story is to transform your character in some way or give them the opportunity to transform the world around them (such as in the case of Katniss Everdeen). So this first event sets them on a journey toward change, but they won’t change right away. Their first reaction can’t be, “Well, I was a moron and will immediately change my ways.” That’s not a very compelling story, and it would be over too quickly if that were the case.
So the first reaction is typically denial or objection or running away from the problematic situation they’re now entrenched in. Or they don’t know how to fix the problem and take matters into their own ill-equipped hands.
Back to the examples:
- Katniss doesn’t know how to end the Hunger Games, but her gut reaction is that she has to keep her sister out of harm’s way.
- Wade Wilson is scared of rejection and can’t stand to see his girlfriend watch him wither away.
- Kuzco refuses to believe he needs Pacha’s help to make it back to the palace even though he’s been turned into a llama.
These are all visceral reactions to difficult problems, and that’s the idea. Something drastic happens to your character, and their reaction makes them human and shows us their need to change or make a change in their world. Reaction is vital to giving your reader insight into your character and making them care what happens next. You want your character to react to this first event in a way that will dig them even deeper into trouble and get your reader to ask, “What will happen to this character next?” This is the basis of tension in your story.
Decision and action are tightly linked, but they don’t always happen at the same time. Your character can decide to do something and not do it immediately. Or she can make a decision that’s challenged by another character or thwarted by something else that happens in your story. Or he could change his mind because of any number of things. The disconnect between decision and action is a fantastic way to add tension and conflict to your story, but handle with care because a character who deliberates for too long can bring your story to a screeching halt.
Action is the most important part of this sequence. This is when your character does something that launches your story into it’s next sequence of events.
In our examples:
- Katniss volunteers as tribute in her sister’s place.
- Wade Wilson leaves Vanessa.
- Kuzco tries to make it back to the palace on his own.
These actions directly lead to the next event of the story. Or, at the very least, these events cause a ripple effect in your story that produce the next event in your series of story sequences. Just remember:
The stakes are higher in each sequence, and the action your character must take levels up in difficulty until you reach the climactic moment of your story.
- It’s harder to find a way to survive the hunger games with a friend than it is to volunteer as tribute.
- It’s harder to tell your girlfriend you’re an immortal freak than to leave her.
- It’s harder to trust a friend to help you climb a palace wall than to run off into the jungle by yourself.
- But these final actions ensure your character’s transformation and prove to your readers that your character has changed in a striking and dramatic way—or that they’ve made a change in the world around them.
Note: If you’re wondering how many escalating sequences your story should have, the short answer is eight. The long answer is that it depends on the type of story you’re telling and how long of a character arc you’re working with. It takes Katniss three books (or four movies) to change things in the Capitol, but short stories may only have one sequence.
When Character Arc Pacing Goes Wrong
Make sure you give your character a chance to react, decide to do something, and then take action as a result of every plot event in your story. If events keep happening to your character before they have a chance to work through this progression, your story’s pace is moving too quickly, and you’re not giving your readers a chance to fully understand and relate with your character.
How long it takes your character to get advice and make a decision before taking action has a huge impact on the pace of your story. If they can make quick decisions without hesitation or deliberation, your story might move too quickly and possibly cause your character to seem unbelievably decisive. But if your character can never make a decision and hems and haws for pages or chapters without taking action, your story will slow to a crawl, get put on life support, and die. No one wants to read about a character who drags his feet and won’t do anything. If you’re having this issue, check out ourCharacter Proactivity Workshop
You might also run into trouble if every event in your story happens out of the blue or is not a result of an action taken by your character. This makes it hard for your readers to follow the story and believe your character is making any impact on the story or is actually connected to it in a visceral way.
Pacing isn’t some mythical thing that just happens to be inherent in good writing–it’s planned from the ground up and woven into an intricate pattern. Once you learn the pattern, it becomes easier to spot in other stories and master in your own.
Pay attention to the pacing in the stories you read and watch. Do you notice this sequence of event, reaction, decision, and action? Take your favorite story and list out each of these sequences and notice how the pattern escalates from the beginning of the story to the end.
Now, get your roadmap from earlier and take a different colored pen. Above your actions (landmarks) and reflections (viewpoints) note the character development. Is this an event, reaction, decision, or action moment (or a combination thereof).
Are your character development points aligned with your key events so they make sense, and do they occur in a well spaced format? If not, consider moving a few around and see what kind of effect that has.