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Monday, June 25, 2018

How Structure Affects Pacing


Last week I talked about 8 Common Problems with Pacing and discussed pacing overall. Today I'm going to get more technical and talk about how structure affects pacing, and how and when to use structure to speed up or slow down, and then follow up with an example.

How fast and how slow you go in a chapter, scene, or paragraph depends on the content, story, and the effect you want the reader to experience. 

Speed Up


Speed up when you want a moment to feel more intense, snappy, energetic, or even the obvious one, quick.

Often (not always) you want to speed up moments of action, especially fights. Intense scenes, quick thinking, and arguments can work well too.


Speed up the story in these ways.

Shorten - Shorten the chapter, scene, paragraphs, sentences, or even words. This makes the moment feel faster (for obvious reasons).

Short Syllables - Use words that have few syllables. Choose the word "dance" over "promenade," for example.

Familiar > Unusual - Choose words and concepts that are more familiar or common to the audience. For example, choose "guess" instead of "hypothesize."

Simple > Complex - Similarly, choose words and concepts that are simpler. The more technical you get, the more the audience needs to slow down and digest.

The field that Steve stumbled upon was prodigiously verdigris with anthophilia circumnavigating every inflorescence.


The field that Steve stumbled upon was largely green with a love of flowers sailing around every floral arrangement.

Use More Telling - Telling is faster than showing. Tell what's happening when a quick pace is absolutely needed. Showing always takes more time.

Note: Often beginner writers will write action blow-by-blow, which might work in some entertainment mediums, but can be boring in the writing medium. It slows the pacing down, especially if the action is too complicated and technical. Sure, some writers know how to break this rule well, but as a generality, you usually don't want to write blow-by-blow passages. Instead, simplify and shorten the moment, and make sure to infuse it with your character's thoughts and emotions.

Note: Fast doesn't mean sloppy.

Slow Down


Slow down to create a more dramatic effect; to take time to be more serious, weighty, intellectual, technical, or leisurely; to give the audience important details; and to let them catch their breath and digest.


You would think that slowing down would be most effective by doing everything opposite of what it says above and some of that is true, but it depends on the situation. Yes, writing longer sentences will help slow a passage down, but if you simply do the opposite of everything listed above, you can easily run into The Purple Prose problem.

Often the best way to slow down is to add more showing, details, and/or concepts.

It's like watching slow motion in a movie. The audience can see more detail. We get specific shots. Time itself seems to slow or even stop.

Slowing down in a story can work in the same way.

Notice how this moment (from an action scene) in Harry Potter slows down by getting more specific and more detailed. Up to this point there has been fighting and action, and then something important happens, so it slows down and gets detailed.

It seemed to take Sirius an age to fall. His body curved in a graceful arc as he sank backward through the ragged veil hanging from the arch.

And Harry saw the look of mingled fear and surprise on his godfather's, wasted, once-handsome face as he fell through the ancient doorway and disappeared behind the veil, which fluttered for a moment as though in a high wind, then fell back into place.

But here's the thing about slowing pacing way down for dramatic effect, and an aspect that I see writers get a bit mixed up on a lot. Do not try to slow it down by repeating the same information the same way or even the exact same information in the same way.

That doesn't slow the pacing, it positively kills it to a dead, annoying stop. Instead, add more ideas, images, and concepts, as I explained in more detail in the second half of this article here.  (I'll also touch more on this in the example below).

Sometimes you can slow down in a novel simply by the content of the scene. Two characters trying to figure out what just happened through a dialogue exchange will help the audience digest it themselves and catch their breath.

If there is something complicated the audience needs to understand, you may need to slow down, just a bit. (Just make sure it doesn't turn into an info-dump.)

Example: Hamilton

The duels in Hamilton are a perfect example of when to speed up and when to slow down, and the effects of each.

The first duel has what I'll call an establishing, even pace. It explains to the audience how duels work, but in an even enough pace so that it doesn't feel like a boring info-dump (the information is balanced by the quickness of the actual music.)

Notice the song is 1:47

In the second duel, the pacing is quick and the duel itself is only about 20 seconds long (starting at 2:30) . We understand how duels work now. Not only do we not need them re-explained, but because it's so short, it emphasizes the speed at which the action happens, and likewise emphasizes how quick life can change or be taken.

As another note, notice that one of the shooters only waits until seven to shoot instead of ten. (I'm not sure if this is historically what actually happened or just an artistic choice.) This increases the speed even more.

The final duel is more important and dramatic, and it slows waaaaaay down. In fact, you get like an entire song as the bullet is coming toward Hamilton (notice this duel is about 4:30 minutes long).

Now, imagine for a second if  Miranda wrote that song and it really did just sing literally about a bullet coming closer to Hamilton, over and over, for an entire song. It doesn't work. It's boring. It feels slow. It feels melodramatic.

Yet this is the mistake I see writers make when trying to heighten drama by slowing pacing. It's one of the aspects of purple prose that new writers slip into. They understand that a "slow-motion" moment can make the scene more dramatic, but all they literally do is slow down the bullet--they repeat the same information over and over, with or without different words. But, as I talk about in that post, it's the ideas, images, and concepts that are important.

So when the bullet is coming towards Hamilton, it becomes dramatic and significant because of all the culminating ideas, images, and concepts within that moment. It ties back to everything--his childhood, his family, his political journey, and perhaps most importantly the theme--how he will be remembered. It resonates with everything that's been established and builds off it for more power (both in content and in the actual music).

When you need to slow down for a dramatic moment, you do the same thing.

How much you slow down depends on how much drama the moment merits. In this Hamilton example, this is the climax of the story, so it merits a lot of attention to fulfill its significance. But if you tried to slow that much down elsewhere, it might come across as melodramatic because it's more than the moment deserves. It hasn't gotten the same level of build up. It's not as important.

So, make the moment dramatic by getting detailed, but make it more dramatic by adding more concepts and resonating with what came before. Everything should either be significant or contribute to the significance of whatever you are slowing down.

Then, notice also in this example how everything else seems to stop, including the music itself. It's quiet. It's only Hamilton and the bullet. All the focus is on that moment, nothing else detracting from it.

Finally, notice how something similar happens again with Burr. We get details. There's wailing in the street. He's getting a drink. He's told he "better hide." The music isn't fast and snappy, it's slower.

And that, my friends, is pacing according to Hamilton.


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