Hands down, the hardest thing for most writers to master is pacing. The pace of a scene can take an awesome sequence and turn it into mind-numbing drivel. Likewise, too fast of a pace leaves your reader scratching their head, “What the heck just happened?!”
One of the most well-used and well-liked pacing outlines comes from Story by Robert McKee. While he’s mainly writing from a screenwriting perspective, reading that put my novel pacing over the top. Getting the understanding and flow of the Three-, Five-, or even Seven-Act Script helps us stay on track and answer the dreaded question “What next?”
Breaking into Acts
Think of an Act as a set of scenes that create a single part of a story. It might be one scene, as you’d have with a short story, or maybe a set of one to three chapters in longer form. The first Act is always the introduction of setting and characters. The second Act introduces the Conflict. The third Acts and on describe how the elements of the first Act respond to the elements of the second Act.
In the longer forms, the later Acts suggest a set of circumstances. Act Three is the Main Character coming up with a solution against the Conflict. In Act Four, the Main Character fails at executing that solution. Act Five is coming up with a better solution, and Act Six is executing that Solution. Act Seven, YAY RESOLVED – although not always the way you’d think.
This is only a rough outline, and many people split up their Acts and action points in different ways, but this is the one that I mostly use.
But what about the short form?
There are huge mechanical differences between writing short stories and longer length pieces like novellas and novels. I can’t count the times I’ve heard writers tell me that they can write in one form but not the other, and it makes me crazy.
Look, they’re exactly the same. I promise. You’re using the same intro-conflict-resolution format for every story, no matter what the theme. Sometimes that process will take multiple chapters, and sometimes it’ll take six paragraphs. Regardless of how long it takes, though, that’s the foundation of a story, pretty much universally.
Really, anything you share is going to follow that. Think about this very blog post. I introduced the concept of pacing and identified the conflict of trying to figure out how a story gets paced. Finally, I’m sharing resolutions on how to think about your action’s structure to help things flow better.
Writing as a Fractal Exercise
There’s a wisdom that says that “Every story starts in the middle.” (More on this later in a separate post.) What you’re really doing when you’re deciding on your pacing is identifying the action arc of a single story out of many.
Let’s think about a television show for a minute – say, the Walking Dead. There are multiple simultaneous plots going on at a single time. Yes, there’s the ever-present issue with the “walkers” (because Romero never coined the term “zombie” in this world). That’s not the only (or even most interesting) conflict, though.
Okay, so we’re introduced to the fact of the walkers when Rick wakes up, and we establish quickly the nature of this environment. The conflict, of course, is that anyone who gets bitten turns into a walker – oh, wait, everyone who dies turns into a walker. Period. Solution? Don’t die. Also, re-dead them all in the head so that there’s nothing for the pathogen to work with. Lather, rinse, repeat.
But, there’s also a bit of a cock-up (so to speak) with Lori, Rick’s wife, thinking Rick was dead, so she goes and hooks up with Rick’s best friend/former partner Shane, and much sexing-it-up ensues. OH WAIT, someone got pregnant – right about the time she’s shtooping them both. GREEEAT. OH WAIT, she also has a history of extremely bad times having babies, in a place where dying makes you a flesh-eating monster. YAY.
Plots within plots, as they say! That’s what makes stories even more interesting. What is a foil, really, but an intersecting plot that conflicts with the other one?
Likewise, when we’re planning the chapters of our novels, think about how each chapter can reflect the flow of the action heartbeats within the larger scale of the Real Plot. New characters come and go, new circumstances are introduced, old ones are resolved, and it’s totally natural.
Keep those stories well-paced together, and your reader won’t have any problem keeping up.