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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Cartwright

The Rhythm of Tension: Pacing for Maximum Impact

In the dance between writer and reader, pacing is the tempo that sets the rhythm of tension in a narrative. It's the ebb and flow, the rise and fall of suspense that keeps readers on the edge of their seats but not falling off them. Effective pacing can transform a story, turning it into an unforgettable experience that lingers long after the final page. In this blog post, we'll uncover the secrets of pacing, focusing on how it can be wielded to control and manipulate tension in your narrative.

 

The Speed of Unfolding Events

Pacing begins with the speed at which events unfold. Think of it as adjusting the accelerator pedal in a high-speed chase. When the action is rapid-fire, readers feel the adrenaline rush, the urgency of the moment. Conversely, slowing down the pace allows for introspection, deepening the emotional connection with the characters.


High-Octane Action Sequences

High-octane action sequences in a novel are a potent tool for building tension. They achieve this by accelerating the narrative pace, engaging readers both emotionally and physically, introducing uncertainty, raising stakes through conflicts, and revealing character development under pressure.

Action sequences often come with time constraints, adding urgency, and immerse readers in sensory details for an immersive experience. They employ twists and reversals to maintain unpredictability, all while releasing built-up tension. These sequences create a sense of anticipation, drawing readers into the story, making them care about the characters' fates, and keeping them eagerly turning pages to see how events unfold.

When used effectively, action sequences enhance the overall narrative and leave a lasting impact on the reader.


In the midst of a thrilling action sequence, quick, punchy sentences and short paragraphs propel the reader forward. Use vivid, sensory details to immerse them in the chaos.

In Lee Child's Jack Reacher series, the action sequences are known for their rapid pacing. The below extract is taken from One Shot.

The big guy charged and Reacher turned slightly sideways and bent his knees a little and timed it just right and drove all his weight up and forward off his back foot and through his shoulder straight into the big guys' face. [...] Reacher stepped in and kicked him in the groin, but left-footed. Righ-footed, he would have popped bits of the guy's pelvis out through his nose. Your big soft heart, an old army instructor had said. One day it'll get you killed. But not today, Reacher thought. Not here. The big guy went down. He fell on his knees and pitched forward on his face. Then it got real easy. The next two guys came in together shoulder to shoulder and Reacher dropped the first with a head butt and the second with an elbow to the jaw. They both went straight down and lay still. Then it was over, because the last two guys ran.

Short, impactful sentences and quick paragraph breaks create a sense of urgency during fight scenes or chases, keeping readers engrossed. For example, the climax of One Shot, involving a sniper duel, is a prime example of rapid pacing.


Intimate Character Moments

You can use slow-paced intimate character moments to inject tension into your novel by focusing on several key strategies. First, delve deep into character development, allowing readers to understand the desires, fears, and flaws of the characters; this ensures readers care about what happens to them.

You can also employ foreshadowing, dropping subtle hints of impending danger or conflict, keeping readers curious and engaged, or leverage internal conflicts within characters, highlighting moral dilemmas or unresolved emotions that foreshadow external conflicts. You can play with relationship dynamics, making readers invested in the evolution of connections, be it romantic, friendly, or familial, and leaving them eager to see if these bonds endure or fracture.

Delaying gratification is another effective technique; the longer you draw out the resolution of intimate moments, the greater the emotional payoff when they finally occur.


For introspective moments or character development, a slower pace with longer sentences and paragraphs lets readers dwell in the character's thoughts and feelings. Dive deep into their inner world, revealing their fears, hopes, and vulnerabilities.

In Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, the author uses slower pacing to delve deep into the protagonist's emotions and inner turmoil. This allows readers to connect with the character's complex feelings of guilt and redemption. The pacing slows down during pivotal introspective moments.

Looking at Soraya's smiling face in that mirror, in the momentary privacy of the veil, I whispered to her for the first time that I loved her. A blush, red like henna, bloomed on her cheeks. I picture colourful platters of chopan kabob, sholeh-goshti, and wild-orange rice. I see Baba between us on the sofa, smiling. I remember sweat-drenched men dancing the traditional attan in a circle, bouncing, spinning faster and faster with the feverish tempo of the tabla, until all but a few dropped out of the run with exhaustion. I remember wishing Rahim Khan were there. And I remember wondering if Hassan too had married. And if so, whose face he had seen in the mirror under the veil? Whose henna-painted hands had he held?
 

The Art of the Cliffhanger

Cliffhangers are the punctuation marks of suspense, strategically placed at the end of chapters or scenes to keep readers hooked. They dangle the promise of resolution just out of reach, urging readers to turn the page for answers. But what should you consider when including cliffhangers in your novel?


Anticipation

Before a cliffhanger, build anticipation by escalating the tension. Raise questions or introduce a looming threat, leaving readers hungry for resolution.

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire employs cliffhangers effectively. At the end of some chapters, she leaves readers with questions and impending danger, such as when Harry and Cedric are transported to a graveyard after touching the Triwizard Cup. The unresolved situation leaves readers eager to turn the page.

From far away, above his head, he heard a high, cold voice say, "Kill the spare."


A swishing noise and a second voice, which screeched the words into the night: "Avada Kedavra!" A blast of green light blazed through Harry's eyelids, and he heard something heavy fall to the ground beside him; the pain to his scar reached such a pitch that he retched, and then it diminished; terrified of what he was about to see, he opened his stinging eyes. Cedric was lying spread-eagled on the ground beside him. He was dead.

How might you inject anticipation into your cliffhangers?

  1. Build Emotional Investment: Before the cliffhanger, ensure that readers are emotionally invested in the characters and the outcome of the situation. When readers care deeply about what happens to the characters, they will naturally feel more anticipation when faced with a cliffhanger.

  2. Raise Stakes: Before the cliffhanger, raise the stakes of the situation. Make sure that what's at risk is significant and has a direct impact on the characters' goals, relationships, or well-being. The higher the stakes, the more anticipation it will generate.

  3. Create Unresolved Questions: Cliffhangers work best when they leave important questions unanswered. These questions could be related to the plot, the characters' fates, or the outcome of a critical decision. By leaving readers with a sense of uncertainty, you ensure they are eager to find out what happens next.

  4. Reveal a Twist or Revelation: A well-timed twist or revelation can be a potent cliffhanger. It should be something unexpected that challenges the reader's assumptions or changes the direction of the story. This leaves the reader eager to understand the implications.

  5. Foreshadow the Cliffhanger: Plant hints or foreshadowing leading up to the cliffhanger. Subtle clues or events that hint at a dramatic turn of events can heighten anticipation as readers sense something significant is about to happen.

  6. Vivid Imagery and Language: Use vivid and evocative language to describe the situation or the moment of the cliffhanger. Engage the reader's senses and emotions, drawing them deeper into the scene.


Varying the Cliffhanger Type

Experiment with different types of cliffhangers—dramatic revelations, impending danger, or unanswered questions. Varying the type keeps readers guessing and engaged.

George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones series is renowned for its diverse cliffhangers. Some chapters end with shocking character deaths, while others conclude with political intrigue or mysterious discoveries. This variety keeps readers engaged and unsure of what to expect next.


Here's a list of various types of cliffhangers that you might employ:

  1. Action Cliffhanger: These cliffhangers occur during intense action sequences or moments of physical peril. For example, a character might be hanging from a cliff's edge, and the chapter ends without revealing whether they will survive.

  2. Revelation Cliffhanger: A revelation cliffhanger involves the sudden disclosure of a critical piece of information. It could be a shocking secret, a hidden agenda, or a surprising connection between characters. Readers are left wondering about the implications of this revelation.

  3. Emotional Cliffhanger: Emotional cliffhangers focus on the characters' feelings or relationships. For instance, a character might confess their love to another, and the chapter ends without the recipient's response, creating emotional tension.

  4. Mystery Cliffhanger: These cliffhangers often revolve around unsolved mysteries or unanswered questions. For example, a detective might discover a crucial clue, but the chapter ends before they can decipher its meaning, leaving readers eager for the resolution.

  5. Decision Cliffhanger: A decision cliffhanger occurs when a character faces a critical choice or dilemma. The chapter ends before the character makes their decision, leaving readers to ponder the consequences of their choice.

  6. Parallel Story Cliffhanger: In some novels with multiple storylines or perspectives, a parallel story cliffhanger occurs when one narrative strand reaches a critical point, leaving readers eager to switch back to another storyline to see how it intersects.

 

Timing is Everything

The timing of revelations is a delicate art. Revealing too much too soon can dissipate tension, while withholding information for too long may frustrate readers. Make sure you strike the right balance by considering...


Backstory and Flashbacks

Use flashbacks, dreams, or backstory strategically to provide context or depth to the narrative. These can serve as breathers between high-tension scenes while still advancing the story.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway's reflective narration serves as a tool for pacing. Nick's retrospective storytelling, with insights into the past, provides context and depth to the narrative. These reflective moments act as breathers between the dramatic events of the story.

I walked out the back way—just as Gatsby had when he had made his nervous circuit of the house had an hour before—and ran for a huge black knotted tree, whose massed leaves made a fabric against the rain. Once more it was pouring, and my irregular lawn, well shaved by Gatsby's gardener, abounded in small muddy swamps and prehistoric marshes. There was nothing to look at from under the tree except for Gatsby's enormous house, so I stared at it, like Kant at his church steeple, for half an hour. A brewer had built it early in the 'period' craze a decade before, and there was a story that he'd agreed to pay five years' taxes on all the neighbouring cottages if the owners would have their roofs thatched with straw. Perhaps their refusal took the heart out of his plan to Found a Family—he went into an immediate decline. His children sold his house with the black wreath still on the door. Americans, while willing, even eager, to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.

Strategic Information Release

Gradually release information that advances the plot or character development. Reveal enough to pique curiosity but retain some mystery for later.

In Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the author gradually releases information about the historical and religious mysteries at the heart of the plot. Brown provides morsels of information at key points, advancing the mystery without revealing too much too soon, keeping readers engaged.


Before you reveal a piece of information in your novel, ask yourself these questions to make sure you don't undermine any suspense you're trying to build:

  1. Is this information essential at this moment?

  2. What impact will the revelation have on the characters and the plot?

  3. Does the timing align with the story's pacing and structure?

  4. Have I foreshadowed or hinted at this information?

  5. What are the consequences of delaying this information?

  6. Will revealing this information generate new questions or mysteries?

  7. Does this information serve a thematic or character-driven purpose?

  8. Can I reveal it partially or ambiguously?

  9. Are there opportunities for dramatic tension around the revelation?

  10. What do I want readers to feel and anticipate after the revelation?

 

The Rollercoaster Effect

Effective pacing in a narrative is like a rollercoaster ride. It includes climbs of rising tension, sharp drops of revelation or conflict, and moments of respite. This rollercoaster effect keeps readers engaged while preventing emotional exhaustion. So, how might you achieve the same?


Balancing Act

Balance high-tension moments with quieter, reflective scenes. These respites allow readers to catch their breath, process information, and build emotional connections with characters.

Stephen King's It is a masterclass in the rollercoaster effect. King balances the intense horror and suspense of the supernatural threat with quieter, character-driven moments that allow readers to connect with the protagonists. These character-building respites prevent emotional exhaustion and enhance the overall tension.


Character-Driven Pacing

Let your characters dictate the pacing to some extent. Their actions, choices, and reactions should drive the narrative's rhythm. A character's decision to confront a villain or uncover a secret can change the pacing dramatically.

In Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, the pacing is driven by Katniss Everdeen's actions and choices. During the intense arena scenes, the pacing accelerates as Katniss confronts various challenges. In contrast, when she reflects on her feelings and relationships, the pacing slows, offering insight into her character.

 

In conclusion, mastering pacing is the writer's secret weapon for controlling and manipulating tension. It's about orchestrating the reader's emotional journey, from heart-pounding excitement to introspective reflection. By carefully adjusting the speed of unfolding events, employing cliffhangers, timing revelations, and embracing the rollercoaster effect, you can craft a narrative that keeps readers on the edge of their seats, eagerly turning pages, and savouring every moment of suspense. Embrace the rhythm of tension, and your storytelling will resonate long after the final word.

 

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