Pacing your story so that the action rises and falls all at the key moments is difficult. An entire weekend long masterclass could be dedicated to this singular aspect of storytelling, because there are (simply put) a metric-fuck-ton of ways to screw up your story’s pacing.
Now don’t stress out if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer glut of information out there. I’m here to strip away the complicated and distill pacing down to its simplest components. By the time you reach the end of this article, you’ll know enough about the basic building block of storytelling to tell a riproaring page-turner.
So let’s not drag this out any longer. Let’s dive in.
The Basic Unit of Fiction
A story can seem unfathomably complex when taken as a whole. But then, the same could be said of all things.
The human body is beyond our current comprehension. So we must zoom in on the fundamental units comprising the human body (ie: cells). These little buggers are still quite complex, but understanding them is within our grasp.
So it is with story.
We must zoom in to the micro-level of storytelling if we have any hope of ever comprehending the whole.
If the human body is comprised of individual cells, then a story is comprised of Scenes.
Defining what is (and what isn’t) a Scene is a terribly complex task in and of itself.
Most definitions state something to the effect of:
A Scene is a unit of story that takes place at a specific location and time.
This definition is not without its exceptions, but for our purposes here, it’ll suffice.
Individual Scenes follow the same structure as the story at large. That is, they have a:
1) Beginning (Hook)
2) Middle (Development)
3) End (Climax)
So keep that in mind and good luck on your journey. You are now equipped with everything you need to tell a good, well-paced story.
Nah, I’m just messing with you.
The thing is, we’re about to complicate things so I need you to buckle up and prepare yourself mentally.
Ready? Okay, here we go.
Individual Scenes are comprised of two smaller units called the scene (action) and sequel (reaction). Yes, that’s right. Scenes are comprised of smaller scenes, which is a lot like saying cells are made up of cells.
Listen, I get it.
To make things easier I’ll be using a capitalized Scene when referring to the larger unit and a lowercase scene when talking about that pesky thing within a Scene.
Okay, so what is a scene (action) and sequel (reaction)?
Well, for starters, those words in parenthesis are dropping mad hints.
Scenes follow a natural ebb-and-flow. The ebb is what’s called the scene while the ebb is considered the sequel.
What is a scene?
A scene is where the action happens. Big stuff occurs. Plot points change the course of the entire story. Characters mess with shit.
What is a sequel?
The sequel is much quieter, though no less important. This is where the reflection comes in. After a big climax, there must be a moment of respite during which our character reflects on what has occurred.
Always remember that scene and sequel are different sides of the same coin. No less important than the other.
You can’t have a one-sided coin.
Though, I suppose you could have a one-sided story. You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all read stories that are just scene-scene-scene-scene with little to no pause for breath. These are typically action stories a little too heavy on the action.
Then again, we’ve also read stories too heavy on the sequel, which is equally no bueno. These stories are characterized by the fact that nothing ever happens!
To tell a great, well-paced story it is imperative we understand the form and function of scenes and sequels. To that end, we’re diving in a little deeper.
The pattern of a scene
A scene is made of 3 parts:
A scene begins with a clear, specific, definable goal. This is your characters want and your scene absolutely must have one. If not, then we the reader are constantly wondering “Why does this matter?”
If your character doesn’t have a goal, guess what? It doesn’t matter.
Your character has to want something. Bad.
Conflict are the obstacles keeping our character from achieving their goal. They should by myriad and unrelenting.
Your story is instantly boring if your character easily surmounts the obstacles keeping him/her from their goal.
Conflict forces your character to dig deep and reveal parts of themselves otherwise invisible. The more difficult the conflict is to overcome, the more we learn about your character.
Disaster occurs when your character commits to a course of action. And make no mistake, at some point, your character must commit to a course of action. For the most part, it’s a good idea to have your character failing to achieve their goal.
Nothing bores a reader quite as badly as success. To keep your reader engaged, keep your character failing.
This 3 step process of Goal, Conflict, Disaster comprises a scene. Another way to describe these steps is as: Want, Plan, Action.
What does your character want?
What’s their plan to attain said want?
What action did they take?
What comes next is the sequel.
The pattern of a sequel
If your scene is any good, chances are it ended with an epic failure on the part of your main character. The sequel is designed to give our readers a break in the action during which we can look internally, suss out a new course of action, and recommit.
Sequels tend to be more introspective by design. Recall that this is the ebb. The “quick, catch your breath before diving into the next scene” portion of the day’s programming.
To that end, there are 3 parts to a successful sequel.
Crazy how often story’s keep getting broken up into thirds. It’s almost as though the human brain is wired to see things in threes.
Oh…wait… no. That’s exactly what’s happening here. (Which is a topic all it’s own that we’ll leave for another day.)
Reaction occurs in the immediate moments after a failed action. There are two types of reactions: Physical and Emotional. And yes, it is absolutely imperative you describe them in that order.
Never put an emotional reaction before a physical one. Order of operations are important, and it’ll look more than a little strange if your character gets hit and immediately considers the emotional implications of their best-friend’s betrayal before considering how bad his nose hurts.
So, the sequel begins with a brief period of reaction. This doesn’t have to last long, but then, depending on the magnitude of the betrayal, it might.
For the most part, you don’t want to blow multiple pages on a physical pain. Emotional pain, sure. This is where we learn all sorts of juicy, important things about your character’s psyche, but be careful you don’t tread too heavy on this thin ice lest you lose your readers entirely to a self-reflective malaise.
Next up in the sequel is the Dilemma. This is where your character considers the plethora of dwindling options before him/her. As the story progresses, your character’s options must grow increasingly thin as they are backed further and further into a corner.
If done correctly, this adds inevitability and direness.
During the Dilemma your character must cycle through a list of bad options. There should be no clear favorite. All roads lead to hell, so to speak.
Turn the screws and make it so that there really are no good choices awaiting your character.
Now it’s time for the most important part of the sequel, the Decision.
Without an active decision on the part of your character, the story cannot move forward. Without forward movement, your story drowns.
Don’t drown. Make a Decision. It doesn’t even have to be a good decision. All that matters is seeing your character recommit themselves to the action. They are saying, “I’ve had my two front teeth knocked out, but I’m going back in for another round because I have no choice but to try.”
And this is why it’s so important to establish a clear, and powerful Goal at the beginning of the scene. The reader must understand that there is no choice for the main character to try.
A weak Goal makes everything that follows a lesson in, “Why should I care again?”
What comes next?
So, we’ve established a good scene which bled into a great sequel… now what?
That’s right, you begin a new scene and repeat the process all over again. A story is nothing more than a string of compelling (ever escalating) scenes and sequels.
Master these fundamental building blocks to establish a solid understanding of pacing. If you really want to take your craft seriously, check out Dwight V. Swain’s The Techniques of the Selling Writer where he dives into the topic of scene and sequels more thoroughly than anybody else.
Tune in next week as we dive a bit deeper into the topic of pacing and structure.
In the meantime, I want you to get down to the comments and tell me which part of a story is your favorite to read? The scene or the sequel?
First, let it be said that I am a huge Philip K. Dick fan. That wily wordsmith with his mind-bending perspective on the world of tomorrow told some of the most influential science fiction tales of all-time.
We need go no further than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep the source material upon which the original Blade Runner was based. Few science fiction movies have ascended to the transcendental heights achieved by the 1980’s classic.
In a very real way, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner redefined the genre’s approach to visual storytelling. I can think of no other movie featuring as distinct a visual palette as Blade Runner.
That is…until now.
Blade Runner 2049 arrived earlier this month over 30 years after the original splashed down. That’s a long time to wait for a sequel, especially when one considers that PKD never actually penned a follow-up to the original source material.
So stepping back into this world was a risky maneuver regardless of how you look at it.
Which way did the cost/benefit analysis swing?
Well, that’s a tricky thing. If we look at Blade Runner 2049 in terms of monetary success, we can say, unequivocally, that it flopped in its opening weekend.
And this isn’t just a little flop. We’re talking a massive belly-flop from the high dive.
But then, things look a little different when viewed from a critical acclaim perspective as Blade Runner 2049 is holding down a solid 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Not too shabby, though I imagine the studio executives would trade in a few of those percentage points in favor of a couple million dollars.
Which raises an interesting question: Would you rather be a commercial or critical success?
And no, the third option, “All of the above”, is not available.
Digression aside, let’s chat about Blade Runner 2049 and my thoughts on this flick.
Simply put, this is one of the prettiest movies I’ve ever seen. Some of the shots are so masterfully crafted that I was often content just staring at the screen in awe.
One of the distinctive features of the original Blade Runner was the use of light and dark to cast a noir’ish haze over the world. That aesthetic is put to good use here in the sequel, but director Dennis Villenueve doesn’t just reproduce a copy of his predecessor. He expands on the visual heart of Blade Runner in a way that pays homage to the original while simultaneously remaining utterly distinct.
I’ve never been so profoundly moved by the use of sound in a movie.
To be clear, I’m not talking about the soundtrack or theme song or what have you. I’m talking about the use (or lack thereof) of background noise.
All great communicators understand that sometimes it’s more about what you don’t say. The bits you leave out for the listener to fill in. It’s the same whether you’re writing fiction or shooting a movie.
What you leave out speaks volumes.
And so it is that Villenueve uses silence in a way that I’ve never really experienced before.
Long stretches of film go by where we are encapsulated in a sphere of silence so complete that the only sound you’re aware of is the blood swishing through your veins. When this effect is coupled with stunning visuals, the result is indescribably intense.
I’ve never held my breath so much in a movie. And it wasn’t because there was unbearable suspense or tension. I simply didn’t want to disrupt the silence.
Blade Runner 2049 offered a unique perspective on a number of new ideas I haven’t really seen presented in recent sci-fi. One of those being a compelling approach to the future of relationships between non-human entities.
I won’t go into too much detail here, as the nature of relationships and what it means to be human is more-or-less central to the entire Blade Runner franchise and can’t be done justice by only a few short paragraphs on the topic, but I will say that Blade Runner 2049 had one of the best ‘sex’ scenes I’ve ever seen. (No, there wasn’t actually a sex scene. It was more prelude to the act, but that prelude was worth the price of admission alone.)
Blade Runner 2049 is in no rush to get to the end. It is content wringing every drop of suspense and intrigue from every single scene.
It gets a bit tedious at times, to be honest.
If not for the excellent acting, over-the-top brilliant aesthetics, and immersive use of sound, I probably would have gotten bored half-way through the movie.
Overall, I think Blade Runner 2049 would’ve benefited from slimming down about 30 minutes of run-time, but this sin is forgivable as those 30 minutes are filled with some dope vistas.
Some parts of the story are deeply compelling. Others…not so much.
Blade Runner 2049 explores the theme of what it means to be human, or at least sentient. Which is a great topic rife with opportunity, but if not for Ryan Gosling’s amazing acting, this horse would’ve long since been beaten to death by the movie’s mid-point.
The original Blade Runner has been hugely influential in my own work. I referenced the visual aesthetic often when I sat down to write Time Heist, and I often describe that book to people as Blade Runner meets Die Hard.
Building on such an iconic film was no small task, and one I would not have envied Dennis Villenueve.
But, despite the odds and myriad opportunities for this story to flop, somehow Blade Runner 2049 manages to accomplish something extraordinary: It’s actually a worthy sequel.
Not only that, in a lot of way, Blade Runner 2049 manages to stand on its own and surpass it’s predecessor.
That’s an insane thought, but somehow it rings true. If pressed to choose between which film I enjoyed more, I think at this moment I’d have to nod the cap at Blade Runner 2049.
Will you like it? Possibly. It’s hard to say with a movie like this. It definitely won’t appeal to everybody. But if you’re looking for a thoughtfully paced story heavy on the aesthetics, then I’d recommend giving Blade Runner 2049 a whirl.
P.S. This is undoubtedly one of those movies best seen in a theater. Do yourself a favor, make a date night of it. You’ll thank me later.
What’d you think of Blade Runner 2049? Did it live up to the lofty standard established by its predecessor or did it fall flat? Get down to the comments and let me know!
This week’s Monday Motivation is a straight-up kidney punch of intensity as serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk lays it all out there nice and neat about the primary thing holding 90% of us back.
This particular video hits close to home for me. I have a soft spot for learning, and if given even half-a-chance I’d happily spend the rest of my life locked inside a library reading up on one subject after another.
Then again, maybe that would crush my soul. ‘Cause the times when I feel the highest level of satisfaction with my life is when I’m creating. Whether that’s a new book, a new blog post, a new video, doesn’t matter. The act of creation gives my life purpose.
As with all creative types, this motivation ebbs and flows. You’re no different. Some days you shit rainbows; other days you shit shit. That’s just how it goes.
It’s easy to pick up a book or watch a YouTube video. That’s escapism, really. Doesn’t matter if the book is educational. Doesn’t matter if your learning. At some point, you gotta stop filling yourself up. At some point you’ve gotta start pouring yourself out.
That’s hard, I know. Pouring yourself out requires intentionality and focus and effort. You can’t escape. You’ve got to stay present.
But it all begins with the simple decision to just start doing. No more planning. No more waiting for perfect conditions. No more convincing yourself that you need this, this, and this before you can start.
Just start doing. Now.
Start doing today. Doesn’t matter what it is, just start.
Then get down to the comments and tell me what you did!
It’s not about what you say. It’s about how you say it.
This is just as true in your day-to-day interactions with friends, loved ones, enemies, and sentient sponges as it is in your fiction.
To add a layer of spice, depth, and subtle realism to your fiction, therefore, you need to become a master of body language and all the myriad ways it can be used to express simple messages ranging from:
“Wow, that is super interesting, please tell me more.”
“Go fuck a pineapple, you prick.”
Think back to the last truly horrendous bit of dialogue you read. Chances are it grated on your ears like fingernails on a chalkboard because the words were stilted and too on the nose. By that I mean the characters were literally saying, verbatim, what was on their minds.
One of the greatest movies of all-time (if you like train wrecks) is The Room. Though it’s 50 shades of horrible, it’s gathered a dedicated cult following. It is the very definition of, so bad it’s good. If you want a good laugh, go check it out.
Also, if you want to learn something about how not to write dialogue, go check it out. It’s informative.
Okay, so why am I dishing hard on The Room and what does this have to do with body language?
Dunno. I’ve veered dangerously off topic and now I’m thinking it would simply be easier to rename this article to, “Why you should go watch The Room.”
Part of me just died a little thinking about doing that, so I guess we’ll soldier forward.
The reason I mention The Room’s dialogue is because nobody talks like that. Dialogue is quite often comprised just as much by what is not said, as it is by what is said.
This gap between words said vs implied meaning is called subtext.
As it pertains to your fiction, always remember:
Words are a great vehicle for lies. Body language, on the other hand, almost always betrays the truth.
This is because, as we all learned during puberty, our bodies are vast amounts of complicated. There are so many different ways our true intentions/feelings can be expressed through body language that it’s virtually impossible to conceal/attend to them all.
When a filthy little lie leaves our angelic lips, it is a fairly simple task to make sure our words convey the evil intentions of our heart. Just string together the words you wish uttered and boom, you’re good to go:
“No, I did not have sex with that pineapple.”
Much more complex is simultaneously controlling all 43 muscles in your face while maintaining posture and hand gesticulations consistent with the underlying message.
Alright, now this isn’t an article teaching you how to utilize body language to your advantage (that article is HERE), so let’s talk specifically about how we can start seasoning our fiction with yummy nuggets of body language.
It all starts with the eyes
Of course it does. Eyes are the windows to the soul, right? And since our fictional characters are, by definition, made-up, we as writers try super hard to pass them off as real. One of the ways we accomplish this is by drawing oodles of attention to their orbital sockets.
As far as senses go, vision is pretty important. Though in general, I’d say adopting a “less is more” campaign to eye movements would be a solid launching off point for most authors.
If you are going to throw wandering eyeballs into your story, let’s go ahead and talk about two quick and easy ways to do so effectively.
You can convey a characters interest by the intensity of their eye contact, or lack thereof. There are two types of eye contact: hard and soft.
Soft eye contact is characterized by a diffuse sort of staring. The muscles around your orbital sockets relax, giving you a somewhat out of focus attention. You might use this sort of gaze to catch something out of your peripheral.
Hard eye contact by contrast is when the muscles around your eyes contract and you zero in on a single detail in particular. This is similar, though not quite the same, as squinting. The hard gaze is a great way of expressing intense interest in the topic at hand, though, it quickly becomes weird and uncomfortable if that’s all your character is doing.
Seriously, too much hard staring and you got an overly dramatic, stalker’esque character on your hands. The key to this sort of eye contact lies in the contrast. If a character has spent the majority of the conversation in soft gaze, seemingly disinterested, only to snap into hard gaze after a certain revelation, or sentence spoken by his/her conversational partner, then we put extra weight onto whatever phrase was just uttered.
Posture can mean whatever you want it to mean
Posture is important, right? A slumping character is a very different thing from a rigid, straight backed character.
However, what happens when that straight-backed character suddenly slumps in the middle of a conversation. Well, you might be right in assuming that character is now feeling somewhat defeated.
Good posture typically sends the subconscious cue of confidence. Though not always. The most important thing to remember about body language is that it’s entirely contextual.
Human gestures are polysemic, meaning they differ culturally AND contextually. So single action ever stands alone. It exists within a larger pattern.
Context matters. What might be interpreted in one culture, or context as lacking confidence, might be considered polite in another.
Interpret all cues in the context of your character’s unique situation.
So, going from straight-backed posture to slumped might NOT imply our character is feeling defeated. Perhaps, is a teenaged boy meeting his girlfriend’s dad for the first time and he is doing his best to convey a nice, respectful young lad, but the moment the dad leaves the room, the boy releases the tension and reverts back to his usual slump.
In this context, the slump isn’t a sign of defeat, it’s a sign of relaxation and comfort.
As the author you get to decide what your postures mean, but the way you make them most effective is by contrasting them.
Show us the physical shift in a character’s posture from one state to another to really make your scenes come alive and pop.
The Arm Barometer
Hands add a layer of depth to all communications. If they are used correctly.
In day-to-day conversations we place the subconscious weight of trust on individuals who’s hands are plainly visible to us. Studies show that we feel more comfortable with a stranger when we are clearly able to see their hands.
This is especially true for females in the presence of males.
Being able to see the other person’s hands sends the message that, “I am a friend. I do not intend to harm you.”
In this same way, a character intentionally keeping their hands out of sight typically signals to the reader that something of interest is occurring with those digits.
A character that enters the scene with hands behind their back, and keeps them there for the duration, will be viewed very differently than the character who is using their words to accentuate their words.
Though hidden hands doesn’t always imply mystery. Sometimes it implies lack of confidence.
Hands shoved into jean pockets might mean the person is trying to take up as little space as possible, or maybe that they are uncomfortable and don’t know what else to do with their hands. Then again, it could just mean that their hands are cold.
Again, context matters. You, as the author, get to decide what that context ultimately implies.
A nifty tool for gauging a person’s interest throughout a conversation (in real life) is what is called the arm barometer.
Simply put, a person standing with one hand folded into the other, or one hand clasping the wrist of another, is generally considered fairly comfortable. If throughout a conversation, however, you notice that person’s hand slowly rising (now you have one hand holding the elbow of the other. Now it’s holding tucked under the armpit. Now BOTH are tucked under armpits) that can betray some valuable information.
The rising arm action is like a self-inflicted hug. A protective gesture we use when we’re feeling subconsciously guarded. Arms folded over our chest sends either a message of outright defiance, or extreme discomfort. (Again, context matters).
Play around with the arm barometer in your fiction though to show a characters shifting state. Perhaps the conversation starts with an individual using fairly open, expressive hand gesticulations, but by the end their hands aren’t moving at all, and furthermore, they’ve retreated into full-on self-hug mode.
That conversation would be inherently different from one starting and ending in the reverse (self-hug → open hand gestures). What happens in the interim defines context, but these two components both serve as parts of the greater whole.
Context, Context, Context
Never forget that the most important part of using body language in your fiction is in understanding the context. To effectively utilize body language in your fiction, always be considering how you can contrast them with other behaviors or previous states.
If you do this consistently and with intentionality, your readers will enjoy a deeper, more immersive experience. As a general rule, an immersed reader is a happy reader!
Your turn! Tell me about some of the best uses of body language you’ve ever seen in fiction. Movies and television shows can be great visual examples of this, so get down to the comments and tell us about some of your favorite examples of body language in storytelling!
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed the article, do me a favor and share it with a friend. As an author your support means the world. Want more words from Anthony Vicino? Find him at www.onelazyrobot.com.