By Don Daniels, The Rhetorical Oracle
Pacing and Cliffhangers
Consider this metaphor: When you write a story, you are taking your reader for a ride. Your story is the vehicle in which they’re riding. You have all kinds of rides you can take them on. You can take them on a sightseeing tour of your characters’ lives, a time-travel jaunt to a bygone era, a ride-along with a police detective or a reporter. Your vehicle can be anything, including a ship (including a spaceship), a motorcycle, a train, or a roller coaster.
The hook, which I addressed in my last post, is how you entice your reader to take that ride in your vehicle and not get right back out again. If your vehicle moves too slowly, it’s like being in a rickshaw with a puller just shuffling along; your reader will perceive your story is going nowhere, and simply get out and hail another ride.
You are the Driver of Your Story
The pacing is your hand on the throttle and the gearshift, your foot on the accelerator and the brake. And you have many more controls than just those. Besides the sensation of speed and direction your reader will experience inside your vehicle, you also control the scenery’s movement, and the entirely separate speed at which it comes into view. There are many techniques you can use to persuade the reader that your story is worth staying in for the whole ride.
Let’s start with the basics, the accelerator and the brake and I compare those to the length of your sentences, paragraphs and chapters. These are the controls most invisible to your readers, but when you manipulate them, the readers will feel the effects. Short sentences are like flooring the gas pedal for high acceleration; longer sentences slow down the action, and are like decelerating, rather than slamming on the brakes.
Another technique that affects pacing is using various devices to ratchet up the tension: Create and modify suspense and tension!
A common example is the ticking clock. If you set a countdown-to-catastrophe that your characters are trying to prevent (you’ll see this in most 007 and Star Wars books and movies), you can speed up that clock in your story. You can pack more action into a day. This becomes more and more challenging if your characters have no time to rest, let alone sleep, eat or use the bathroom. Having your characters go through three days of non-stop action, without even stopping to eat, may be exciting, but it is unrealistic.
Be aware of the passage of time in your story. Just as crowding more scenes into a day quickens the pace, stretching events over several days slows it down.
A Few Words About Dialogue
Dialogue can move things faster or slower. Several conversations may take place over many days, but you can make it appear more frantic by condensing it all into a few paragraphs. It also gives you a wide variety of ways to show, not tell your character’s frustration, with depictions of nagging, warnings, excuses, threats, commands, pleas, complaints, and platitudes. And all of this adjusts the pacing of your story.
Contrast fast-pacing action scenes, such as chase scenes (which can be physical or by phone) and fight scenes (which can be physical or verbal) with slower-paced scenes that set up the chase or describe the scene where the action will take place – because you certainly don’t want to pause in the middle of the action to explain that the house has a trap door escape hatch, or what else the computer program does. Never pause the action to explain things, such as: “Mary punched Billy in the nose, causing him to fall down and his nose to start bleeding all over his spotless white shirt and Billy started to cry; not because of the pain, but because he was afraid of what his Mom would say when she got home from work that night, and how his friends would all jeer at him tomorrow at being beaten by a girl.”
When to Use a Cliffhanger
Finally, you can end your scenes or chapters with a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger is defined as a compelling scene that ends abruptly, highlighting unresolved aspects which are the reader will only see resolved by reading the next scene. It’s a long tradition in literature, taking its name from A Pair of Blue Eyes, Thomas Hardy’s 1873 novel, but going back at least as far as Shakespeare. Serialized novels were common in 19th century magazines, which published one chapter per issue. Similar to a TV series today, each chapter of Hardy’s book would end with unresolved suspense. One chapter ended with a main character, Henry Knight, hanging onto a cliff.
But cliffhangers don’t always show somebody in physical danger, and they don’t have to be at the ed of a chapter. If you’re writing the kind of novel that switches between two plots and subplots, any scene that that leaves an important question unanswered or a game-changing revelation unexplored, is a cliffhanger.
Another kind of cliffhanger can be an aura of suspense, interrupted by an urgent knocking at the door, or a telephone that won’t stop ringing. Or an unexpected development that thwarts the plan that a character had believed so simple it was foolproof. Dialogue makes an excellent cliffhanger, especially in the form of a threat, or an expression of unpreparedness for something which, in the last sentence of that section, begins to occur. In Hound of the Baskervilles, it was the sudden appearance of thick fog when Holmes thought he just had to follow Templeton across the moors.
Always remember to be consistent
Hooks, pacing, and cliffhangers are not just the techniques that will keep your readers with you in your current project, they are best when they become part of your signature style. Like the books of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, or Ian Fleming’s 007, your readers hooks will be more like the ads for a theme park you’ve been to many times. They’ll read your work because they trust you not to disappoint them.
So… Don’t let “perfection” be the nemesis of “good enough.” But don’t disappoint them.