Story Development and Execution Part 7: Pacing, Tension, and Suspense

Ciao, SEers. Today is part seven: pacing, tension, and suspense. Craig has written a couple of great posts on tension (one and two), and I have a post on structure that flirts with the concept of pacing. This post will deal with how to use these elements to advance the story.

One technique that gets readers invested immediately and brings tension to the forefront is to start with a loss. It doesn’t have to be a death, though that is an extreme loss. It can be anything that puts the character in a deficit from his status quo. He got fired. His wife left him. His dog ran away. His apartment building is turning into condos and he can’t afford to buy one. He broke his leg the day before the rodeo. Any loss is a loss. The kind of loss helps establish genre. What he does about it helps establish tone.

Add in a mystery. Who killed the character? Why? But it doesn’t have to be in the mystery/thriller/suspense genre. Romance… Why’d his relationship fail? Is it fixable? Can he move on? How? With whom? Western… What happens if he can’t ride? Did someone cause his accident? What do they gain from it? The mysteries build suspense. How the character responds to them (usually poorly at first and causing more problems) builds tension.

Be mindful of the clues you lay. Space them out; that helps with pacing. You have to leave enough of them that your ending isn’t a surprise, but you need to hide them in plain sight so your ending isn’t a foregone conclusion. Make use of the red herring. A perfectly executed misdirect isn’t disingenuous—it’s masterful and brilliant.

Introduce a ticking clock. Reveal it early, and don’t abandon it. It will add tension and help with pacing. There’s nothing like a deadline to raise stakes and advance the plot.

We discussed ebbs and flows (with scenes and sequels). If a story is all action, the pace feels rushed and the reader can’t process everything. If the story meanders too long in periods of inaction, the pacing grows sluggish. Balance is key to proper pacing.

Get too far into the story, and the reader may forget necessary key moments. Occasionally, you need to revisit these points, especially if they lead to your next clue. But don’t spend too much time on these recaps, or you’ll slow your pacing. And make sure they’re done organically, like detectives going over their evidence or one friend telling another the story to solicit advice. Avoid “as you know, Bob” moments. If Bob knows, this isn’t the time or place for the recap.

Consider using cliffhangers in your scene endings. They’re an easy way to get the reader to turn the page, and they help with pacing, tension, and suspense.

To summarize:

  • Start with a loss.
  • Introduce a mystery.
  • Be mindful of your clues.
    • Spread out their introduction.
    • Hide them in plain sight.
    • Use red herrings.
  • Use a ticking clock. Reveal it early and don’t abandon it.
  • Balance action and reaction to achieve a steady pace.
  • Occasionally (and organically) revisit key points to avoid reader confusion. Don’t do it too often, or you’ll slow the pace.
  • End scenes with cliffhangers.

Next time, we’ll discuss writing suspense. Until then, I’d love to know more about your techniques to manage pacing, tension, and suspense. Please leave a comment below. Grazie!

Links to the Whole Series:

January 7: Idea Generation
February 2: Story Bible
February 28: Character
March 25: Dialogue
April 20: Plot
May 16: Constructing Chapters
June 10: Pacing/Tension/Suspense
July 6: Writing Suspense
August 1: Writing Action
August 26: Macro-Level Self-Editing
September 21: Mid-Level Self-Editing
October 17: Micro-Level Self-Editing
December 7: Planning a Series

Note: Links will only work on and after the date the post goes live.

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59 thoughts on “Story Development and Execution Part 7: Pacing, Tension, and Suspense

  1. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 10: Macro-Level Self-Editing | Story Empire

  2. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 9: Writing Action | Story Empire

  3. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 8: Writing Suspense | Story Empire

    • Yes, the ticking clock can be anything. A timer on a bomb has big stakes. A history paper deadline seems to have much smaller ones. But consider the character facing the countdown. Everyone would be frightened of a bomb, which makes it one of the more generic “ticking clock” devices. On the other hand, a college senior who needs to ace his final project or he won’t graduate is a much more specific form of tension. It also seems less severe. But consider that same senior in this scenario: he must pass his exam or he won’t graduate, which means he won’t get a job, which means he can’t afford to propose to his girlfriend, which keeps her under the thumb of her abusive stepfather, who is so depraved he has threatened to “rent” her to his unsavory associates to make money. (I know that’s kind of far-fetched and riddled with potential plot holes, but this was an off-the-cuff example.) Now that looming exam takes on a lot more weight. The fact that his mind is blanking and he keeps falling asleep puts the girlfriend’s future more and more at risk. And what if the stepfather knows of his plans, so he drugs the boy, taking valuable time off the clock? Maybe right before the exam, so it looks like he’ll miss it?

      A countdown is a countdown. It will add tension. But the genre and the characters do inform how vital that ticking clock is. Thanks, Robbie.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You make many great points here, Staci. I love a story fraught with tension. Opening with a loss is certainly an attention grabber. This opens up all sorts of possibilities for the author to create something extraordinary. Another brilliant post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I had a writing coach who didn’t outline or pre-plan his stories. He used to say, “If your story starts to drag, drop a dead body in the mix.” He said it didn’t need to literally be a death, though that would certainly add drama and mystery, but it was a symbolic way to say you were slowing your pace and missing tension and needed to add something to fix that. I figured that should apply to the beginning of a story, chapter, or scene, as well, as there’s nothing there yet.

      Thanks, John.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent post, Staci. Great tips for building tension and keeping the pace brisk. I find pacing is something I really have to pay attention to. Fantasy world-building can slow things down and yet readers really want it. They’ll complain about both in the same review! Lol. The solution, I think is to have tension woven into the worldbuilding to keep it interesting and support the pace. Lots to think about here!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. My critique partner is forever reminding me to add a hook to the end of my chapters. It makes a big difference, but I don’t always remember to do it. This is especially helpful advice/reminders for me. The entire list is great. Thanks, Staci.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Great post, Staci. I love starting a book with a loss of some type. Matter of fact, I did that with my first novel when I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. This continues to be a wonderful series!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 7: Pacing, Tension, and Suspense | Legends of Windemere

  9. Excellent advice, Staci. When I come across advice like this I apply it to some of my favourite books and I can see its application – this is no exception!

    Liked by 3 people

    • That’s excellent advice, Trish. We learn so much by doing, but we also learn by studying. Looking for these techniques in successful works of fiction helps us see how good stories are masterfully crafted. Great tip!

      Liked by 2 people

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