Like plays, most novels can be broken up into acts.
Though acts are not marked in the final print, a quick examination of story structure can reveal how each chapter aligns within an act of the story. When it comes to the classics, most stories can be broken up into a Three Act Structure. Here's the scoop...
Act One is a short act, usually somewhere between two and ten chapters depending on the length of the novel. It serves as the setup (a.k.a the exposition) for the rest of the story, introducing the first inciting incident and plot point.
Act Two is the main body of your story, typically two to three times as long as your Act One. Also known as the rising action, Act Two sees your MC’s life irrevocably altered because of the journey on which they have embarked. Several plot points lead up to the second turning point at the end of Act Two. Your MC is now at their lowest, their plan to overcome the antagonist seemingly shattered.
Act Three is the resolution of your story and is similar in size to Act One. The MC finds encouragement or motivation in the ashes of their plan and they continue their journey. There is a quick climb in action to the climax of your story , followed by the falling action and the tying up of any loose ends.
So why am I introducing an article on novel pacing with a spiel about classic story structure?
More and more frequently, authors are ditching structuring techniques in favor of a more organic approach to storytelling. They are writing freely, allowing the story to develop as they write. This technique isn't necessarily bad; in fact, it is perfectly suitable for the first draft.
However, too many authors are neglecting to rein in their first drafts with structured revisions.
As a result, these authors' novels often lack the consistent pacing that is needed to keep readers hooked. And that is certainly not good storytelling.
Having a firm understanding of classic story structure and applying that structure to your own manuscript will help you write a more consistently paced novel. But what is pacing anyway and why is it so important? And how can you improve your pacing if your novel just isn’t flowing?
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As I defined in my article on Literary Lingo you should know, pacing is the speed at which a story’s plot moves forward. A story's success isn't based so much on the pace itself but on the consistency of that pace. When the plot runs smoothly, the story will read as well-structured and professional.
Inconsistent pacing, such as when two plot points are placed close together and then followed by a long period of little action, makes the story seem choppy and unplanned.
Readers will lose interest during the long, empty stretches and become overwhelmed when the story doles out several big action moments in only a few pages.
Consistent pacing is key to engaging the reader and creating suspense as the story builds towards its climax.
It’s clear to see that consistent novel pacing is key to your story's success, but how can you measure that pacing to ensure you keep on track?
Begin by outlining your story according to the Three Act Story Structure. This doesn't have to be a fancy schmancy outline. A simple bulleted list or synopsis will do. The point of outlining your story according to this structure is to help you create a natural pacing while you write.
If you need more information on the Three Act Story Structure, check our Helping Writers Become Author. K.M. Weiland, author and writing coach extraordinaire, is a huge proponent of the Three Act Story Structure and has written an entire blog series on the subject that you can access for free.
The second step to measuring your pacing is to write and edit your work intentionally. You can easily monitor your pacing progress while working by examining how many words you are writing between plot points.
For example, let’s say your story has four major plot points. You wrote 9,000 words between plot point number one and number two. You'll want to write another 8,000 to 10,000 words between each of the next plot points to maintain consistent pacing.
Keeping a conscious inventory of your word count is an easy way to set your story up for success.
I like to think of Act Two, the rising action of your story, as a Pacing Cycle. Not only does the imagery of a cycle indicate forward motion, but the actions and reactions that emerge between plot points hint at steady repetition.
Thinking of your novel pacing as a repeated cycle, such as the turning of a wheel, may help you keep your story moving forward at a consistent pace.
The first Pacing Cycle begins with a plot point and is followed up by five steps. It might be helpful to think of each step as a spoke on a wheel; each spoke must make its round before it can touch the ground again.
1) The Aftermath. The first thing an MC must doing after a plot point is deal with the aftermath of the event. There could be physical wounds to heal, emotions to process, or helpers to thank. Whatever the case, your MC must first deal with the past event before they can move forward with their life.
2) The Acceptance. After dealing with the aftermath of a plot point, the MC comes to accept the terms of their new reality. The plot point may have changed them, but they are determined to not let the difficulty hold them back.
3) The Set Up. Now that they have gained a foothold in their new life, the MC is ready to tackle the next big obstacle. As the author, you can now beginning setting up the next plot point. This may be an internal set-up, meaning that the MC is the one preparing for a predetermined new challenge, or this could be an external set-up, with you preparing a new challenge for the unwitting MC.
4) The Suspense. At this point, the reader should understand that a new challenge is coming for the MC. Some difficulty looms over them and the reader is held in suspense. The Suspense is like the calm before the storm; though tension settles in, the rain has not yet begun.
5) The Next Plot Point. Finally the next plot point of the story rolls around, giving a new boost of action and engagement to the story. Once this plot point has played out, the Pacing Cycle begins again.
You can take your reader through the Pacing Cycle as many times as you see fit until the second turning point at the end of Act Two.
This is the point where the wheel breaks and your MC believes that all hope is lost. If you've set up a strong connection between your reader and the MC, your reader will feel as though there is no way that your MC can ever defeat the antagonist.
Even with employing the Three Act Structure and the Pacing Cycle, you may find that the pacing of your novel is too slow. It can seem overwhelming to alter your story in order to increase the pace, but there are a few easy ways that you can pick up the tempo without having to rewrite your entire story.
1) Nail Your Beginning. If Act One of your story reads a bit slow, you might be opening your story at the wrong moment. The goal of any exposition is to establish your MC's everyday normal and then to take that normal away. Your reader needs to see who your MC was in order to appreciate who they will become.
That makes the most opportune moment to start your story the time just before the inciting incident. If your exposition reads at too slow of a pace, you are probably starting too far back from your inciting incident. Try cutting down on your opening material and see how the pace increases.
2) Favor Internal Action. There are two types of action, external and internal. With external action, something that the MC did not anticipate suddenly befalls them. An example of this would be a natural disaster, an assault, or the death of a loved one. External action makes for great inciting incidents, but it lacks the anticipation needed to hook the reader along for the rising action.
Internal action is character-made and character-driven, meaning that your MC is either creating the action themselves or preparing for the action that they know is to come. When you use internal action, you are able to foreshadow future events and create the tension needed to ramp up the story for the next plot point.
3) Cover More Time. Stories that take place over the course of only a few days will read very slowly. After all, you are including more of the characters' everyday happenings to complete the novel. Even if those happenings are thrilling, time will seem to move more slowly than a novel that covers weeks or months in a character’s life.
It is perfectly common for you to experience the exact opposite of a mildly boring story. If your novel pacing is too fast, your story may read as frantic or ill-planned, leaving the reader mentally winded.
The key to slowing down your story without drastically altering your manuscript is to revise a few features throughout the plot.
1) Examine Your Beginning. Just as slow stories may begin too early, a fast-paced novel may begin too late. If your story opens up at the inciting incident or even the first plot point, you are jumping the gun on your story.
Your readers need to see who the MC is before the story begins to change them. Consider writing a few extra words on the events immediately prior to your current opening chapter. By establishing an everyday normal, you consciously slow down the story to introduce your MC before the action begins.
2) Add More Dialogue. It’s time to start the conversation. Dialogue forces the reader to slow down and follow along with real-time conversations between your characters. Talking takes time; people often pause, sigh, move about, and linger while they speak. Adding dialogue is a sure way to slow down your pace and give your reader a break from the constant action of your story.
But don’t add dialogue simply for the sake of a slow down. Dialogue, and every other element in your story, needs to serve a purpose. You can justify your dialogue by relating backstory, establishing personalities, showing off relationships, or creating conflicts.
3) Cover Less Time. Just as covering a longer period of time can increase novel pacing, shortening up a schedule can help your story read more slowly. When you fly through weeks and months in the blink of an eye, your story will seem rapid. But by making more of the action occur in the same day, the story will be given the breathing room it needs to thrive.
Before we wrap up, it's important to note that genre will play a role in your pacing. Action driven genres like thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy will have a quicker pace while emotion driven genres like romance and coming-of-age stories will read more slowly.
Keep in mind, it’s not the speed of the pace that truly matters, but the consistency at which the story flows. So long as you aren’t going to extremes and your critique partners aren’t complaining, the Three Act Story Structure should keep your pace right on point.
Do you have any other tips for keeping a consistent pace in your novel? What are your favorite techniques and how do you work if your novel doesn’t fit the typical Three Act Structure? Have a lovely week!
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!