Written by JJ Barnes
The story pace is how quickly it moves from one plot point to another, and is controlled by the details between the plot points. A slower paced story will include more thoughts, feelings and descriptions. A faster pace will use fewer.
Conflict In Story
The first thing to explore is conflict. Story conflict is what keeps each scene moving. If there is no conflict, there is no story. Sometimes the conflict will be more pressing, there’s danger or intensely high stakes that have to be dealt with immediately. Other times the conflict is less intense, such as unrequited love that your character is dreaming of at a distance. But the conflict must always be active.
The point of your story is to see that conflict resolved. The story begins in the Inciting Incident when the conflict becomes active, the point your character decides to go after what they want. The story ends when they either get it, or accept they can’t have it. You join this Protagonist at this point in their life because of the conflict.
Making sure every scene has conflict is essential for making your story entertaining. If everybody in a scene is satisfied and has everything they want then there’s no point being there. That’s just characters living a life, it’s not characters living a story. So in every single scene, ask yourself what the characters in the that scene want. What is the conflict, how is it moving the story forwards?
A Slow Story Pace
In a scene with a slow story pace, the conflict will still be present but it will be less intense.
For instance, imagine a character is walking past a river dreaming about their loved one who’s away at war. In that case, the story pace would be slow. Your character still wants something, to be together with their lover, but they’re not in a high stakes situation.
To write this scene, you would take time to explore their interiority. They’d think about the sun on their skin, and wish their beloved was their to experience it too. Perhaps remember when they went swimming in the river together, thinking about the light on the water, the smell in the air.
A slow paced scene explores all of those thoughts because there’s time. The conflict of your story is still active, but it’s not urgent.
A Fast Story Pace
A scene with fast story pace has conflict that is so active and high stakes that you don’t have time to explore the interiority in the same way.
For instance, this time your character is by the river but being chased by killer robots! As your character runs, they’re not taking time to dream about somebody or think about the light on the water or the smell on the air. There’s not time, there’s pressure and intensity and they conflict has to be dealt with now!
Their thoughts would be entirely on the conflict in that moment. Do they stay on land or dive into the water? If the water is painfully cold, then it could impede their ability to swim through it, it’s relevant to the active conflict and would be noted. But it wouldn’t be lingered on. If they stay on land, their legs might get tired and slow them down, they’d think about it but again in the moment.
The fast pace scene doesn’t take time to explore all the thoughts and theories outside the immediate conflict because your character wouldn’t either. Fight scenes, chase scenes, or sports competitions would all be moving from conflict beat to conflict beat quickly.
How To Vary The Story Pace
It’s unlikely that your entire story will be fast or slow, because life isn’t like that. Most stories will have some slower scenes and some faster scenes, so it’s important you know how to vary the pace from scene to scene.
At the beginning of your scene, look at what your Protagonist of the scene wants in that moment. If they want something that is urgent the scene would be fast. If it’s their last chance to accomplish a goal, or the stakes are life or death, you need a fast pace. It adds to the urgency and keeps the audience focused on the intensity of the moment.
If what your character wants isn’t urgent, and it’s something more thoughtful, your pace can be slower. But even the slowest paced scenes still need active conflict.
To figure out the pace of the scene, put yourself in your characters position. If you would be thinking about thoughts and theories, dreams or desires, in that position, your character would too. If you wouldn’t have time because it’s far too intense and stressful and dramatic, your character wouldn’t either.
Why Pacing Matters
Varying the pace keeps your story real and believable, as well as making sure the scenes are entertaining and appropriate for the moment.
If all your scenes are fast you won’t have a chance to get to know your characters well enough to care about them. So much of their humanity and connection to your audience comes through their desires and feelings so if you don’t include those moments your audience won’t care about your character.
Equally so, if your story is entirely slow, it will drag and feel tedious. You need high stakes and pressure at moments so that it’s clear your story matters. If there’s never a faster pace it suggests what your character wants doesn’t really matter, because they don’t care enough for urgency. If your character doesn’t care if they get what they want, your audience won’t care either. So why bother sticking around to find out what happens?
Your story may be more slow than fast, or more fast than slow, but variety ensures your audience can connect to the characters and the story.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose