As mentioned in the previous article keeping the plot moving doesn’t mean we have to race at breakneck speed towards the end. A story needs ebbs and flows, too much action and drama can frustrate a reader/audience as much as too little. And it’s no good driving the plot forward if a reader has no time to process it. Going too fast runs the risk of a reader missing important bits and potentially getting confused because there’s only so much information the human brain can process at once, even big Hollywood action films such as Die Hard have quiet moments to give the audience time to process what is happening. When John McClain pauses to bandage his feet it isn’t only our hero who is taking time to recover after all the action.
Quiet moments also help the reader get to know the characters, a characters process what is happening so to can the reader, sometimes following along with the character’s thoughts if we’re in their head. This isn’t simply true of big action but also drama. Pride and Prejudice is a slow build drama, definitely not an action film, but there are moments of pause where Elizabeth Bennett processes what she has learned, such as after Darcy proposes and after Lady Catherine De Burgh berates her for not promising to refuse Darcy if he proposes a second time. It is in moment like this that a reader may infer, even if Elizabeth doesn’t realise it herself, that she is in love with Darcy, or she thinks he’s a real arsehole, depending upon interpretation.
If the reader didn’t have moments to process the implication of what has happened would the story be as satisfying? Possibly not. Stories work not only on what readers are shown but also what they decide for themselves. A reader may decide after Darcy’s first proposal that Elizabeth is really in love with him and doesn’t realise it and want to see her realise or they may decide she really hates him and want to see her, and Darcy, change their perspectives and come together. If Austen had jumped straight forward into another argumentative scene or one of the subplots such as Lydia’s elopement the reader would be too caught up processing this other information they wouldn’t have time to consider the implications.
The problem comes in working out how we balance these ebbs and flows in the narratives. There is no fixed recipe because it largely depends upon the writer’s style and the type of story they are writing. Some stories may had long ebbs and short burst forward, others the opposite, and some may vary. The important thing to remember is that whatever we begin with can be changed in editing. If a story moves too slowly we can trim ebbs or add action and if it moves too fast we can add slower scenes to pace it.
Once again pacing the middle of our story is largely down to experimentation. The advantage of drafting, particularly if we’re using a computer, is that we can chop and change bits until we feel they are in the right place. An important thing to remember when pacing a novel is that we can’t please everyone, some people like stories that hurry forward, others prefer slower stories, all we can do as a writer is write the story as we feel it needs to be told and hope the reader agrees.