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NARRATION #2: Pacing
Pacing your story means more than alternating between fast and slow. Your narration can manipulate time in so many other ways. Don't believe me? - Just read.
Posted on 27 February 2021 0 Comments
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How to Become a Master of Time

(Disclaimer: Everything I present here has been influenced by essays, articles and books I read as a student. I don’t want to claim anything as my original thought. Still, going back to find out who said what seems too much to tackle at the moment. Don’t think of this as me teaching my original wisdom. Think of it as sharing what I’ve learned. — In this post, almost everything comes straight out of Einführung in die Erzähltheorie by Martínez and Scheffel, and of course Gérard Genette.)

Pacing is one of those words that gets thrown around on every advice blog, in every authortube video and in all those handy books about writing. Still, noone ever really could help me to 1) understand it and 2) work with it. – Defining good pacing to me is like defining porn: I know it when I see it.

Still, there are some things we can talk about that might help you get a better crasp on the concept of pacing. Because if we talk about pacing, we need to talk about time. And that’s what I’m here to do.

Here are some ways you can add some spice to the chronology of your story.

Switch up the Order of Things

Most writers tend to do this already: playing around a bit with the chronology of events. In fact, I’d confidently say that you have done so in your writing. Nevermind that, I’d say there’s almost no story without anachronisms. And you’ll soon understand why.

On the most surface level, we differentiate between two ways of deviating from the usual progression of time: There’s analepsis and then there’s prolepsis, or simply flashbacks and flashforwards. — You can either narrate an event that happened before the current moment or one that will happen after it. Easy, right?

There are good reasons to use these techniques as well. Flashbacks, for example, help explain things in the main timeline: Memories, stories, etc. add to exposition and help clarify questions your readers have for the main plot.

Flashforwards, on the other hand, raise the overall suspense of your narration: Think of ominous prophecies, unmistakeable foreshadowing, etc. — When we read A Series of Unfortunate Events, we are warned again and again that the children’s story will have no happy end. This makes us want to read more, just to see whether Lemony Snicket is lying or not.

Amplitude and Scope

Anachronies can be as simple as a short throwaway phrase while your world-building or they can take up ninety percent of your book. (This is what we call amplitude.)

They can tell of events that have happened five minutes ago or will happen in five minutes, or they can jump back to the beginning of time or forward to the end of the world. (This is what we call scope.)

The important thing when discussing amplitude and scope is this: They will change the flow of your story. You wouldn’t want to be in the final scene of your action thriller and insert a 30-page flashback to your hero’s childhood – unless this flashback offers even more action. Equally, you wouldn’t want to read an Agatha Christie novel in which Poirot skims over the final reveal in three sentences.

What I want to say is this: You’ll need to make a case-by-case decision every time you might want to use a flashback or flashword. But I can offer you a rule of thumb: The farther distanced from your main plot and the longer your anachronisms are, the harder it will be to keep your readers invested.

Internal vs. External Anachronisms

Your flashbacks and flashforwards can either belong to the timeframe of your main story (internal) or be positioned somewhere before or after it (external).

You could, for example, have your protagonist receive a prophecy that will be fulfilled by the end of the book. If it happens during the main story, the prolepsis is internal.

Or you could have him learn that in a billion years, the universe will implode. But your book will almost certainly end before that. If it happens after the main story is over, the prolepsis is external.

The difference between those two is immediacy. If you jump out of the agreed upon time frame for your story, you won’t be angering any readers. But you will distance them from the main event, and thereby risk to lose them.

Complete vs. Partial Anachronisms

This one is easily explained: A complete flashback will end when it reaches the time of the main story, a partial one will stop somewhere before that and leave a pause. Similarly, a complete flashforward will end at the time of narration, whereas a partial one will stop way sooner. (Complete prolepses are extremely rare, however.)

Why should that matter to you? — For a couple of reasons, potentially. The most important one, again, is suspense. If your anachronism is complete, there won’t be many open questions left. That’s why they’re better suited for the final parts of your story. If it is partial, you will leave the reader wondering and give him new motivation to find answers in the main story.

Establishing vs. Resolving Flashbacks

This is sort of tricky to explain. But I’ll give it my best shot: An establishing analepsis explains how something came to be. Often, this is found in stories that begin with an exciting situation and then jump back and spend the largest part of the text explaining the way the characters got there.

Resolving flashbacks, on the other hand, are found most often at the end of a story. Think of the end of mystery novels, for example: A resolving flashback gives the reader (and the characters) more information that help solve the conflict in the current timeline.

I think, you will choose the right one by instinct alone. Frankly, I don’t believe there’s much to be had discussing that distinction. But if you have a good idea how to make this useful, feel free to comment below.

Certain vs. Uncertain Flashforwards

I probably don’t need to explain this: Sometimes, a prolepsis can be guaranteed to happen. Think of a narrator ending a chapter with: “Little did he know that by tomorrow he would be dead.”Sometimes, a prolepsis comes without guarantee. Think of the numerous prophecies in ancient texts.

Both types add to the suspense of your narration: The certain flashforward asks the question: How (and when) will it happen? The uncertain one, on the other hand, asks: Will it really happen? — Both are great ways to keep your reader invested. Try them out.

Change up the Duration of your Narration

Now, this might be the thing you thought about when reading the word “Pacing”. And you would be right. Basically, duration poses the question: How does the length of your narration compare to the actual narrated time?

There are five possible answers. Here I’ve listed them for you with some thoughts as to what effects they have on the flow of your story:

Scenes use about the same amount of time to tell an event as it would actually take up. This makes your story feel more real and authentic, but as with actual reality, it can get boring very quickly.

Summaries use less time to tell an event than it would take in reality. This helps you gain speed and really drives your story forward, but it might also distance your reader if used too frequently.

Stretches use more time to tell an event than it would actually take up. This can slow down your story to a more comfortable level, give your readers pause to reflect and help gain introspection into your characters. But it can also be quite a drag.

Ellipses happen when you leave out an event that happened in the narrated time. If you don’t go for an ultra-realistic approach, you’ll automatically do this. It will help your story keep moving along. It might, however, also take away your reader’s grasp on the story.

Pauses take up time in your narration, even though nothing happens in the narrated time, e.g. when your narrator goes off on a tangent about some of their thoughts. This helps embellish your story. But it also might bore your reader.

In the end, none of these is the only way to write correctly. You need to carefully alternate between all of them. Unfortunately, I cannot give you a percentage for each category or anything. Most likely, you’ll figure it out yourselves. After all, good pacing is nearly invisible. Bad pacing, however, jumps at you at first glance.

Play with the Frequency of Events

And finally, we come to frequency. Which is, thank god, a short topic and something you will use instinctively. Once again, I’ve mad a list for you:

Singulative narration means that something happens once, and you narrate it once. This is your go-to type of storytelling. Choose this form for each event, and you’ll be on the safe side. However, it doesn’t hurt to experiment, right?

Multi-singulative narration means that something happens a number of times, and you tell it each time. Your protagonist might take the bus each morning, and each day you tell it. This will greatly enhance the reality feel of your story, but it will also start to get annoying.

Repeating narration means that something happens once, and you tell it a number of times. If you use multiple POVs for example, they might all tell their version of an event. If done correctly, this creates a multi-faceted picture of the event. If done poorly, it becomes boring.

Iterative narration, finally, means that something happens several times, but you tell it only once. For example: “Everday she took the bus to get to work.” This is an easy way to establish authenticity without boring the reader. Used too often, however, your reader might feel rushed.

As with duration, the goal lies in the correct mixing of these four types of narration. If you are unsure, why not try out two or more of them? Worst case, you’ll have gained some more writing experience.

What Can We Learn From This?

I’m really sorry for getting longer and longer with each post. But this one seemed to be really important, and I didn’t want to gloss over something important. If you skipped to the end, here’s your obligatory summary:

  1. No one really knows what good pacing is supposed to be. Over time you will develop your own sense for what feels good and what feels wrong.
  2. Using flashbacks and flashforwards can help you a great deal with creating suspense. Be aware, however, to never lose focus on your main story.
  3. The best way to manipulate pacing is by changing up the length of your narration. This way, you can make things feel more authentic, more fast-paced, more relaxing – or in the worst case chaotic and boring.
  4. You can tell a story event as often or more often than it happened. This gives your reader more variety and should keep them invested.
  5. Trust your gut instinct. The best pacing is achieved in editing, anyway.

Happy writing,

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