Unthank School of Writing Blog

15 Oct 2017

The Gear System: How to Plot to set the Pace

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One of the most noticeable problems in early-draft work is that something is wrong with the pace. It is understandable that new writers can be unsure of what we’re looking at here, and feel uncertain about what to do. So, what do we talk about when we talk about the pace? And if there’s something not quite working how do we tackle this, and at what stage of the drafting process?

What is pace? The short answer

Speed.

How did we work that out?

In my Online Fiction Workshop recently, because I kept bringing up the matter, we had a discussion to identify what pace is. Some students at first suggested that the pace is related to the plot, the plotting and the ‘beats’ of the plot.

‘Beats’ are moments of action and reaction in a story that lead to ‘plot points’ or turning points that are staging posts on the way to the major plot points. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, after he receives a beating from Stradlater, decides to leave school three days early to anonymously wander Manhattan. This is a major plot point. Things will not be the same again. About a quarter of the way through Jane Eyre, Jane meets Mr Rochester. Things will not be the same again. In both these novels, all previous scenes have had ‘beats’ that have slowly built to these turning points, to New York and to Mr Rochester.  ‘Beats’ can aid the pace, but there’s more to pace than the beats, more to it than ‘She loves me; she loves me not.’

Eventually we agreed that pace is more the speed with which the story advances. This may involve a rhythm between action (something happens) and meditation (reaction to the happening). Not all stories need meditation and only require a rising line of testing actions or obstacles – i.e., action thriller; mythic adventure. Alternatively, some stories may involve little external conflict and only describe inner events, are all meditation.

Whatever genre or form the story takes, the purpose of the pacing is to keep the reader interested. We could think of it as the story’s gear system.

Going off-grid

I often suggest that students add or subtract from their scenes to help the pace. I’ll often ask for a little more material, or a lot less. This is because I suspect the writing risks losing our interest, or leaves our curiosity unsatisfied to too great a degree. How do we strike the right balance here? Sometimes it’s as good to think about what we don’t want from our writing as much as what we do want. So, what can happen to a story if we lose control of the pace?

The story can become compressed

Squashing: Too much happens too soon, or too rapidly, event on top of event with no sense of character reaction or meditation. In some novels I see, traumatic things happen in a long list that would floor a mere mortal but don’t seem to make anyone even think about it during the story.

The story can become decompressed

Flattening: Too much padding, scenes without clear purpose or relation to what has been and where we’re going.

Compression and decompression can cause pacing issues in the second act. This is often called the ‘Obstacle Course’, where after having reached a point after which nothing will be the same again, the character has to struggle to find a way out or in some way win. Here, there must be reversals and surprises, and the outcome cannot seem predetermined or easy to reach. Pacing problems in the mid-section ‘Obstacle Course’, mean that we don’t know where we’re going; it’s taking too long to get there; it’s obvious where we are going because there’s so little potential for other endings in the middle section.

 

How can you avoid the squash and the flattening?

If we think about the spine of your story, the first thing you want to do is map out where your plot points are, both the key turning points in the story arc and in each scene.

Once we know what our turning points are, the small ones at the end of each scene, the big ones that turn the gears of the plot, we should have a better idea of what to include and not to include.

We also might have a better idea of how well spaced out the plot points are. If you took 30,000 words to reach your first turning point, a mere 5,000 words to the next one might make the novel seem jerky, suddenly compressed.

 

How the gears should turn between the major turning points

Once we have a clear idea of the major turning points we can start to assess whether the scenes or sequences have the right sort of rhythm to keep your pace.

DCB Pierre sets out a cunning way to scrutinise the pace in Release the Bats (I know I keep banging on about this book). A story that holds our attention should have alternating currents of:

Action

  • Hook
  • Goal
  • Conflict
  • Goal
  • Failure

 

followed by …

 

Reflection

  • Dilemma
  • Decision
  • Action
  • Hook

 

Another way of looking at this is that after each plot point we should have:

Aftermath – character broods, takes stock

Critical choice – character decides what to do next and prepares for it

Suspense – anticipation as to what happens next

Plot point – more action

These could be stages in a story about a mythic hero with the fate of worlds in her hand, or a vignette about a character in a fluster about what to buy his wife for her birthday.

If we keep these structures and rhythm in mind, we’ll have both variety and forward movement with everything happening at the right speed, not so quick that we don’t feel it; not too slow that things seem underwhelming or underpowered.

 

Pace: the tip sheet

  1. Pay attention to the beginning – often novels start in the wrong place, which can cause them to slow, take too long to get going
  2. If we know our turning points, we can gauge how we want to reach them.
  3. Pay attention to the inner drama as well as the action (again, events and developments need to affect the characters and cause them to brood on the aftermath and reach critical choices). We can think of certain types of story that only have internal drama.
  4.  Language and voice play their part, too. If you write all your scenes in the same way, the pace will seem even. Ever-regular syntax and sentence length, tone and vocabulary can stall a novel by the writing not seeming to adapt to what it wants to dramatize. A date scene may start at a stately pace, but the writing could speed up if things take an unexpectedly urgent turn or go wrong. Or, we could slow the writing write down to only three word sentences to make the experience seem excruciating
  5. This is largely second draft work, where we tend to cut. Try to get the bones of the plot effectively organized in the first draft; concentrate on the niceties in the second.
  6. Trust your instincts. If the pace feels wrong, it probably is.

 

Pace means everything is working

Like a lot of things, pace isn’t a separate element and is more an integrated part of the whole of the story. If anything is glaringly wrong (a weak plot, uninteresting characters, wrong point of view, boring prose) it will have a negative effect on the pace. As such, whether the story has pace, is the litmus test of the success of the story.