Who here knows exactly what pacing is?
Me neither. Pacing is an ambiguous, amorphous mass hanging beyond the edges of perception. We know how to define it, generally speaking (how quickly or slowly the story is moving), but how do you do pacing? How do you write it, how do you perfect it, how do you even talk about it? “Pacing was off,” people say about a story; “It tore along at a breakneck pace,” about something else. But no one talks about it. Sure, you get an episode with James Dashner on Writing Excuses, but it talks about different stuff. Cliffhangers, chapter length, reveals— all things that can help. But nothing that truly encompasses the massive scope of pacing.
Perhaps pacing is just a term that reviewers use. Perhaps writers don’t use it because it sums up plot twists and emotion and everything else we’re trying to balance anyway— boiling it all down into pacing means we don’t focus on the little things that make it happen. And yet… I don’t think so. Anything the reader can complain about ought to be fixable by the writer. Even though pacing is the product of several writerly virtues, it’s much more than just a series of chapter endings.
Joss Whedon gave a screenwriting lecture/chat, sometime just after the Avengers dropped. Unlike his SDCC appearances, he managed to get away from normal fan questions and talk about the craft of writing, exposing a lot of interesting ideas. Among them was a single paragraph describing a language fluke he experienced while working on the script for Serenity. Writing down the initials for specific character phenomena in each scene, he found himself writing the acronym “FASTER” under a scene.
That conglomeration of ingredients, he said, makes the audience crazily engaged in the story, and keeps them moving forward. What is that? That’s a breakneck pace. As you drop letters from the acronym, the pace slows. So, what’s the acronym?
The F stands for Funny. Easy enough to imagine; crack a joke, and you’re already there. When the reader laughs when you want them to, they’re engaged in the story. When they’re bored, they won’t laugh. Amid everything else that’s likely to happen, that humor lightens the darkness just enough to keep the reader from backing out.
The A stands for Action. Fights, car chases, explosions. Not only that, but characters acting, trying to further their own ends. As we see from the Writing Excuses character sliders, proactivity increases likability— which, of course, increases engagement. But really, anything happening puts the A up there. It’s better than nothing happening.
The S stands for Suspense. I like to think of this as Alfred Hitchcock’s bomb under the table— the audience knows it’s there, but they don’t know when it’s going to go off, or if the characters near the bomb are going to do something about it in time. This isn’t surprise, but suspense. The audience knows the danger, and suddenly the characters are faced with that danger and the audience can’t do anything about it. Suspense.
The T stands for Tension. Suspense is driven by plot, conflict through something horrible about to happen. Tension is driven by character, conflict between people who have a complicated relationship at this point. Arguments, some types of jokes, and things characters refuse to tell one another— it’s all tension. When it’s from the plot or setting, it’s suspense. When it’s between characters, it’s tension. They’re similar, but not the same.
The E stands for Erotic. The R stands for Romance. Both are essentially just attraction, but they come from different directions. Physical attraction is erotic. Attraction to personality or mind is romance. In Pride and Prejudice, the relationship between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet (at the end, at least) is romantic. The relationship between Mr. Wickham and Lydia Bennet is erotic. Of course, Darcy and Elizabeth don’t have anything against physical attraction, and Lydia seems to see something romantic in Wickham— although the two concepts intertwine, they are not the same.
Funny, Action, Suspense, Tension, Erotic, Romance. All together in a scene, the story moves FASTER. As you drop letters, the pacing slows down.
Does this mean you should always have each of the six concepts in a scene? You can certainly try, but it’s going to make a gripping book that might move too quickly. While that sounds great, a good writer will contrast different letter combinations to produce different speeds. An epic fantasy might open with a foreboding glimpse of the world at large: giant, serious, yet changing. Action, tension, and maybe suspense, but for a serious prologue, anything romantic, erotic, or humorous feels out of place. You need to change your acronym based on the situation.
That said, as the story progresses, action will increase. Suspense will increase. Tension will increase. Depending on your romantic subplot, the erotic and romantic will increase. As the story progresses, you find yourself using all of these concepts over and over again— how do you make contrast then?
That’s why you have a large battle full of action, suspense, and tension, then cut away to a funny romantic kissy scene, then back to a large battle. Or, action, suspense, tension, erotic, and romance are all in one, while a brief funny, tense scene provides the break. Or, as Joss Whedon exhibits in the Avengers, all of them at once in a battle scene lasting (it’s true) almost forty-five minutes.
You might be seeing a connection already. As you add more letters to the acronym, the scene gets longer and longer. A scene with all six letters can go on forever, but a scene with only tension, or only humor, drags on very quickly. When something drags, the pacing is off. So, to keep the pacing alive, the single- or double-letter scenes must be cut to a couple pages or minutes so we can return to the good stuff. The fewer letters you have, the slower the scene progresses. In order to keep that from detracting from the story, you cut it short. Slow and short, then long and fast. Those two ratios stay essentially equal in a well-paced story.
This is exactly how pacing works within scenes. Cliffhangers are great. Plot twists at the end of chapters are essential. But that’s nothing if the reader puts down the book in the middle of the scene. To keep things moving, to keep the pacing right where you want it, you use and change the acronym: funny, action, suspense, tension, erotic, romance. The fewer letters you have, the shorter the scene. The more letters you have, the faster the reader goes. It’s no formula for perfection, but it’s a start. Pace yourselves. Pace your readers.
And don’t worry if your acronym accidentally spells FAT. It’s just a jumble of letters.