Pacing is about how fast your story moves; escalation is about how intense your story gets.
Ideally, you want your story to move faster as it draws to an end. The easiest way to do that is to move the turning points closer together as the story gets closer to its climax.
Here is Jane’s plot as we last left it:
It’s a good start, but it’s paced badly; that is, it plods along instead of picking up speed. You want your reader’s heart beating faster as she nears the Big Finish. To do that, shorten the spaces between your turning points:
Obviously the reader isn’t going to count words to notice that the turning points are coming closer together. What she will notice subconsciously is that Big Things are happening a lot faster. She’ll have a lot less time to process what’s happening in the story (much like the protagonist).
That’s not enough to stop the plodding. You also have to escalate your story, which means the Big Stuff gets Bigger. That is, each turning point is more dangerous for the protagonist, with bigger consequences and higher stakes. Your events aren’t just hitting faster, they’re hitting with more impact on both the reader and the protagonist:
Now you have a structure that moves faster and escalates as it draws closer to the climax.
EXAMPLE: Welcome to Temptation
Sophie’s goal is to protect the people she loves; in the beginning, that’s her sister.
Beginning: Sophie wants to help her sister Amy make a movie so she goes to a small town where she meets the antagonist and then her love-interest-to-be, the mayor. The stakes are fairly low: Amy’s movie (and happiness) might be threatened.
Wake-Up Call: Sophie falls for the mayor and finds out Amy is making porn; linking the mayor to porn will hurt his chances of re-election, but if she tells him, Amy won’t get to make her movie. Now the stakes are higher: Amy could lose her dream and Sophie could lose the mayor who has become her lover.
Point of No Return: The antagonist drops a dead body in the backyard, and Sophie has to choose whether to help Amy hide it or report it to the mayor. Complication: she’s attached to the mayor’s little girl. The stakes are now much higher: Amy could go to jail for murder and Sophie could lose the mayor and his daughter.
Crisis: The antagonist plays Amy’s movie on public TV . The stakes: Amy could lose her movie and go to jail and Sophie could lose the mayor and his daughter and go to jail.
Climax: Sophie has one last chance to save the day by facing her antagonist at the town council meeting. Stakes: Everything on the line in that one moment.
Here’s that same plot graphed for turning points:
Escalation and pacing are the keys to keeping your plot moving and your reader on the edge of her seat.
If you’re having trouble escalating your plot, work backwards. You know the climax is where your protagonist meets your antagonist in a winner-takes all battle. What happened before that that was so bad that your protagonist was almost destroyed, leaving her desperate enough to pursue her goal into this battle? When you know that, then figure out what came before that crisis that wasn’t quite so devastating . . .
For other posts in this unit, see The Structure Unit Table of Contents