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Sunday, May 8, 2011

11. Plot Pace (Writing for Success)

Note: This is part 11 in a series of 25 articles from my upcoming 'Writing for Success' series.

11. Plot Pace
How should a story ebb and flow? How quickly should the stakes be raised and how quickly should they fall again? These are all questions for the debut author to consider. I have read several samples of stories from potential new writers over the years and they generally fall into two categories: those stories that are descriptive passages, pages at a time; and those that rise to fever pitch and never come down long enough to allow the reader to catch a breath.

Clearly there needs to be some kind of compromise. Most blockbuster hits start with some real conflict, an event of some description that grabs the reader, and after a little while the story settles down a little to allow the reader to catch breath and find out what’s going on. Plot place is a major key in writing a successful novel. The writer needs to keep the reader interested in what they are writing enough to keep them wanting to turn pages, but not too engrossed that they race along without taking breath. Imagine the roller-coaster. During the brief journey there are periods of anticipation, thrills and straight up screaming! I’m not suggesting that your book should evoke those emotions, but the principles are the same. Anticipation is a huge page turner. Readers want to know if something is going to happen or not. They will read several pages as the anticipation builds. But then the writer must deliver. Anticipation must be followed with action of some kind so that the reader has a chance to release some of their built up feelings. Then you can start building again.

So how many times do you do this? The answer is as many times as is necessary. A good book has several undercurrents flowing through it that build at different speeds. These will all hit at different times in the book and then hopefully combine for one big hit somewhere just before the end.

Let’s go back to the typical book openings that new readers write one more time. Many authors start books with descriptive passages that give back-story and a gentle introduction. To a certain extent we covered this topic in the article about not starting a story at the beginning, but it’s worth mentioning again. Generally, starting a book with long descriptive passages won’t get the reader hooked and anticipating something. Generally there’s no conflict introduced and all the reader can do is hope that the story gets going at some point. The plot pace here is too slow.

Onto the other type of beginning, the fever pitch start that goes on forever. Firstly, there’s nothing wrong with a fever pitch start. It’s the length that’s important. It needs to be long enough to grab the reader’s attention but not so long as they can’t take a breath. Why is this you may ask? The simple answer is that it can’t be sustained forever and the reader will ultimately be disappointed that the remainder of the book was not as exciting as the beginning. Like all things in life, we need some down-time, even in a book. That’s not to say there needs to be boring passages, just pieces that help the reader bridge things or put things together. The reader needs to be able to process the book as they’re reading and slower passages help do this. The brain naturally reads exciting passages of books a little faster than others. We are anxious to see what happens and we process the passage at the fastest speed possible. Some of the little details get lost. If the whole book is written at this pace, then many of the important points will be missed by the reader. So, slow down from time to time.

Finally, another question that people ask is how many exciting passages should there be in a book? Of course this is also something else that is difficult to answer as one person’s definition of exciting varies from another’s. The reality is that there needs to be enough exciting passages to keep the reader hooked, introduced with enough anticipation to keep them turning pages. Of course, all this will be set up with character and situation conflict, another topic we have already covered in this series. Ultimately plot pace is something that you will have to experiment with to find what works best for you. And also realize that what works for one person may not work for another. Different people have different expectations. I have already had very different comments from readers of my books, and that is a fact of life. As an author you have to understand you can’t please everyone with what you write. All you can hope to do is create a book that pleases the majority of readers. But if you do strive to get the pace of the plot correct, you won’t get comments that people got bored by your book. It may just be that it’s not their kind of story. But that’s the topic for another article!


  1. This reminds me of a screenwriting primer I skimmed a long time ago; however, from the movies I see these ays, the writers are following the premise:
    - start with something spectacular and grippiing
    - there has to be an explosion (or other major plot turner) at about 30 minutes - one-third of the way through the plot.
    - AT LEAST every 30 minutes, another explosion.

    Of course, if you have more spectacles through the movie, so much the better.

    The point is, and it makes sense, you have to have regular points where your story makes a major turn. Audiences, whether for visual media or the written word, need to have the plot move ahead. If you make them wait too long, they will turn away.

  2. This passage was a wonderful addition to my morning breakfast.
    But I didn't quite understand this 'fever pitch' concept, can you briefly explain?

  3. 'Fever pitch' simply means non-stop action, you're on the edge of your seat, etc., etc.

  4. This is one of the most clearly written articles on plot pace that I have read. I shall now go back and check the length of my fever pitch start.
    thank you.

  5. Thank you... I think. :-) Now I need to go back through my novel and check my fever pitch. Actually I dropped a bomb in mine yesterday so we'll see how it turns out!
    Great post today! Thanks for the advice.

  6. Thanks for this great post. Pacing is such an art. I went to a lecture once that recommended highlighting in green passages with action, yellow passages with build up, and red passages with exposition and description. Then the speaker told us to look at the color map and see if we had enough green and make sure it was properly placed. I never had the patience for all that highlighting, but the point was well taken.

  7. Words of wisdom. Now I know why I read so fast I can't remember anything about the book the next day. The fever-pacers never let their characters marinade in human foible.