Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Monday, June 20, 2011

School of Hard Knocks: Pacing and Tension

Story Pacing and Tension

I recently had a chat with my editor, and I need to improve the pacing & tension in my latest paranormal romance. So before I did anything, I thought I’d do a quick scan on the Internet for articles on pacing and tension. I’ll admit I was looking for easy answers instead of what I already knew.

What I found surprised me because it strictly focused on cosmetics rather than the fundamentals. Sort of like advising home owners that if they have a leak that has stained the wall, they can simply paint over the wall to eliminate the stain. While this is true, it doesn’t fix the leak. But it’s easier to paint than it is to rip out the wall, replacing or fix the leaking pipe, replace the wall, and then repaint.

So while it’s true that I was looking for an easy answer, I wasn’t happy with the easy answers I found because I knew they would not fix my problem. I also knew in my heart-of-hearts that I actually needed to put in some blood, sweat, and tears to fix the issue. I just didn’t want to admit it.

Cosmetic Fixes

If you need a quick fix, here’s the answer that is plastered all over in writing blogs everywhere: Shorten your sentences. Use a few fragments. Avoid lengthy descriptions. Shorten your scenes. Use more dialog.

Yes, that will increase the pace. But…I’ve seen entire novels written this way, so while it does help, it’s actually not the answer if you need to increase both pacing and tension.

How to Increase Tension and Improve Pacing

There are two main ways to do this. Actually, there are dozens, if not hundreds, but all methods can be roughly defined by the two I’m going to mention. Neither is easy. Both require a lot of thought and work. Once you do one of them, you can “pretty it up” by doing the cosmetic thing with the shorter sentences, fragments, etc.

The two ways are defined mostly by the kind of story you are writing. If you are writing a mystery, where much of the tension is derived from information (i.e. clues, new suspects, etc) then the method of most interest will be the Information Method. If you’re writing a more action-packed story, e.g. adventure, suspense, etc, then the technique listed as Obstacle Method may be more germane. But either method will work in any kind of story. Most of the time, authors use both methods, because varying the method will also help to increase the tension and improve the pace.

No matter which method or variation of a method used, the key is this: to increase tension and pacing, you must introduce something new, either information or an obstacle. It must come from an entirely different, and unexpected direction.

Sometimes the new thing comes in the form of a subplot. For example, in a mystery, you have the detective trying to solve a homicide. She’s being shot at and generally placed in danger by thugs who may or may not have committed the murder. But you have a subplot where her boss is trying to make her retire because he thinks she’s “past it”. So you can increase the tension and pacing by throwing in a curve by having the boss assign the case to a different guy, but your detective can’t let go. Conflict. That’s what you’re going for.

The thing about this is that it’s not what the reader expects. It’s not just “more of the same”. You can’t increase either tension or pacing by just piling on more of the same kind of action, i.e. the detective faces one gunman in chapter 1, so in chapter 2, you have her face five gunmen. Bor-ing!

Information Method

Give the reader a new bit of information that send the story in an entirely different direction. For a mystery, this can be a new clue (or red herring) that forces your detective to suspect a different person. Think of it as driving down a street and coming to an intersection. Your reader expects you to go straight or turn right or left. You’re going to back up fifty feet and go down an alley the reader didn’t even see.

Obstacle Method

An obstacle can be anything that causes a problem for your hero or heroine. But for this to work, it has to be a different problem with the following characteristics:

  • It’s not the same (only more/bigger/badder) problem s/he face before. You can’t just add one or two more gunmen to the shoot-out. It has to be something different, like the house suddenly caving in on them. 
  • It has to be unexpected
  • It has to flow naturally out of the story so that once the reader sees it, they’ll say—of course that happened, it had to, but it was sure a shock. For example, in a ghost story, your intrepid investigators are attacked by some sort of paranormal entity while trying to help the family who just inherited the house. Blah, Blah. Then suddenly, they are shot at! By another group of competing investigators, who are there because they’ve learned there’s a chest of cursed gold hidden, blah, blah. A physical attack by humans is not what your average ghost story fan expects. It’s not what your hero/heroine expects, either. (The gold isn’t expected by your hero, either, so it’s a two-for-one moment, both information and obstacle.)

New information and obstacles must be present in every chapter—hopefully, something new is delivered in every scene—to create a page-turner. That’s something new happening three times a chapter, at a minimum. That’s the structural requirement to keep a book from having a sagging middle, and once you create the structure, then you can daub on the paint to make it look pretty, too, by shortening sentences, adding more dialog, etc, in those specific high-tension spots where the pacing has to increase to the fastest pace.

But remember, you don’t want your entire book to be at a run because that can be exhausting. You want to give the reader a chance to catch their breath once in a while, just like your characters have to.

Now, I have to get back to figuring out what walls to rip out and replace in my own book.



Marian Allen said...

You're so right, Amy--pacing includes rests between sprints of action. And Donald Maass is a great proponent of "microtension"--small tensions within the larger ones. Maybe the guy shooting at your ghost-hunter is not only looking for treasure, he's also her controlling ex, and her current partner is afraid she'll fall back under his spell, so every conversation your mc has with her partner has that tension in it.

Great post--thanks for lots of food for thought.

Marian Allen
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

Amy said...

That's a brilliant comment--and twist. Exactly what the writer should be trying to do. And that's so true about microtension, too.

Thanks so much for the comment--it really clarified and added to what I was fumbling to express.