Linear Structure: Pacing and Escalation

Mech Heart HiRes copy 2
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:

Pacing 1

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:

Pacing 2

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:

Escalation

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:

WtT TPs

Escalation and pacing are the keys to keeping your plot moving and your reader on the edge of her seat.

Troubleshooting

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

8 thoughts on “Linear Structure: Pacing and Escalation

  1. This is clear–and made even more so with the book example. My only two tiny comments: the overuse of the word “that” in the Troubleshooting section; and I don’t know what NO! means in the graphics. (and when you tell me I’ll probably be embarrassed because it was so obvious).

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    • I wondered about that. Originally, the Jane example was longer, and that was explained. I try to keep these under 550 words, so I’d cut that part of the explanation back when Jane was fighting the Nopefish.

      Must cogitate and deal with the “that”, too. Thank you.

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  2. I really like that you hit both pacing and escalation. Particularly the escalation relating to intensity. Such an important point & distinction.

    Since right now I’m writing light mysteries and have a tendency to keep things moving, the gradual increase in intensity is something I’m always thinking about. But the other thing I think comes into play for me is making sure to have breathers for the reader–calmer moments here & there. Like to have those in there too otherwise there’s no ebb & flow to the roller coaster.

    Know this post is focussed more on romance writing, but think it’s relevant in most storytelling. You have any thoughts on breathers re pacing etc.?

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  3. carolc says:

    These posts are making me look at writing in a entirely new way. More focused? More big picture? Maybe just assembling all the different elements into a coherent whole? IDK, but it’s taking my understanding of writing to a new level. It’s very exciting.

    The combination of explanations, cartoons, and examples helps me understand the information sooo much better than explanations alone. And I think this short format makes the information more understandable than a longer explanation would be, because there is only space for the bare bones of the principle you are discussing, without the clutter of details, if that makes any sense. Sheesh, I’m learning about teaching as well as writing. Jenny, you are a fabulous teacher! Thank you!

    And now that I’ve wandered all over the place, I get to the point of the comment I wanted to make: I took the “No” to mean “No, that’s enough” – to be the illustration of the point at which Jane quit reacting to the attacks and took action to neutralize the threat.

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    • That’s it, but I think I’m going to have to redo the illustrations anyway. Or add in the rest of the plot in the previous post so that the “No!” makes sense to everybody.

      Oh, and thank you!

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  4. Karent says:

    This is the best explanation of pacing I’ve yet to encounter–pairing it with intensity. Love the graphics in these posts, they help encapsulate the lessons, right down to the progression of colors in the bar graph, going from the cooler green and blue to hotter purple and red as the story intensifies. Lots of movement in them. I took the No! to mean that Jane was determined to stop the bomb going off, i.e., avert disaster/save the world/what have you. To me it doesn’t need a literal explanation to make sense.

    Can’t wait for the next post, the Acts between the turning points. I find a lot of tutorials on dramatic structure gloss over that part and only emphasize the turning points. Then I’m like, Hey, the first turning point is on page 80 and the midpoint is on page 200. What about the 120 pages of stuff in between? What am I supposed to put in there?

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