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.
- 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.