The Elements of Pacing
Here’s some general advice I’ve pulled together from a variety of sources to help me manage the pacing in my scripts.
Pacing is concerned with the way we control time in a narrative (both time as it passes in the story, but also the way we control the audience’s time as well). We control the speed with which the narrative passes over time (speeding up and slowing down the narrative for dramatic effect, skipping hours, days, months or years of narrative time at one point while lingering over a single moment far in excess of it’s real-time equivalent at another) in order to create various dramatic effects. We also (often inadvertently) control the audience’s perception of time through our pacing. If the story seems long and drawn out, frenetic and quickly over, etc., this is an impression we create as authors. Different dramatic effects require different approaches to pacing. Moments of reflection are naturally slower than moments of action (which resolve at high speed). Likewise, the pace slows down for suspense, but quickens for conflict.
PACING IN THREE ACT STRUCTURE
There are natural rhythms of pacing in an overall plot.
In a typical three act structure the pace is quick getting from opening scene through the inciting incident of the first act (since we are trying to hook the audience as quickly as possible).
In the second act we have more time to alternate between fast and slow pacing. The first half of the second act generally sees a gentle back and forth escalation in pace until the point of no-return is reached.
The point of no return is one of two places where the characters are generally required to engage in some significant reflection and the pace slows down to heighten the drama. Something has happened that burns the characters’ bridges behind them and the pace slows to allow the impact of the event to settle in.
Following this we see a second sharper escalation of pace through the rising tension of the second act.
The reversal that concludes the second act is another point at which the pace slows. Generally speaking it is the moment that the characters’ experience their lowest point, feeling all is lost. Once more the pace slows down to allow them to reflect on their situation and give the event a chance to make an impact.
The third act picks up the pace for the final confrontation.
Confrontation over, the story slows down for a gentle landing during the denouement.
PACING IN THE SCENE
The structure of a scene tends to have its own pace as well.
There is a slow build through the setting of the scene and establishment of the character goal through to the reveal of the obstacle that stands in the characters’ way.
From here the pace picks up as the characters attempt to circumvent the obstacle until disaster strikes.
When the disaster strikes the pace slows as the characters react, anticipate the consequences of future choices, and decide what to do next.
Pace tends to rise and fall, wave like throughout the story along with the tension – and pace is one of the key techniques of creating tension in a story.
TECHNIQUES FOR INCREASING THE PACE
Leave out everything that isn’t essential to the scene and the action within it (especially descriptions and thoughts).
Use rapid-fire, short sentences in dialog.
Keep the action central and avoid reflection and pondering. Instead use conflict and confrontation.
Though it may seem counter intuitive, interrupt the expected outcome. This may appear to lengthen the story but in fact increases the sense of pace. Cut on cliff hanger moments and moments of revelation or threat to build listener expectation and eagerness for what will follow.
Foreshadow future conflicts to increase listener curiosity.
Place incidents/events in rapid succession without giving the characters time to think.
Use short scenes that present easily digested short segments of action.
Elide time. Jump over periods of time without explanation or with a quick summary of what intervened (eg. “Two days later…”, “Five years later…” etc.).
Trim all unnecessary words from sentences, even using sentence fragments and extra short paragraphs), and use harsh sounding words, attention grabbing verbs, and words with unpleasant associations (crash, lunge, scavenge, slither, hiss etc.). Words like these tend to force the listener forward.
TECHNIQUES FOR SLOWING THE PACE
There are times when you want to slow the pace down.
Add setting details and narrative exposition, explore the characters’ thoughts and feelings.
Extend conversations so they are more leisurely and rambling.
Bring characters into accord with one another, defuse conflict and tension so that everyone has a chance to take a breath.
Take your time moving from one event to the next, explore each thoroughly and allow the characters to react to and reflect on what is taking place.
Use flashback to extend the scene.
Allow sentences to flow with soft sounding words and sensory and emotional descriptors.
Slow moments don’t need to lack intensity. The anticipation before the crash as the car goes into a spin allows the writer to slow down and focus on the heartbeat, the last frenzied thoughts, the sight of the trees spinning past as the car twists and skates across the ice etc.
Whatever you do, and wherever you attempt to employ one of these techniques, remember to do so deliberately, for a purpose that moves the story forward or reveals important character in some way. Otherwise, your writing will be pointless filler (and the audience can always tell).
What techniques do you employ to pace your drama? Tell us your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.