Pace and story structure: a blueprint for keeping the reader gripped

seattle_bway_mambo_01I’ve had an interesting question from Josephine of the blog Muscat Tales:

Can you talk about pace? How to speed up/slow down the action/plot – and when? Is there a general blueprint for this or does the story type dictate the peaks and troughs of emotion, action and change?

There’s much to chew on here. And I think I can provide a few blueprints.

In order to answer, I’ll reorder the questions.

First, a definition. What’s pace? Put simply, it’s the speed at which the story seems to proceed in the reader’s mind. It’s the sense of whether enough is happening.
When to speed up or slow down?

This comes down to emphasis. You don’t want the pace of the story to flag. But equally, you don’t want to rip through the events at speed. Sometimes you want to take a scene slowly so the reader savours the full impact. If you rush, you can lose them.

Here’s an example. In one of my books I had feedback that a scene read too slowly. Instead of making it shorter, I added material? Why? I realised the reader wanted more detail, that they were involved with the character and needed to see more of their emotions and thoughts. The feedback for the new, longer version? ‘It reads much faster now’.

More pace, less speed. It could almost be a proverb.

So pace is nothing to do with how long you take over a scene or the speediness of your narration. Whatever you’re writing, you need to keep pace with what the reader wants to know. If you linger too long on something that isn’t important, they’ll disengage. If you race through a situation they want to savour, they’ll disengage. But when you get it right … they feel the book is racing along.
How to keep the sense of pace?

This comes down to one idea: change. The plot moves when we have a sense of change. Sometimes these are big surprises or shocks or moments of intense emotion. Sometimes they’re slight adjustments in the characters’ knowledge or feelings, or what we understand about the story situation. A change could even be a deftly placed piece of back story. But every scene should leave the reader with something new.

This feeling of change is the pulse that keeps the story alive – and keeps the reader curious. In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a great plot – two of them are change and curiosity. (The other two are crescendo and coherence, in case you were wondering.)

strucWhere to place the peaks and troughs of action and emotion

And now to peaks and troughs. These are your major changes that spin everything in a new direction. As a rule of thumb, they work best if they’re placed at the quarter points (25% in, 50% in, 75% in). You usually need at least three, but you can have more if you like. Just space them out equally through the manuscript so you make the most of the repercussions. But that’s not a cast-iron rule (more here about general story structure).

The biggest question is this – has the plot settled into an unwanted lull? You might solve it by moving a pivotal revelation to one of these mathematically determined points.

Does the story type dictate the use of pace and change?

Yes and no.

Why no? Because these principles are universal – a change is whatever will keep your audience interested. It might be an emotional shift. An earthquake. A person recognising a stranger across a room. A betrayal. A murder. A cold breeze that echoes the fear in a character’s heart. An assailant jumping in through a window. A line that pulls a memory out of the reader’s own life. It’s all change.

Why yes? Because the type of story will dictate the kind of change your readers want to see. Thrillers need big bangs and danger; interior literary novels need shades and nuance.

Why no, again? Because all stories need change.

Thanks for the pic Joe Mabel

nyn3 2ndThere’s lots more about pace and structure in my plot book, of course.




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Any questions about structure or pace? Any lessons learned from experience? Let’s discuss.

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  1. #1 by acflory on October 9, 2016 - 10:17 pm

    ‘ you need to keep pace with what the reader wants to know..’ the best definition I’ve ever read.

  2. #3 by J Rose on October 10, 2016 - 7:13 am

    Thanks Roz. This was really useful, especially your comment that the percentage points for major changes aren’t set in stone. Always a balance, I think, between conscious technique and letting the story tell itself…

  3. #5 by DRMarvello on October 10, 2016 - 1:14 pm

    I can always count on you for a fresh viewpoint, which is one of the main reasons I subscribe to your blog.

    I’ve studied dozens of writing books, most of which cover the subject of story structure, but I don’t think any of them presented change as the driving force for pace. It makes sense, though. Whether you are talking about three-act structure, four-part structure, three disasters and an ending, mirror moments, or whatever, change is at the heart of it all.

    I think the connection between change and pace is instinctive for most writers most of the time, but I like learning new perspectives that help me be more deliberate in my storytelling. Thanks for that.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 10, 2016 - 7:16 pm

      Thanks, Daniel! My father-in-law used to say to meL ‘you can never do anything in a normal way, can you?’ 🙂

    • #7 by DRMarvello on October 10, 2016 - 10:02 pm

      I’m sure you took it as a compliment (as would I), even if it wasn’t meant that way.

  4. #9 by dgkaye on October 11, 2016 - 12:34 am

    Great info as always Roz. I read your short book last week on 100 Fixes. I’m looking forward to reading more of your books and just entered myself and a writing friend on your FB post. 🙂 and shared on my author page.

  5. #11 by Jacob Airey on October 11, 2016 - 2:09 am

    Great article!

  6. #14 by JAPartridge on October 11, 2016 - 4:14 pm

    “More pace, less speed. It could almost be a proverb.”

    The most powerful truths are often simple and yet counterintuitive. 🙂 I think your point on pace=(the rate of change) is a very good one.

    I was wondering if you were familiar with Randy Ingermanson’s (of the Snowflake Method fame) concept of Scenes and Sequels and whether you thought that was a good tool for controlling pacing since it’s basically alternating action/reaction scenes.

    • #15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 11, 2016 - 10:40 pm

      I’ve heard of the Snowflake Method and of Randy Ingermanson, but I couldn’t pass an O level in his theories. 🙂 But as for alternating action and reaction scenes, that suggests a rule of ping-pong. It doesn’t have to be as strict as that. You don’t always need to alternate types of scenest. You do, however, need to make sure that you don’t leave the reactions out – I see that a lot.

  7. #16 by Sheila M. Good, Author on October 13, 2016 - 12:41 am

    Thanks so much for this concise explanation on pacing. Reblogged on Cow Pasture Chronicles

  8. #19 by Sheila M. Good, Author on October 13, 2016 - 12:43 am

    Reblogged this on COW PASTURE CHRONICLES and commented:
    Don’t you love it when you find a book, and you can’t put it down? The story is so captivating you can’t turn the pages fast enough. Likewise, there are those books that drag. It isn’t necessarily boring – just slow; it seems it takes forever for anything to happen or change the directory of the story – it’s called pacing.

    Roz Morris at Nail Your Novel gives one of the most concise explanations on pacing I’ve read to date. Check it out and thanks, Roz!

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