As you may have noticed, I’ve opened up a review section for indie authors like myself and completed my first review for that. It was during my read of Rule-Set that certain thoughts about the pacing of books came to me and, after a day or two of crystallization, it has become the topic of today’s Plot and Motivation article. The realization I came to, which I suppose I’ve always known, is that pacing is not necessarily tied to or proportional to the degree of action in a piece.
Certainly, it is easiest to grasp the idea of the pace of the novel being connected solely to the action within it. The rub is that not all conflict and not all dramatic tension is tied to the standard realm of physical action and danger. The most obvious way to see this in action is in any good mystery. A well-written mystery’s pacing isn’t driven by physical action so much as intellectual action. The dramatic tension isn’t caused by physical conflict; it’s caused by the conflict of investigator vs. criminal with one side trying to unravel the clues as the other tries to further obfuscate their trail.
So the rising action, climax, and denouement of a mystery shouldn’t be tracked by physical thrills, but by the progression of the mystery. Yes, physical action may be part of that, but it’s primarily that intellectual conflict that determines the pacing as tracked by the plot arc. Naturally, this principle can and should be applied to other non-action works. A romantic drama builds its arc on the emotional conflicts surrounding the romance. A political thriller may involve some action but, again, its story arc is built on the intellectual and political conflicts, not on raw physical conflict.
This, again, may seem obvious to some but it can get lost sometimes during writing. An action/adventure writer may become so focused on the physical action that he forgets he can keep his pacing on track with the occasional character-building emotional scene, for example. In fact, it could be argued that introducing plot-advancing elements outside of the ‘core’ conflict can greatly improve the pacing of your plots and provide much appreciated variety in a long work.
The important rule of thumb when plotting an arc and setting your pacing is that every scene be relevant. If a scene, no matter how well-written it is, doesn’t advance the plot or establish characterization (preferably both), it is a burden on the pace of your plot. The more of these filler scenes you add, the worse it becomes until it simply becomes unreadable. The reader will eventually be frustrated and give up after so many scenes where the plot doesn’t move.
So keep your scenes relevant and your mind open to every source of drama and conflict! If you have an insights, comments, or questions, leave them in the comments below.