The pace of a story accelerates toward the climactic scene where good triumphs over evil, the misguided man reaches his downfall, or the light of understanding breaks over the world like a wave. Writers craft the acceleration affect in different ways depending on their genre and story structure, though a foundation of basic storytelling know-how can give each writer a unique approach.
Plot: Know When to Play the Cards
Card playing presents a useful analogy for pacing longer stories. Movies, novels, series, etc. all bank on the accumulation of plot elements to power their climactic scenes and audience/reader satisfaction in resolving the story. The pacing of these stories also relies heavily on effective management of all of these elements.
When a new item, character, or conflict appears, the writer has added a “card” to his hand. Each time this element comes into play (but is mysterious), it’s like it’s been laid face-down on the table. To keep the audience from getting overwhelmed, only a few cards stay on the table at a time, and each time one is revealed fully, it’s in some kind of climax.
The pacing trick comes in as the writer balances resolved cards (that get discarded) with the other cards that are being added to the hand, placed face down, or being revealed. One show that does a fantastic job of this is Marvel’s Agents of Shield. They started their deck with the Marvel universe’s Avengers kit and the “Lesser-known Arsenal for Superhero Entertainment Reboot” (or LASER) starter pack. As the series continued, they seamlessly integrated the Captain America 2 special-event deck. This show is an excellent study in long-narrative pacing.
When pacing smaller narratives, either as part of a larger project or as a stand-alone work, there are fewer elements to play. This restriction requires more context awareness and attention to detail. In order to keep all the elements in mind, storytellers need to know where every character is, what their goal is, what obstacles there are to their goal, and the time constraints on their success. The time element is especially important in pacing. A sense of urgency from a firm time limit engages a reader into the timeline rather than waiting for the goal itself to motivate interest.
Another aspect of time in a narrative is embracing the reality that things continue to happen “off screen” the same way activity goes on out of view in life. Many narratives have a villain plotting in a corner while the hero seems to have a world of time before returning, ready for confrontation. Would an evil genius (emphasis on genius) really wait around without at least attempting to grow stronger, or sit quietly without clawing his way to the hero to snuff him out before he’s a real threat? What does the villain do with that time? This is the juggling portion of the writing circus, and it can be made a bit easier by knowing what characters are doing simultaneously as they converge on the climax together.
Disney’s Big Hero 6 has this particular pacing technique mastered. The major action of the movie takes place in a very short period of time, once the exposition is out of the way. While the first few minutes of the movie covers several weeks (from the first scene to when Hiro accidentally activates Baymax after Tadashi’s death), the actual action and story arc only span a few days at most. Though they don’t explicitly state why there is a rush, several factors of the story weigh in to create a sense of urgency including Hero’s desire to reclaim his stolen technology, avenge his brother, and then bring the villain to justice.
While this is the push behind the main characters’ actions, they do an excellent job of keeping the villain’s agenda in motion. Many times the antagonist is tied to the protagonist in a way that prevents them from immediately moving forward with their plan, but here, the antagonist has their plan already in motion. When Hiro discovers the production of his microbots, the masked man immediately and logically responds by running him off and moving his endeavor to another location to continue uninterrupted. Hiro and Baymax are trailing after him, hopelessly outgunned and powerless to even slow the masked man’s revenge plan until the very last and climactic encounter. This is good writing; to recognize both sides of the story in motion and maintain their momentum.
One of the best ways to learn techniques for pacing a story is to use a mapping exercise. It’s fairly simple and intended to draw attention to this specific writing technique.
While watching a movie, reading a story, or diving into a novel, keep a piece of paper or screen open to write down every time a length of time passes. Note each transition that occurs to convey time and briefly summarize what happened between each time period.
Big Hero 6 can be a good illustration for this:
Night 1 (opening) – bot fighting scene, Tadashi rescue, bailed out from jail, tour of “nerd school”, resolve to attend
Day 2 – Hiro “gives up”/gets his big idea
(2-3 days shown – possibly longer, montage) – Hiro creates his 4 bins of microbots for the expo
1 night – expo, offer from the industrialist, acceptance to the school, explosion
(3-4 weeks, montage) – Mourning period
1 day – Baymax reactivated, chase through town, discover microbots, first encounter with masked man, friends contacted, start armor design/programming
Day 2 – return to warehouse, follow bot to the docks, friends join, chase scene through city, crash into the water, Fred’s house/superhero theory, start hero designs/supersuits
Day 3 – practice with gear, Baymax’s first flight, city scan, discover island, fly to island, discover failed experiment in base, battle with masked man, Baymax goes vicious, Hiro flies off to repair sensor, repair sensor, Tadashi videos, friends rejoin them, deeper reveal of the villain’s motives … etc. etc.
With this example, you can see even without finishing the exercise the way the story revs up the pace to race to the end. Apply this close-reading tool to stories of other types and structures to see how different writers handle plot pacing in their work.
If a technique or format seems impressive or interesting, see if it can be duplicated or adjusted to fit a current work in progress or used to breathe some life into a flagging project. Practice makes perfect, and constructive critiques fuel more perfect practice.