MYC: Pacing and Tension: The Heartbeat of Your Story

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about the importance of letting your manuscript sit. This week, we’re talking about pacing and tension.

Pacing and tension are the drivers that have us flipping through the pages from the first chapter through to the last one.

Pacing is the speed at which our story unfolds, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, allowing us to catch our breath and regroup. Ironically, in a fast action scene, we zoom in and slow down the moment, paying more attention to detail with shorter snappier sentences. In between our action scenes we have reaction and anticipation scenes, and when events slow down, we can zoom out and occasionally tell, instead of show, the passing of time or events.

We are always told to cut out the boring bits, which is true. We don’t need to hear routine details, so it’s important to show the progression of time. Here’s a post from writershelpingwriters.net that shows you some examples of how to show the progression of time from one chapter to the next.

Tension is the anticipation before the action. It’s the suspense of now knowing what’s going to happen. It’s expecting and hoping that something will happen. It occurs before the action. The more we care about the character, the more tension we, the reader, will feel.

Tension relies on the author making it difficult for your character to get what they want or need. Conflict is tension. So your character should have both an external conflict and internal conflict.  If your main character is perfectly content and serene and doesn’t want or need anything, your pacing will feel slow. We turn the page to find out if your character will get what they want.

Outlining your story helps you pace your novel, whether you choose Martha Aldersen’s The Plot Whisper or K M Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel or Larry Brooks Story Engineering. Whichever story structure you choose, it will help you pace your story and build the tension.

Here are some more insights on pacing and tension from other writers and editors:

“Sometimes you’re creeping or walking and enjoying the view and other times running for your life.”—Stephen King

“Pace means change.  If plot circumstances don’t change, something must.  In practical terms that means complications, twists, turns and surprises that aren’t visible but are nevertheless real, changes that happen inside.  These are the steps in an arc.”—Donald Mass (Read his excellent post on the four kinds of pacing here on Writer Unboxed.)

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”― Alfred Hitchcock

“…even though you know what’s going to happen next, your readers shouldn’t. They need to have a sense of excitement and uncertainty as the plot and pacing unfolds because this is where magic lies.”–J.K. Rowling

“Pacing is the manipulation of momentum and time in a piece of writing and how the characters and reader experience it. April Bradley.” Check out more the entire post here.

Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at writing emotion!

KARIN LEFRANC is from nowhere and everywhere. She grew up in Sweden, Lebanon, South Africa and the UK but now lives in the US in a small Connecticut town which boasts the largest tree in the state. She’s an admitted tree hugger, who has on occasion, even been spotted kissing a tree or two.  Her debut picture book I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS was published in 2015 by Sky Pony Press. When she’s not writing picture books, she’s time traveling to the 6th century in her middle-grade novel. You can find her on Twitter.