Pacing is the most consistent issue I see whenever I beta read a story, and while it’s difficult to master, it’s pretty easy to identify when it goes wrong. But when someone says the “pacing is off” in your book… What does that even mean? How do you fix it?
First of all, let’s break down the buzzword into something more tangible.
In each case, the pacing can be defined as the rate change of “state” of the story. These states, according to Robert McKee’s Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, are divided into acts, sequences, scenes, and beats. A very approachable a video essay by Just Write discusses this approach to analyzing the pacing of a story. Of course these use television as an example, but the concepts can be applied to any storytelling medium.
The takeaway I want readers to consider are the “states” of the story. In most interesting stories, they must meet each of the criteria:
- The characters change drastically between the start of the state and the end of it.
- The plot cannot revert to a previous state no matter what choices the characters make.
Additionally, there are some guidelines around when the story progresses from one state to the next:
- Each state change should force both protagonist and antagonist into positions where “do nothing” is not an option.
- Any time the plot progresses into the next state, it is the direct result of a choice made actively by a character or a vital piece of information that fundamentally changes the course of the plot.
Before I go further, I would like to emphasize that this advice should be taken in moderation. The purpose of this post is to help you make sense of feedback, not to direct your writing process.
States are meaningful steps in a story. It is a description of the current scenario and how characters react to the scenario. States should drive a character into taking an action.
If a character enters this state happy and hopeful, they should end the state broken and miserable. If they start sad and lost, they should finish with clarity and resolve. Note that the changes need not be this drastic in every state, nor do they need to change in the same manner as with these examples. The audience can tell when characters never change. If the story is not changing the characters in a significant and permanent way, then either:
- This is not the most interesting part of their lives.
- The characters are too rigid, making them less relatable and less believable.
States should be irreversible.
Caveat: This does not apply to serial stories such as long-running TV series.
If the story returns to the same state as it was previously, the story loses its sense of progress. Not to be confused with losing, which is perfectly acceptable. Rolling back the state of the story to match a former state cheats the reader out of the tension from the first time around. Any conflict from the first time is proven to have minimal effect on the story and characters.
Additionally, when a character makes an important decision, the option to undo it, regardless of whether that option is exercised, undermines the importance of that decision. Even when it was all just a dream, and relatively little actually happened in real life, Dorothy woke up with a new perspective and outlook on life.
Even time travel stories need to be careful to change something when revisiting the same moment of time. This can be anything as minor as the winning lottery ticket number in Steins;Gate or as major as second Harry capable of saving his own life in The Prisoner Of Azkaban.
State changes are what make a plot what it is; they are the actual steps forward. What qualifies as a state change?
- A character makes a decision that cannot be undone.
- Information is revealed that changes a character’s motivation or emotions, modifies an existing problem, or actually solves a problem.
What doesn’t count?
- Anything that can be removed without changing the story.
- Resolution to unimportant conflict that puts the characters back into a state they have been in before.
- Inconsequential revelations.
- Making problems worse but not changing what needs to be done about them.
What state changes have in common (or what non-changes lack) is the presence (or absence) of tension. Tension is the driving force in a lot of genre fiction, though it does apply to all fiction. It forces characters to make decisions, and those decisions will change the state of the story.
For example, in Star Wars: A New Hope, the story begins with relatively low tension with Luke living on a moisture farm. Tension rises when one of his droids escapes, falling when he meets Ben, rising when he finds his home destroyed, etc. Consider the beat moment when Luke discovers that R2D2 left to search for Obi Wan and see each of the properties of the state at play:
- Luke is forced to make a decision. Either he abandons R2D2 or chases after him. He still must make a choice, however; he is free to face the consquences of losing the droid or heading out into danger.
- Luke’s emotional state after making this discovery shifts. Rather than his former frustration with the disobedient droid, he is worrried both for its wellbeing and for what might happen to him if he can’t bring it home.
Remember that at this point, Luke does not believe he can do anything to help Princess Leia. He doesn’t have enough information to feel like he’s forced into this choice.
Decisions where “Do Nothing” is an option
Outside of comedy, doing nothing should not solve problems. If the characters can afford to avoid making a decision, then the decision has no weight in the story. This opens up potential for plot holes, and whatever is left of the story can feel too passive. This is usually a hint that there is not enough tension in the scene, and it can cause characters to act out of character.
Decisions where there is only one believable option
Often, stories may fall into the trap of forcing characters to choose between just one option and any number of options they would never make. For example, consider these options:
- Stop being Spiderman.
- Let Mary Jane Watson die.
You would obviously stop being Spiderman if you were in his position here. You have nothing to gain but everything to lose by continuing to be Spiderman. It’s only after a number of other state changes that the choice to return to being Spiderman actually makes sense here, but by this point, the decision had already been made, triggering irreversible consequences that simply choosing to become Spiderman again cannot undo.
The reader must actually believe the character could realistically choose between multiple options. They may not (and should not) always make the “right” decision, but when they do, offering believable alternative options strengthens the power of that decision.
Victims of Circumstance
Related to the previous point on fake “choices”: If the character never makes important decisions that drive the story forward, then that character is unnecessary and distracting. Bad things happen to a lot of characters, and not all of them need to be a consequence of a decision. However, being a victim of circumstances is a flaw often associated with weak characters.
This can be a sensitive topic when it comes to stories specifically about victims. One option for this type of story is to present the characters with scenarios in which none of the options are appealing to the characters. Consider Sethe in Beloved. As horrible as her life had been, the decision to kill her children was her own. Unlike the scenario with Spiderman, there isn’t an obvious “correct” answer between death and slavery. Despite that Sethe is a victim, she changed the course of her life and the story in a meaningful way.
Decipher Feedback For Pacing
Now that we know about states and meaningful state changes, we can finally decipher feedback on what exactly is “off” when readers comment on the pacing. If the reader can’t pinpoint what they mean, try asking if they agree with any of the following statements.
The states are too short. They don’t give enough time for the reader to get a feel for what the situation is and how it is affecting the characters. The reader needs to understand enough the current state before getting dragged to the next big plot point.
The states are too long. The characters are not making enough story-changing actions and there isn’t enough information being revealed that changes how the reader perceives the story. Consider splitting states or trimming them so that, by the time the reader understands the gist of what’s happening, they are ready to move on to the next step.
The state changes are not significant enough. Either the repercussions are temporary or easily ignored, or they don’t push the story forward. Let the reader know what happens when the characters’ plans fail. Show consequences, and make sure that something permanently changes when they do. This adds tension and makes the decisions following this one a bigger deal.
(This link applies to this particular film adaptation. I have no qualms with the original text.)
The information that is being revealed does not result in a state change. Either it’s not important enough to the characters or the reader doesn’t have enough context as to why this information will be needed. Try reframing the content so that the character and the reader actually want to learn. Prefer mystery and questioning so that, when the information is revealed, the story is noticeably different.
Simply by analyzing the state of the story and how it changes in the plot, you can translate most of that ambiguous “something felt out of place” advice into meaningful, constructive feedback. Either that, or you can identify why you might have lost interest in a book or other story.
What kinds of pacing problems have you noticed in popular media? Which stories do you think pulled off pacing well, and which ones fell apart?