Writing advice: Pacing. For the birds.

Writing advice: For the birds. Pacing.

In the early days of my writing career, I was given myriad advice but most of it was nebulous, lacking artful remedy or analysis. I vowed never to waste anyone’s time in such a manner. If I should ever offer criticism to a composition, it would be specific and have a remedy. Here it goes.                

One comment I got in the beginning was “The pace did not engage me as much as I would have liked.”  Let us address this. Many writing classes will go into great detail but I found it comes down to two things: the dramatic unit construct and diction. They can be used to speed up the flow or slow it down.

The dramatic unit I utilize is simple and broken into two parts. Part One/Setup: Protagonist has a goal, acts to reach the goal, antagonist acts as an obstacle and creates a conflict, protagonist fails in conflict with the antagonist. Part Two/Sequel: protagonist retreats, the protagonist think about the goal and the conflict, a lesson is learned, a new course of action is discussed, a decision is made-> new goal. Repeat part one.

Now, this is for a scene/sequel structure of dramatic units is close to how screenplays have “beats” but “beats” tend to have an emotional transition in the character from positive to negative or negative to positive and they are only two pages. Now remember, the overall story goal is constant. These are the series of small events that take the protagonist on the journey to fulfilling the primary story goal. Each dramatic unit teaches the protagonist a lesson and reveals what the antagonist will do to impede progress. An antagonist is not necessarily a person. It can even be the protagonist, or a flaw in its perception is old trope, but that’s a whole other issue.

So here’s what you do. Part One is the throttle. Part Two is the break. They do not need to be done in equal amounts. You can hit the throttle and break a little only to hit the throttle again. Modern readers tend to want rapid engagement, write very little of Part Two, written at first. Sometimes it can be as little as a paragraph. However, Part two is the section of the narrative where details or the world and background are imparted. It is the “Stop and smell the roses” done by hitting the break so the reader can look around at the scenery whizzing by.

Warning: you cannot go full throttle/Part One all the time. This wears out the reader. Everyone needs time to take things in, and characterization comes with how a protagonist engages with conflict, but the small things, the details not done in an adversarial relationship to the antagonist create a depth of qualities, which allows the reader to relate to the them. Basically, Part Two is where you get to dazzle readers with your brilliant description of the fictive world, magnificent metaphors, add idiosyncrasies to the protagonist, introduce subplots, and minor characters that add vivacity.   

A basic structure for modern audiences means you capture attention with action, AKA Part One. Then, you have small amounts of Part Two in the first act and introduction, until you break into the second act where there is more ample space to give background and build the fictive world. Some will even say the story should begin In Medias Res (Latin: into the midst of things). In Medias Res means you start the narrative in a crucial situation that has come about from a series of prior events as resulting from a Part One/Part Two causal association. You know, throw them into the middle of a battle and then develop the understanding of who, what, when, where and why, afterwards. Action-Adventure, mystery, police procedurals, and many other genres tend to begin this way nowadays from comic books to movies.    

One last thing on pace, the roller-coaster form. Constant conflict desensitizes the reader. The mundane is necessary to build characters as well as motives and contrast the dramatic events where the stakes are raised. Without darkness, the light loses function. Suspense can only come when there is time to recognize a looming threat.

Almost forgot, diction. This is an over-simplification but it works. In the beginning, up to the break into the second act, utilize words with a positive connotation. Then, decrease usage to reflect the protagonist’s negative situation. In the third act, begin to use more positive words again and increase the frequency. Normally, I would begin ramping it up right before the protagonist makes a realization, or learns the necessary skill, that will allow them to fulfil the story goal and complete the plot. This is a subtle way to influence the reader’s perception but the cumulative effect works. It is a direct to the subconscious artifice.

Hope the advice helps.  


Joshua Lee Andrew Jones


PS: These are only things I’ve noticed and they work for me.

Imbalance comes. Balance is restored.