How Do I Give My High-Paced Story Time to Breathe?

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Hi again, my wonderful mentors at Mythcreants!

I just got a book manuscript back from a beta reader. A problem she noted (and although I didn’t spot this on my own, I think she’s 100% right in this) is that the pace becomes too quick in the second half of the book, when the MC and her crew goes on a space mission. Back on Earth, my reader felt the pace was right; but once in space, there’s lots of action, but things just go too quickly – like the reader doesn’t get time to “breathe” really, and digest things.

So: The space mission part needs to swell out. But it should obviously not do so by adding useless padding. I have two ideas for how to do this: Fleshing out a group of antagonists by having the MC and crew do research on them (which would make for calm segments), but have that research pay off in the big fight with this group, and make a bigger subplot out of a smaller thing that’s already in there.

However, I’d love to hear any general advice on how to stretch out and calm down a segment of the story, without useless padding.

– Jeppsson

Hi Jeppsson!

So the scenes you’re probably missing are often referred to as “reaction” scenes, for good reason. One of the most common features of these scenes, that many stories benefit from, is taking a breather to show the impact the exciting events have had on the characters, and often, to let them recover. This adds realism to the story by showing how stressful events have ramifications that last after they’re over. It also makes it more realistic that the protagonists can keep going. Reaction scenes often include activities such as patching wounds, repairing equipment, talking about or reflecting on what happened, eating a good meal, catching up on sleep, or any other form of self care.

Another important “reaction” activity is discussing the current situation and planning their next move in the action plot. This is where your idea of adding research fits in. Maybe, after an action scene, the protagonists have new clues or questions to follow up on, so they do research on them.

The second big thing that often occurs in these scenes is progress on the internal arcs of the stories. While you can and should further internal arcs during action scenes, some things just aren’t appropriate in an emergency. A character in a relationship arc might have to choose which person to side with during an action scene, but they’ll have a discussion about why they made that choice and how they’re feeling in a reaction scene. Slower moments give characters a chance to connect and reflect.

As to whether it feels like padding, just like for higher-paced moments, you’ll want to multitask during your reaction scenes to keep things tight. One scene can feature characters performing essential self care, discussing their next move, and hashing out personal issues at the same time.

For a good example from a story, I recommend Mad Max: Fury Road. This movie is very action-packed, but it has just enough slower reaction scenes to keep the action from tiring out the viewer. These scenes are used to develop characters or make critical choices, such as whether they will cross the sea of salt or not.

Best wishes!


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  1. Cay Reet

    I agree with Chris here. There are ways to put in downtime without creating too much drag.

    One thing is self-care. In fights or other action-rich scenes, people tend to get injured, weapons or tools tend to get broken or damaged, people spend a lot of energy. A scene where they sit down to rest, treat their injuries, and patch up equipment can serve as downtime without feeling tagged on. If you have internal arcs to work on, such scenes are great for that, the action from the last scene having shown a character that what they thought was wrong or how soon their life could be over, making up with their loved ones.

    Another is to make the characters work on the next step – on a technology they need for the next big confrontation, on information that will lead them to their final destination. A scene were a tool or weapon is tested or a scene where someone discusses knowledge which changes the situation or the way to reach their next destination slow things down a bit, but still serve the story.

    • Jeppsson

      I already had physical self-care, but I’ve added more psychological self-care, dealing with the psychological impact of stuff. Building up the villains a bit more and making them more complicated also meant more to learn, think through and take into account for the protagonists. AND, finally, some new techniques they come up with get to take up more space… On reading through the whole thing again, with fresh eyes, I realized that ok, maybe this thing was just too quickly shown and explained.

  2. Adam

    How would you implement reaction scenes in an RPG? Would you have a whole session of research and reflection and binding wounds, or just a little bit of that during a session, or do it completely off stage?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Depends on how big the action was! Normally, I’d mix up high paced conflict scenes with quieter reaction scenes in the same session, but occasionally, the plot aligns so you have an entire session of high tension climax scenes. In that situation, it’s appropriate to have an entire session dedicated to quieter, falling action scenes. In fact, our weekly game just had a big, season finale style session on last week, so this week the plan is to have an extended epilogue. Of course, sometimes players get bored and want more action even if they’ve just had action, and the nice thing about RPGs is that you can react to those needs in real time.

      I definitely wouldn’t have the scenes off screen if they’re purpose is to let players relax a little. If it’s just to hit the books and learn stuff, then I might summarize it, though I also love to put weird conflicts in research scenes. Sometimes the books bite back!

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