: Corrected minor grammatical errors. Clarified attributions. Updated formatting to current blog standards.
This is part of an ongoing series!
I say biggest because plot and pacing include all of the aspects we’ve talked about so far. Plot is the events that make up a story–the concept taking form through the actions and dialogue of the characters within the setting. Pacing is the order of those events, with all its ups and downs. This is why I put plot and pacing together as one aspect; to me, they’re two sides of the same coin.
“Bigger” also means that there’s a lot more moving parts. The writer will probably spend more time developing plot and pacing than any other aspect. After all, plots can go any number of ways. That’s how stories can be so different from one another. Will the story end on a happy note? A sad one? And yet, we don’t just read stories for the destination, the ending–we read them for the journey, too–meaning that every step of the plot and pacing need to be entertaining.
This is why plot and pacing is one of the most difficult aspects to discuss. There’s just too much ground you could potentially cover, all depending on what kind of a story we’re discussing.
Plots aren’t one-size-fits all. There’s no one single “right” way to write a plot. It depends on what sort of story the writer is trying to tell. But there are plenty of sub-par ways to write a plot!
Build-Up, Steady Climb, Big Moment, Tie It All Together
A useful diagram I remember my English 101 professor drilling into our heads was Freytag’s Triangle. According to Richard Hodaly, this simple diagram shows the progression of every plot ever.1
Freytag’s Triangle says it in a lot fewer words, but let me try and give you my interpretation:
A story always begins with an introduction of some sort. Even if the audience is dropped right in the middle of the action, it’s still an introduction. We’re introduced to a character or characters, or we’re introduced to the setting of the book. We may even be given the concept of the story right away or a nibble of the plot we’re about to experience. This is the build-up phase. The writer is building up the setting, the characters, the plot.
Then there’s the biggest portion of the plot, all the stuff in the middle. This is the series of events that leads the character from the beginning (introduction) phase toward achieving their goal (or, I suppose, failing to achieve it) at the end. As author Jordan Bollinger points out on her blog, there’s lots of little ups and downs in the middle of a book: getting closer to solving the mystery, only for another curve in the investigation to leave the detective feeling like he’s back to square one. The protagonist seems to take one step forward and one step back. We wonder if she’ll ever succeed.2
Then comes the climax, the most exciting point in the story, when everything comes to a head. The knight duels the evil wizard to the death. The FBI agent finally has the perpetrator cornered. The big battle, the ultimate showdown, the thrilling resolution–finally occurs.
After that, it’s all downhill. The big confrontation is resolved. The writer (hopefully!) ties up all the loose ends. Sometimes we’re given an epilogue showing what happened to some of the characters, and then the story’s over.
That’s the order a plot will go in, but what’s important to keep in mind while the plot’s still rolling?
The most important thing is for a writer to, well, stay focused on the story’s main focus! The story’s main focus is the main conflict: the protagonist’s struggle to obtain their goal.
All the events–every plot element–should be about this main conflict. Each plot element should either 1) explain something about the world, 2) establish who the characters are, 3) bring the main character closer to their goal, or 4) push them further away from it. If a plot element isn’t doing any one of these things, it probably needs to be cut.
In fact, writers still need to be wary even if a plot element is establishing something about the world or characters. The writer needs to ask themselves if this plot element is actually helping the audience understand more about the main conflict… or if it’s superfluous. That’s a big danger for subplots.
What about Subplots?
Subplots are off-shoots of the bigger story, plots that are secondary to the main conflict.
It’s true that many subplots don’t directly advance the main conflict. Each subplot has its own conflict, its own protagonist, and its own antagonizing forces. But subplots can still support the main conflict. In fact, they should!
Supporting the main conflict can take many forms. The subplot might develop a character the protagonist interacts with frequently (like an ally or an enemy). A subplot could also tie into the main conflict, making it easier or more complicated for the protagonist to achieve their goal. If a subplot ties into the main conflict in some way, it often makes the subplot much more interesting and much more powerful–which also makes the overall plot that much more interesting!
It seems to go without saying that subplots shouldn’t detract from the main conflict, but writers plunge into this pitfall all the time. When the subplot has nothing to do with the main conflict, the audience will quickly get frustrated. I’ve seen viewers drop a show altogether because the plot has Become fixated on minor characters. And of course they’d be upset; they feel like the writer is wasting their time! They began watching the show for the protagonist’s struggle, not to watch the supporting cast for the next twenty episodes.
And heaven forbid the writer stick an unrelated subplot in the middle of a really interesting point in the main conflict!
But even if the subplots tie into the main conflict and DON’T spend time on extraneous things, writers still might fall prey to another subplot issue. Writers have to make sure their subplots aren’t stealing the spotlight. Interesting subplots are great, but they shouldn’t be way cooler than the main conflict 99% of the time. Then the audience will lose interest in the protagonist and the “meat” of the story!
I have to admit, I struggle with this one. One dramatic solution to a show-stealing subplot is to change it to the main focus of the story! But many writers can’t make such a large commitment midway through their project. The key to avoid this altogether is some good ol’ pre-planning. Find the best part of the story and run with it! Always make your main conflict the most interesting one.
Pacing is all about balancing high-action points and calmer, low-action moments. Writers need to be able to get a feel for the pace of their story, because just like plot, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for pace. Some writers can do this instinctively, but all writers benefit from a read-through by an outside party. Other readers will spot things that no writer will pick up on.
The most straightforward pacing issues are also the two pacing extremes–the story is either dragging or rushed. On paper, these are easy fixes. If the story’s dragging, insert an action sequence to spice things up. If the story is rushed, slow it down by taking more time to explain the setting, throwing in more character interactions, or slipping in a mystery for the audience to puzzle over.
Some audiences think they dislike scenes that aren’t action-packed, but that probably means they haven’t seen a well-written calm moment! A character uncovering his long-lost past can be just as exciting as him being chased by gun-toting thugs. Just because characters aren’t in a high-action moment doesn’t mean that the scene has to be boring! Some of my favorite moments, in fact, are character development moments during low-action scenes.
Finding the right balance of high-octane and resting scenes is hard. Writing wouldn’t be considered an art if it were easy! But finding the correct balance and choosing the best events that lead up to a satisfying conclusion is the key to writing a healthy pace, a satisfying plot, and a great story.
And all three of those things will be written a certain way, with a certain flair, with a certain kind of voice. A specific sort of style, you could say.
Check in next time for the final entry on the Six Aspects of a Story, Style! Thanks for reading!
Notes and References:
- Richard Hodaly, “Literary Terms: Freytag’s Triangle,” PC Wordsmiths, WordPress, January 24, 2013, accessed July 21, 2016.
- Jordan Bollinger, “Redefining Freytag’s Pyramid for the New Millennium,” Drawing on the Right Side of My Brain, Blogger, June 11, 2012, accessed July 21, 2016.
…And also lectures from Professor Frank Coffman. I wouldn’t know half the stuff I do now if it weren’t for you, Professor Coffman!
For Him, to Him