Pacing in storytelling and character arcs

If you’ve ever watched a race, like NASCAR or the Indianapolis 500, you have probably seen a device called a Pace Car. My dad was an amateur race car driver in another life, so I have grown up watching races. I think they’re facscinating, and the pace car has always been a source of interest to me.

Whenever there is an accident on the the track — a yellow flag or a caution — the pace car comes out on the track and rides ahead of the drivers. No one can pass. No one can slow down. The pace car sets the speed of the race until the caution is lifted.

And even though we don’t get to have a pace car for writing stories, we should. Every story needs to have a certain speed that it flows at, otherwise you will rush your readers too much or you will reveal too much about your character than is necessary and your readers will lose interest.

Be honest.

What’s one thing that fascinates you about a good book? The characters, right? Well, what if you’re reading a book and the writer dumps all of the fascinating information about that character on page one? You have nothing more to look forward to on the next page. Will you keep reading?

I wouldn’t.

What really keeps me invested in a book is watching a character grow and learn and change from page to page.

Good pacing is essential to great storytelling.

In the writers workshop I attended in the middle of June, the author who led my breakout session, Mark Mynheir, identified this technique as trickling. You have to trickle information in a novel. Not info dump. You have to tease your readers from page to page, providing just enough information to keep them hooked on the conflicted character you created but not enough to reveal the answers to the questions they have.

The character revelation is part of the reader’s discovery. Just like reading a mystery, unlocking the secrets and answering the questions about a character is a big part of introducing a reader to a character.

Let’s continue with the rough little character I posed in the last post – the 10 year old adopted soccer player from up north. As the writer, you know her two needs: to win the tournament and to prove herself to her adopted parents.

The story needs to start immediately. We need to know that she wants to win the tournament.

But her internal need, the need to please her adopted parents, is a part of the story that can wait. That’s who she is. That’s her character. And that part needs to be trickled out.

If you start your story out by just telling us that your character, Lucy let’s say her name is, loves to play soccer but has always felt out of place in her adopted family of classical musicians … is that interesting? Is that compelling? No! You just gave away some of your most valuable character-building tools.

The best way to set Lucy up is to show her interacting with her family. Show her sitting in the hotel in her soccer uniform trying to have a conversation with her sister (we don’t need to know she’s adopted yet), and her sister doesn’t get it. Let your readers think the sister doesn’t get it because she’s an older sister and leave it there.

Then, show her trying to have a conversation with her brother later on. And her brother doesn’t get it. That may cause your readers to wonder a little bit more.

Then, you could even show her trying to have a conversation about it with her dad. Or maybe show that her dad doesn’t know the foundational basics of the sport that his daughter is involved in.

And all along the way, you can drop hints. That they don’t look alike. That they don’t watch sports or understand sports. That will get your readers asking questions.

If the daughter is in sports, why don’t the parents know anything about it? Don’t they care? Don’t they want to be involved in her life?

And you can also show that they are trying to get her to get involved in music, for which she has no talent.

Don’t give it away too soon. And then, when you do let it slip that her parents aren’t her real parents, it will mean more to your readers.

But don’t forget to add another source of conflict once that question is answered. For every question you answer, add two more. For every conflict that is resolved, add more.

Maybe now you know that Lucy is adopted, but why don’t her parents want to be involved in the sport she loves? Why don’t they care about it? Don’t they care about her? And so on and so forth.

The main thing to remember is to space our your revelations so that your readers don’t feel overwhelmed with information. You want to slip them hints and drop clues all along the way so that they keep reading and keep wondering. That is the key to building a compelling story: feeding your readers just enough to keep them hooked.

Okay. Next time I may go into character profiles.

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

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