While stories use multiple methods of engaging audiences, conflict and tension are probably the most essential for longer stories. What we call pace is the timing and intensity of that conflict and tension throughout. A pace that’s too low will put an audience to sleep, whereas a pace that’s too high will exhaust an audience so much they start tuning the story out. However, great pacing isn’t identical from story to story. Let’s go over how pacing works and what to think about when pacing your story.
The Difference Between Conflict and Tension
First, you’ll need to understand the fine distinction between conflict and tension. They both have a role to play in pacing, but those roles are different.
What Conflict Is
Conflict is what we call it when a protagonist is engaged in a struggle. They might be struggling against their fear of heights as they climb a ladder, against a political opponent as they debate public policy, or against an enemy as they run for their lives. Regardless, the audience watches this struggle blow by blow.
What Tension Is
Tension is the feeling of suspense and uncertainty over the story’s outcome. It can happen in the background; it doesn’t have to be related to whatever conflict is unfolding. The protagonist might learn an assassin is coming for them, but instead of going into hiding, they spend their efforts wooing their love interest. This sequence will probably have tension over whether the assassin will hurt the protagonist, even though all of the conflicts in the sequence are focused on the protagonist’s struggle to impress their crush.
How They Work Together
It’s tension, not conflict, that engages audiences. Conflict that has no tension at its source is as boring as anything else. However, conflict is how we focus on a specific source of tension and turn up the dial until the audience is on the edge of their seats. When the protagonist’s date is interrupted by a struggle against their would-be assassin, that will be higher tension than earlier, when the audience was only worried the assassin might show up. An active conflict means the problem behind the tension is more immediate and the situation is changing rapidly.
While the assassin problem is high tension, the same principle applies to problems with lower tension. Ideally, the audience would also care whether the pining protagonist can impress their crush, and the date would include a conflict where the protagonist struggles to do so. This won’t be as gripping for the audience as a life-or-death conflict, but that’s okay; it will play a different role in the story.
While stories should have conflict almost continuously, those conflicts will alternate between higher- and lower-tension problems. This change, combined with the underlying tension of the story, is what sets the pace.
What Good Pacing Looks Like
Let’s look at some graphs that represent tension throughout a story, starting with the simple graph that many people are given in grade school. We have a triangle showing a long upward slope as tension climbs throughout the story, with a peak representing the climax, and a sharper downward slope toward the story’s resolution. If you were given a graph with the climax in the middle, that graph was bad, and it should feel bad.
This tension graph reveals the basic structure of an arc, also known as a plotline or storyline. While this single arc is a simplistic representation of a story, it demonstrates that, overall, tension needs to rise rather than fall. That’s because as time passes, more tension is required to have the same effect, and audience expectations go up. Stories with a large downward slope feel anticlimactic.
However, this graph is still misleading because it neglects variation. The story’s tension should not go up uniformly like this. Things that stay the same get old, whereas things that contrast make a bigger impression. So what does this simple graph need?
If you’ve been reading a lot of Mythcreants and you’ve heard us say that stories are fractals, you might guess the answer: a bunch of smaller triangles. This forms what might be called a staircase, though each stair is very pointy and wouldn’t make for a pleasant climb. If we wanted more detail, we could add teensy triangles to the slopes of each of these steps, but let’s not get carried away.
Now we can see both the throughline of the story – the arc encompassing the whole thing – and its immediate child arcs. The peaks of this graph represent the story’s highest-tension conflicts, whereas the valleys typically represent the background tension of the story’s throughline. While there’s a lot of ups and downs, each peak and valley is higher than the last, maintaining the upward slope of tension.
However, there isn’t a single graph that represents all stories. The tension lines might:
- Have higher peaks and lower valleys, representing a story that’s more episodic.
- Have more or fewer peaks and valleys along the slope representing each child arc.
- Have an exponential curve instead of a straight line, representing tension that escalates more and more as the story continues.
While stories always have a fractal form based on a three-point arc, that leaves a lot of room for customization.
What Pacing Problems Look Like
To better understand what’s important and what’s flexible, let’s cover graphs that look like trouble.
Anticlimactic Child Arcs
You might have noticed that the shape of each step above looks like the shape of the overall story, with a long, slow climb and a short, sharp drop-off. This is important because it places the valleys right after the peaks. After an intense conflict, the audience will welcome some downtime, but they won’t want that downtime for very long. If the tension keeps sliding downward or you drop the tension before building it up enough, they’ll get bored.
Conflicts That Go On and On
Whether it’s at a peak, a valley, or in between, flat lines should be avoided. A 50-page chapter that is entirely an intense action sequence or rest period will get old. Shorten those action sequences and start slowly building tension as soon as you reach that valley.
Valleys that plummet too low are another common issue. If a valley isn’t higher than the previous valley, the audience will lose interest. My last section covers how to keep your valleys trending upward.
Jarring Changes in Trajectory
Even though the tension line itself shouldn’t be smooth, graphs of good pacing still give us a smooth pattern with a predictable trajectory – even if it’s an exponential curve upward. This tells the audience how tense the story will be, but it doesn’t mean the story doesn’t have great twists or surprises. It just means that sudden twist will feel like it fits.
In contrast, audiences may have trouble with a long slow start interrupted by a sudden upward climb. If the audience enjoys that much tension in the later parts of the story, earlier they were probably not just bored but also wondering if anything was ever going to happen. You don’t want everyone who will enjoy your ending to quit before they get there.
Remember that these graphs represent tension, not conflict. If you’re thinking of a great story where problems simmered under the surface before suddenly boiling over, that simmering probably entailed mounting tension even if it didn’t include intense conflict.
Creating Peaks and Valleys
So you know what your peaks and valleys should look like, but what are they, exactly? Let’s look at an example. Below is a list of scenes that could form one child arc or one step in that pacing staircase.* In a novel, they might be placed in a chapter together.
- Aki and Mia argue over how to investigate the atrocities happening at Evil Labs, Inc. They decide they need to break into the lab and gather some evidence.
- Aki and Mia break in. They have to hide from the guards and dodge the moving security cams, but they manage to download data from a computer onto their flash drive.
- They are leaving with their evidence when Evil Lab’s monster creations appear and give chase! Aki and Mia manage to escape the monsters by holing up in an abandoned building.
- With the monsters still prowling outside, Aki and Mia are stuck in the building. They plug their flash drive into a tablet and start searching for evidence that’s damning enough.
In this list, the conflict in #1 is relatively low tension – it might be the valley after the previous arc. The tension in #2 is higher because the protagonists risk being arrested, and higher yet in #3 because those monsters could kill them. After a life-or-death conflict, it’s a good time to rest. Accordingly, in #4 they are only struggling to identify evidence in their stolen data. However, the monsters are still prowling outside trying to find them, and that background tension will make this valley higher than the last.
Let’s look at another one, but instead of using an external conflict like a fight against an evil corporation, let’s use an internal one that would feature in a character or relationship arc. These usually have lower tension because it’s hurt feelings rather than lives on the line.
- Aki keeps to themself in class because they don’t have many friends. Then a new student, Mia, is introduced, and her notebook has stickers for Aki’s favorite show. Aki timidly waves for Mia to come work with them, but Mia doesn’t notice and sits with a group up front instead.
- After that class is over, Aki tries to approach Mia and introduce themself. But some other students are already talking to her, and when Aki tries to join in they stumble over their words. Embarrassed, they make a hasty excuse and flee.
- Mia and Aki share another class later in the day, and the teacher calls Aki up front to give a presentation. Aki finally has Mia’s undivided attention, but they’ve never been good at speaking before the class. Aki gathers their courage and manages to make some clever jokes. Mia smiles and laughs. But as soon as class is over, her phone buzzes, and she rushes out before Aki can talk to her.
- Aki goes home and tells their mother they wish they were homeschooled, so they wouldn’t have to deal with the stress of making friends. Their mother tries to convince them that it’ll get easier.
In this child arc, Aki is lonely but has trouble getting a potential new friend to notice them. Increasing social pressure raises the tension until Aki has to perform in front of the class. Then it’s okay to take a break. To keep the tension from dropping too low during that break, Mia rushes out of class. This way there’s still uncertainty over whether Aki will befriend her. When dealing with internal arcs like this, most peaks will probably be moments of strong emotion and stress, such as a heated argument with a loved one.
Let’s look at one more example, this time with both external and internal arcs. In many stories, they are woven together.
- Always butting heads, Aki and Mia argue over how to get evidence on the atrocities happening at Evil Labs, Inc. Aki thinks Mia is reckless, whereas Mia thinks Aki is spineless. Finally, Mia convinces Aki to break into the lab.
- They break in, hiding from the guards and dodging the moving security cams. When the alarm goes off, Aki wants to get out, but Mia stubbornly stays until she finishes downloading data onto their flash drive.
- Mia and Aki are leaving when Evil Lab’s monster creations appear and give chase! Mia wants to run to their car, but Aki knows there isn’t time to unlock and start it. Instead Aki finds a building the two can hide in and practically drags Mia inside. Just after they shut the door, another ten monsters converge on the street outside.
- With the monsters still prowling outside, Aki and Mia are stuck in the building. As Aki plugs the flash drive into their tablet, they grudgingly admit that recklessly breaking into the lab paid off. Mia acknowledges that if Aki hadn’t insisted on hiding in the building, they’d both be monster food.
In this sequence, the scenes highlight the lower-tension internal arcs during the valleys and the higher-tension external arcs during the peaks. However, both are present throughout, something we call multitasking.
I chose four scenes for each of these examples because that’s the minimum number that allowed me to create a longer upward climb and a sharper drop-off. However, you might have six scenes of rising tension before you reach the peak. The key is to keep tension going up until it’s not advisable to do so anymore. What’s advisable depends on the overall tension of the story and whether you’re near the beginning or end. If it’s earlier, you’ll need to leave room for higher peaks later.
Even near the end of a tense story, at some point it may feel like the characters are about to die any minute, and therefore additional threats would be meaningless. At that point, trying to raise tension will probably just exhaust the audience.
Keeping Valleys From Becoming Chasms
To review, tension is created by suspense over whether bad outcomes will happen in the story. Unfortunately, tension relies on several factors to operate, and it only takes one missing factor to destroy it. When discussing pacing, the most relevant factors are the likelihood that a bad outcome will happen and how urgently the protagonists must act if they hope to prevent it.
As an arc continues, preventing bad outcomes must look increasingly difficult. This isn’t usually an issue if the protagonist failed their big struggle at the peak. However, if they overcame the challenges they were facing, the bigger problems of the story probably won’t look so tough anymore. The protagonist proved themself at least a little by succeeding, and succeeding probably earned them allies or resources they can use going forward.
If your protagonists are heading into danger as you move to a higher-tension scene, that could be enough to correct this problem. But if you’re coming off a peak and heading for a valley, the tension will plummet farther than it should.
Correct this by adding a plot device right before your valley that makes winning the day look harder. Often this is an important resource the antagonist gains or the protagonist loses. The protagonist might have the enchanted sword now, but the antagonist has gained the king’s support. You can also introduce a new problem or twist; maybe the villain just kidnapped a loved one. For more ideas, see Five Ways to Restore Tension.
Valleys can also destroy urgency by going on for too long. If the city is surrounded by giant spiders and the protagonists just chill for three days, that suggests the spiders won’t come in and attack them anytime soon. Since the heroes have plenty of time to solve their spider problem, tension will plummet. The best place to summarize time passing is when the heroes are working hard at meeting a deadline that is tight, but not immediate. On the plus side, announcing that a deadline is closer than expected is a good way to raise tension prior to a valley.
Then just remember to keep the story moving. No matter where you’re at on the tension graph, you don’t want to stay there.
If you’re not sure what tension feels like, read or watch some stories while paying close attention to how you respond to conflicts and foreshadowing. You can start with suspenseful stories to make it easier, but light stories have tension too. Once you can feel the increase in tension that results from inserting a plot hook in your own story, you’ll be set.
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