For the past few years I’ve discovered my love for modern stories—whether they be TV shows, movies, or books—has decreased. For a bit, I couldn’t figure out why. So many had unique premises, exciting plots, interesting scenery. On the surface, everything seemed as though these should be enjoyable stories. Yet…I couldn’t fall in love with them. And it bugged me.
So me, being the writer I am, began to dissect these stories and figure out WHY. Why did these tales with such great potential fall so very short? Then, finally, finally, it hit me.
The pacing was off.
That was it. Sure, the effects of the movie were astounding, or the plot of the book was complex and original, but it was the disjointed, off pacing that made me feel distant.
I, for one, have struggled with story pacing for years and years of my writing life. My older works were far too long, had far too much information, and were far too boring. Then, later, I tried to fix this problem, and instead got a novel that rushed along so fast all the heart of the story was lost.
What we want is somewhere in between that. And I have been searching for that balance my whole writing life. So when I had that epiphany of why modern stories just don’t do it for me much anymore, I wanted to know what made the pacing off, so then I could avoid it myself. Because sometimes we learn better with lessons on what not to do, am I right?
I think it was when I read Illusionarium by Heather Dixon that it really came to me. (Just so you know, I LOVE this book, and I know a lot of you do as well, so I’m not hating on it. I just think the pacing could have been far better, but we’re getting to those details!)
Modern stories have too much action.
“But don’t stories supposed to be action-packed!” you’re probably thinking. “The more actions and thrills, the better the story!” Well…yes and no.
Yes, stories should give us thrills and not naps. (Many of my old works make my eyes glaze over like a Krispy Kreme donut. Wait wut?) But here’s the thing, if stories are all action all the time, with no rest periods in between, we’re also going to want to take a nap from sheer exhaustion. Basically: STORIES SHOULDN’T MAKE US NAP. Pacing is everything. A story may have all the right ingredients, but if the pacing is off, those ingredients are going to roll together into a mushy, tasteless stew. (Please just humor me with my absurd analogies.)
Okay, but howww do we get this magical pacing balance of action and rest and make our readers LOVE our stories? Wellll, there are lots of different methods. But one thing in particular stands out to me personally above all the rest. Something I’ve taken to calling…
Character Fireside Chats
Whether it’s an action-thriller or a historical romance, all stories have one thing in common: THEY’RE MADE UP OF CHARACTERS. And characters are the driving force of any given tale. I’m a speculative fiction gal myself, but if I love the characters enough, I’m game for pretty much any genre. (Ya know, within reason.) People love people, and when we pick up a book or go to the movies, we’re hoping to find yet more fictional characters we can fangirl/boy over unhealthily and spend hours of our precious lives making memes and searching for gifs of and blogging about to tell EVERYBODY EVER that they must join this fandom and love these poor bbys as much as us. Right? (You know you can’t deny it.)
But guess what? If the only thing the characters in the story are doing is running through narrow hallways shooting baddies and speeding through half a dozen unrealistic car chase scenes and barely ever having conversations because they only have time for lots of screaming, welllll how can we even tell if we like these characters? We don’t, because we don’t know them. They’re just…there, doing a bunch of stuff with no heart. Simply a prop to watch avoid exciting explosions.
Do you know how you get to know people? YOU TALK TO THEM. You have conversations, heart-to-hearts. You hear their thoughts, learn how they feel, discover tidbits about their lives and what makes them tick.
It’s the same with fictional characters.
They say action speaks louder than words, but in fiction? Not always.
Let’s look at Tangled.
In less than 2 hours, Disney gave us a movie that completely enchanted us, brought us laughter, kept us glued to our seats, and made us fall entirely in love with the characters. (Or at least, that’s my experience with it. But come on, who doesn’t love Tangled???) So how did they do that? PACING. And why was their pacing spot on? A literal fireside chat!
[WARNING: Many TANGLED SPOILERS coming, on the off-chance someone hasn’t seen that movie yet.]
Remember when Maximus and the soldiers are chasing Rapunzel and Flynn out from The Snuggly Duckling? This is the start to a heart-pounding series of action-filled events. They are chased, Flynn fights with a frying pan (“You should know that this is the strangest thing I’v ever done!”), Rapunzel uses her hair to fly over the gorge, and then she and Flynn get caught under water and nearly die. WHEW. Lots of action! But Disney knew what it was doing. After this series of events, we and the characters are given a rest period.
Rapunzel and Flynn sit by the fireside in a quiet forest, drying out and opening their hearts to one another. Here Flynn learns that if Rapunzel’s hair is cut, it’ll lose its powers, and Rapunzel discovers the backstory of this “thief” and learns he really isn’t the rogue he makes himself out to be. Not only do the characters get to know each other in this scene, but the viewers do as well. I’m 96% this is where we all fell in love with Flynn Rider a.k.a Eugene Fitzherbert.
After this moment, we are then back to some heart-stopping scenes as Mother Gothel appears and starts making trouble for Rapunzel. Now just imagine if the movie had skipped the quiet, fireside chat. What if the second Rapunzel and Flynn escaped from their near-drowning, Mother Gothel was waiting for them and the movie progresses from there with a series of more action scenes? We’d never get to really know who Flynn is, he’d miss vital information about Rapunzel’s hair, and their love story would seem unrealistic because, well, they really wouldn’t have time to fall in love. It was just be a tiring, too-quick series of events.
But, thankfully, that’s not how things played out and we were given a beautiful, well-loved story. All because Disney wasn’t afraid of “boring” their readers with a few quiet, meaningful scenes.
[END OF TANGLED SPOILERS.]
Because that’s just it, we enjoy dialogue. Dialogue is not boring! Or even some thoughtful narrations. Occasionally the POV (point-of-view) character needs some narration to think through the events and come to conclusions on how to fix them. Again, if all we see our protagonists do is run and shoot stuff, with no conversation, no heart-to-hearts, no deep inner thoughts, we’re just going to get tired and not care one way or the other if they make it out of the story alive. (Truthfully, with most action films, I pretty much never even remember the characters’ names. They’re usually just: Big Guy with Gun or Girl Who Can Run and Kick People in High Heels.)
Now let’s return to Illusionarium.
(Don’t worry, NO SPOILERS of this one for those who have not read it!)
This original steampunk story had everything: An extremely unique plot, parallel universes, a deadly plague, gorgeous writing, wit and humor, phenomenal worldbuilding, and, actually, even some great characters. I would have given this book a shiny 5 stars and sent it straight to my Favorites Shelf on GoodReads if not for one problem: The pacing.
There were basically zero “Character Fireside Chats” in the whole book. It was action, action, action at every turn. Every. single. time. the characters were about to have a heart-to-heart BOOM! some life threatening danger cut them short. EVERY TIME. Which made me so sad because I could tell I loved these characters. I could tell they were fun people to get to know. But…that was the problem. I never really, really got to know them. Characters I did like a lot could have been characters I LOOOOOOVED. But since they were so busy fighting for their lives, I feel like their relationships and personalities didn’t shine through as well as they could have. If there had been just a few fireside chats in the story, it would have absolutely gotten 5 stars from me instead of the 4 stars I gave it. It was so close to perfect. But the pacing just didn’t quite hit the mark.
And it seems to be that way with so many stories these days, especially modern films. I’m getting beyond frustrated with modern movies. There are so movies I should—could—LOVE, but just don’t because the pacing is so quick and jittery and disjointed. In fact, even TV shows have gotten this way. We seemed to have lost the art of smooth pacing, and it both frustrates me and makes me sad.
It’s like all these people are so scared of boring their readers, they forget it’s good to add some heart to the story. BUT, as with everything: Balance is Key. Action is good. Again, we don’t want to bore our readers. I’m not telling you to fill your entire stories with one deep, meaningful heart-to-heart after another. That can be just as tiring as never-ending action. Tangled had a few more fireside chats than the actual…fireside chat. (We can’t forget the floating lanterns scene, after all.) But that single scene was plenty to make us fall head-over-heels for our protagonists and stick with them to the end.
Because here’s the thing, the more action your story has, the more we’ll relish those sweet, quiet moments. In BBC’s Sherlock, my absolute favorite scenes are the “domestic” ones. Those moments where Sherlock and John are just hanging around in their flat—John blogging, Sherlock playing his violin or watching soap operas. It makes me grin every time. But I love those scenes because they’re few and far between. Most of the show is full of danger and mystery and intrigue. But, on occasion, we get a normal, quiet, happy glimpse at our characters, and it means all the more because all the rest of the time we’re worried for their lives. (Disclaimer: Sherlock is by no means a very clean show, sadly, and it’s pretty dark. Definitely not something I’d recommend to everyone!)
If for 98% of the time your favorite character is running for their lives and constantly almost dying, then you will live for that 2% of time where they’re just quietly sitting and eating cereal. Don’t try to deny it!
So if you’re wanting to write a heart-stopping thriller, GO FOR IT! Those are good! Just remember that if you really want that pacing to feel balanced and your readers to fall in love with the characters, throwing in a couple of “fireside chats” can do absolute wonders.
I by nooo means have this down flat. As I said before, pacing is something I’ve struggled with for years and am still learning. (Pretty much all of my writing tip posts are things I’m figuring out myself!) But this pacing problem of modern stories has been bugging me for a while now, to the point that I consider it one of my biggest pet peeves. (Which you can tell, because when I have a pet peeve I ramble on about it foreverrrr and…this post is so long! In fact, I had many more examples of good vs. bad paced stories but I’m preeetty sure you guys have the gist of it what I’m saying now. I should figure out better pacing for my blog posts. Eheheh.) I’m so ready for us to get back to meaningful stories that aren’t just all quick, disjointed scenes.
It’s all balance, guys! And the very best way to truly learn that perfect art is studying it for yourself! Start paying attention to the pacing in books and movies. Trust me, after some time you’ll figure out what feels off or just right.
And can we just take a minute to appreciate the fact that the best way to learn writing is to read books and watch movies? Sometimes writing is the actual best.
TALK WITH ME!
Well that was…long. I hope you all made it through that okay! (Again, this is such a huge pet peeve of mine and I just had to rant for a while. Thanks for putting up with me!) Now my favorite part, discussing the topic with YOU GUYS! Have you noticed a trend of disjointed pacing in modern stories? What are some stories (movies/books/TV shows/what-have-you) that you found the pacing way off on? What are some that you LOVED the pacing of? Do you agree with my “fireside chat” method? And do you have some methods for rocking pacing? I’D LOVE TO HEAR ‘EM!