Finishing up the series on plot: We’ve talked about the outline level of plot, plotting with scenes and now we’re at a finer granular level as we talk about pacing of a novel.
Pacing Helps Plot Succeed
Nick Lowe, in his article, The Well-Tempered Plot Device, criticizes many well-loved fantasy novels because of their use of plot coupons. A plot coupon plot is where the story is set up someway (riddles, prophecy, commands, etc) so that a certain number of objects must be collected (or tasks completed), in order to defeat evil or accomplish the main character’s goal. Lowe says there’s little question left what will happen in the novel, because, well, duh!, the hero/ine will collect those the tasks/objects/coupons and defeat evil. So why read the novel?
Lowe berates novels such as The Lord of the Rings or Susan Cooper‘s Dark is Rising series as having flawed collect-the-coupon plots. Well, yes. So what?
If there are three levels of plot (outline, scene and pacing), a story actually can be cliched at the outline level and use a plot coupon and still be a great story because it excels on the pacing level.
Pick up the first book in the Dark is Rising series (I love the audio versions) and begin reading and you’ll be drawn immediately. Why? Because it has excellent pacing. On this local level, you are totally involved in the story and the minor ongoing conflicts.
So, here’s one thing about pacing: it can’t overcome all the objections about bad plot, but it can keep a reader going and enjoying your story.
Pacing: How to Keep Reader Interested
Pacing is the trick of continually changing something in the story, creating some uncertainty in the reader’s mind, which results in the reader wanting to know, “What happens next?”
The change is what’s important and what will create a strong pace for your story:
- a new piece of information
- a realization
- a change in emotion
- A deepening of emotion
- a small action
- a small reaction
Basically, these are the “beats” of a scene (See Dirty White Candy’s Beat Sheet), the small back and forths of momentum. It’s like the last two minutes of a basketball game, when the teams are tied:
The Razorbacks (Yes, I’m a Hog fan!) have the basketball and they race for their basket. The guard pulls up at the top of the key and shoots. 3 points!
On their inbound, Alabama heaves it down court to an open man. Oh, no!
In a supreme effort, a Razorback leaps high and intercepts the wild pass. He races down court, but runs into a ‘Bama player. Oh, how could that referee call an offensive charge? That’s just crazy. (Of course, the mighty Razorbacks win this game! Whoo, Pig, Soooie!
Ah, do you see how my emotions are bouncing around just as much as that basketball? THAT is good pacing. Sure, your story has quiet times and exciting times and the pacing can vary as needed.
But when a story is well paced, readers will put up with plot-coupon plots. What they won’t put up with is a rambling plot, unfocused scenes and events that drag along with no tension.