A long time ago, at least in the terms of IGC Publishing’s existence, I wrote a post called Brevity and Music exploring the relationship between music and storytelling. Vaguely related to another post, Lengths and Forms, it more or less makes the argument that some songs are really a form of ultra-short stories. I don’t really get much out of the modern “flash fiction,” but the idea of being able to tell a compelling story with just a few words in something like a song or a poem, leaving almost everything save the major plot points (and sometimes even those) to the reader/listener’s imagination is fascinating. It’s also something at which I’m quite terrible.
My recent reading of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy set me to thinking about pacing in a more rigorous way than I have before. Although I’ve been thinking about how length can affect pacing for some time, especially in the context of what constitutes and short story versus a novella, and how they ought to be formatted and plotted different to maximize a reader’s interaction with the piece, I have not studied as intently the relationship between plotting and pacing, and how that overall affects storytelling. This despite studying many of these aspects of storytelling separately.
Brandon Sanderson in his lectures speaks frequently about the idea of story or plot “beats.” I think of these more like heartbeats than musical beats, because like the rate of real heartbeats I think of story beats as changing in response to the level of tension and the pace of the story’s action. In this paradigm, you can think of the story beat like a heartbeat readout overlaid upon the line of your plot.
There is another paradigm that I use, as well, which I think of as a sort of bass drum note, punctuating the major moments in a story. Think of the story moving along, and whenever something major happens – boom, someone hits the bass drum and it rolls out in its thunderous announcement of that occurrence. These major story “beats” are distinct from the concept that Sanderson refers to, but I find them at least as useful.
Authors have a delicate balance to strike. They have to make their stories sufficiently true to their readers’ experiences of the world that the reader will be enmeshed in the story and find it compelling and relatable. They also have to make their story sufficiently original and unique that the reader will find it interesting and unpredictable. In choosing what we like to read, as in the rest of our lives, humans are of more than one mind about what they really want, and the author has to find a balance that will suit a range of reasons for reading. Part of the effort is pacing.
The reason that our real lives, no matter how dramatic our relationships or exciting our jobs, don’t feel like stories is in large part a matter of pacing. Our personal climaxes rarely align conveniently at the end of an adventure, our plot arcs rarely align with our character arcs, and we can barely see the larger picture with hindsight, much less in the moment. Plus, our real lives are stretched out over years, an entire lifetime of experience, while stories are compressed, no matter how much time might happen in-world, into a span just as long as it takes the reader to read. All of this is a matter of pacing, and going too far in one direction or the other will risk throwing the reader out of the story.
On the one extreme is hyperrealism. Hyperreal pacing would seek to make a story’s pacing as closely mimic real life pacing as possible. It would have character climaxes happen gradually at totally different times than plot climaxes, and it would include dozens, hundreds of scenes that are arguably tangential to the main story. Characters eating, characters sleeping, characters having a conversation with a random store clerk who will never gain magic powers and become high king of the solar system or even show up in the story again, characters getting stuck in wagon traffic on the way to work three days a week, characters looking at reviews for the best blacksmith to make them a new sword, characters having a stuffy nose…you get the idea. It’s not that these things don’t show up in stories. They do, and are powerful additions, but only when they are tied to something else. That stuffy nose takes on a lot more significance when it causes the character to sneeze at the just the wrong time, betraying their presence to the enemy. A random store clerk conversation can matter if it builds character in some way. Having these vignettes show up in a story without those kinds of connections is far more realistic…and terribly tedious. Few readers will be interested in such a story.
You can go too far the other way, too. Pure story pacing is driven by plot and character moments. All of the arcs will be aligned, climaxes of different subplots and characters will occur simultaneously (think of the Brandon Avalanche, for those of you who have studied Sanderson’s thoughts on writing), and nothing will happen that doesn’t directly affect the plot. This can be really satisfying when done in moderation, but taken too far to this extreme a story will begin to feel contrived and artificial.
Pacing, like so many other things in life, is best in moderation. Somewhere between hyperrealism and pure story pacing is a spectrum of pacing that works for compelling stories. Exactly where that balance is will depend on what kind of story you’re trying to tell. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn scatters its climaxes and realizations, takes its time, has detours that do not have a direct impact, but everything still leads to a final confrontation and climax. This leans a little more towards the realistic end, while, say, Stormlight Archives leans closer to the story end, with the major character beats almost always aligning with major plot beats (the very structure of the magic system encourages this, since personal realizations lead to new powers, which are needed at climactic moments).
My tendency is to write more towards the realistic side. I don’t always like my character arcs to wrap up conveniently along with my plot arcs. It’s usually my goal (notionally at least – execution is another matter) to align plot climaxes for maximum effect, but allow character arcs to happen more naturally and peak wherever they happen to peak. In my mind, this provides a good balance between the two extremes, but in the end I suppose that is for you, my readers, to decide.
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