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Monday, March 21, 2022

Pacing within Scenes

Previously, I talked about pacing according to narrative arc--the whole story. Today, we are going to talk about scene-level pacing.

Pacing really happens at three levels:

- in the overall story (the narrative arc)

- in the scenes

- in the lines (passages and paragraphs)

We often think that the way to control pacing is to add or subtract words (probably because many of us were told that). But that's only a partial truth. Word count contributes to pacing, but it's not the sum of pacing. 

Word count --(influences)--> Pacing

But not:

Word count = Pacing

Just like with the overall narrative arc, many problems that come up with pacing at the scene level actually stem from underlying structural issues.

Pacing and Scene Structure (Proper Beats and Proportions)

As a quick recap:

All structural segments really fit into this basic shape:

Whether it's a scene, sequence, act, or whole story. This shape is like a nesting doll or fractal--it fits smaller versions of itself inside:

This means, that ideally, most scenes will follow this same structure, just on a smaller scale. So, the climactic moment (also called a "turning point" because it turns the direction of the story) will be something smaller than THEE climactic moment of the whole story.

A turning point can only be one of two things (well, or both of them): a revelation, or an action

Why? Because these are the only ways to turn a story. Either significant information is revealed. Or a significant action is taken.

Sometimes it's helpful to keep this in mind:

Revelation = Information

Action = Event

(. . . just because that sounds a little broader.)

It's also possible a revelation leads to an action. Or an action leads to a revelation.

And it's worth noting that a choice can lead to gaining more information or taking action.

Nonetheless, in most scenes, there should be a significant turn in the direction of the story--this means the outcome of the scene affects what happens next. Sometimes that effect is only internal, but often it's external. 

This is largely what makes the scene matter. If nothing changes in the character or plot (or, in some cases, theme), then the scene probably isn't contributing enough to the story, because the character, plot, and theme would be the same without it.

This means that there is a chance that this scene is actually slowing down the story in general--and not in a good, let-me-digest-and-catch-a-breath way, but in a bad, slightly boring-if-not-really-boring way. No change means nothing significant really happened, and there wasn't a strong climactic moment. 

Imagine reading a whole story where there isn't a climax. It'd be a letdown, right? Fortunately, because a scene is smaller, the lack of a turning point won't be as dramatic, but it can still make a scene feel "off."

Additionally, if there is no turning point, then there also may not be any rising action, or falling action for that matter. And if there somehow still is, it's not as defined nor as satisfying.

So if you are having pacing problems at the scene level (or even sequence level), make sure your scenes have turning points.

A scene should generally have the same beats as overall structure:


Rising Action


Falling Action/Resolution

And like overall structure, this can help us get an idea of when to speed up or slow down in a scene.

Usually the closer we get to a climactic moment, the tighter, more intense the pacing gets.

After the climax, the pacing can be a little looser. Sometimes you may want to cut some or all of the falling action--this gives the scene an abrupt ending.

In contrast, the longer you draw out the falling action, the more the story slows down. Stories that have scenes with long falling actions often feel slower or more leisurely. For example, thrillers typically have short falling actions in scenes, while literary fiction tends to have longer falling actions.

Another way to look at this is that the left side of the climax is the proaction part of the scene and the right side is the reaction part of the scene. The focal character of the scene takes action toward a goal, which creates the rising action when they encounter obstacles to that goal (conflict). The turning point is the outcome of that conflict. Because it changes the direction of the story, the focal character reacts to it in the falling action. They need to digest the change that just happened (and often the audience needs to as well). 

Like with the starting of the story, ideally, we want to hook the audience at the starting of a scene. This will help them stick around through the setup and prepare them for the climb.

A hook works by getting the audience to look forward to a future moment.

However, many writers have the tendency to want to look backward at a past moment, in scene openings. They may want to talk about how the character came to be in this situation, they may want to talk about backstory, they may want to reflect on a past event through introspection (or worse, go straight to a flashback), or plop a long chunk of worldbuilding history straight in the text. While all of these things have a place within story, they usually don't belong in the opening of a scene. This often creates problems with scene-level pacing (it makes the scene feel too slow).

The past has already happened and can't be changed. Rather than look back at what already happened, the audience wants to look forward and anticipate what's going to happen next. They want to anticipate the possible outcome of this scene. Not loiter in the past.

Structurally speaking, there are a couple of things that can work well as hooks:

1. Convey the character's goal for the current scene

2. Convey the stakes involved for the current scene

Just as the character should have a goal in the overall story, she should have a mini-goal for the scene. And just as there are stakes in the overall story, there should be smaller stakes in the scene. This means the scene matters, because there are consequences tied to the outcome of what is about to happen. 

Getting these on the page quick helps the audience lean into the scene, instead of lean back from the scene (by focusing on the past). 

Now, it should be said that sometimes the goal and the stakes for the scene have already been implied from previous scenes. And it should also be said that there are plenty of other ways to hook the audience. But if your plotting and structure are tight, then these are two things you should almost always have available to use as hooks.

This also isn't to say you can never start a scene by referencing the past or looking back on something. Just that for most scenes, you don't want to do that. Sometimes referencing the past is a necessity, in which case, often you'll want to do it quickly and tie it to the present or near future. Usually the past is only interesting if it's presently important to the plot or character arc, or the audience can see it will affect the near future.

After the hook, we have setup. This is where we communicate to the audience when and where the scene takes place and who is in it. From there, the character pursues the goal and hits obstacles, which creates the conflict of the rising action.

If we don't spend enough time to set the scene up properly, it can feel disorienting, which can lead to people complaining the pacing is too fast.

If we skip the setup and start in medias res (in the conflict of the rising action), the scene feels faster (and a little disorienting), and we run into the danger of having to slow down the scene too much to explain what was skipped (which almost always includes looking back at the past). So this can be a little clunky, but it can be useful in the right situations.

If we spend too much time setting up the scene--especially if there isn't a hook--the audience can get antsy and bored, so the pacing feels too slow.

After the setup, the character (generally speaking) should pursue the goal and run into opposition. Just as in overall story structure, the conflict should escalate--it should either get bigger or it should get more personal, or both. So, if you have multiple ideas for conflict in a scene, ideally, you want to arrange them so that the bigger conflicts are toward the end of the rising action, if you can. This creates the rising action.

If there isn't really a conflict, or there isn't really any escalation, that may come across as a pacing problem. For example, you may have only given your character one brief obstacle, and that shortchanged the build-up to the climax. Or maybe you tried to repeat the same type of obstacle over and over, and the lack of escalation, alongside the repetition, made the audience get annoyed or antsy. It's taking "too long" to get to the good stuff.

The climax is usually the sharpest moment in a structure.

Often after you hit it, the audience needs a second to digest it and react. This typically happens right alongside the character. So it's a good time to slow things down again, relatively speaking. And because it's a safe place to slow, it's often a good place to slide in any necessary backstory, introspection, flashbacks, or other "past" information. Whenever you can, put that stuff in after a turning point. But remember, it should be relevant to the present. So maybe when a character is reacting to the fact she just got fired from her dream job (which was the turning point), she starts remembering all the times her mom told her she'd never make it in life. That's something in the past that's relevant to her reaction.

Basically, if you have scene-level pacing issues . . . 

1. Make sure you have each piece of the structure.

Often I see pacing issues that come from missing elements. No hooks. No stakes. No goals. Not enough conflicts or escalation (but the scene still has a long middle). No climax. These will make a scene feel too slow. Often the problem or solution has little to do with lines or word count. We simply need more plot elements (which might entail more brainstorming for the writer.) No setup. Shortened rising action. No falling action. These may make a scene feel too fast. 

2. Make sure your proportions are correct.

Sometimes issues come up because the beats are disproportional. I know for me, I naturally want to spend too much time in the setup, and I often don't brainstorm enough rising action. So that's something I know to watch for when I'm working on a scene. It's just a tendency I have.

Beyond Structure

Outside of structure, there are a few things to pay attention to . . . 

Tension: Sometimes there are scene-level pacing problems when there isn't enough tension. Conflict is problems happening. Tension is the potential for problems to happen (again, it relates to anticipating what could happen).

Subtext: Reading a story with no subtext gets slow and boring. The reader wants to be a participator in the story, not a spectator. Subtext draws them in.

Predictability: If the reader easily guesses what's going to happen, and then still has to sit through the whole scene to get to that moment, that can get boring. The audience wants to anticipate and wants to be teased, but they don't want predictability. Multiple outcomes must seem plausible. 

Misunderstanding What's Significant: Sometimes the writer spends too much time (or words) on things that don't merit that kind of attention. Other times they may not spend enough on what deserves more. They are misunderstanding what is significant in the story. This is a case where cutting or adding words may be a solution. Just make sure in adding, you aren't simply repeating the same thing.

Worth noting is that to some degree, what is significant may depend on the genre. Audiences watch Jurassic Park to see dinosaurs, and specifically, dinosaurs on the attack. If there was a movie in the franchise that focused more on a romance story, audiences would probably get antsy and wonder where the dinosaur terror is.

Too Repetitive: Hitting the same story element over and over doesn't make it more powerful, it makes it less. And in the worst-case scenario, it makes it not only boring, but annoying. Contrast and variety make a good story.

Comedies that only try to be funny won't hold an audience for long. It's why comedy movies are short and usually have a life lesson weaved in. The audience craves variety. And variety strengthens pacing.

Scenes that Should be Summaries: Sometimes information is important for the audience to know, but not important enough for them to experience in a full scene. This is when it is a great idea to use summary. 

Next time we will talk about pacing at the line level. 

Read What Others have Written on Pacing

7 Quick Tips for Mastering Pacing by Writer’s Edit

7 Tools for Pacing a Novel by Writer’s Digest

Book Writing 101: Pacing by Payton Hayes


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