Being a Better Writer: Tension and Slow Pacing

Hello readers! Welcome back!

So updates! I did manage to hit my quota last Friday despite being a little sick. And while I wouldn’t put it past that segment to need a little editing, overall it was a pretty kick-butt segment of [REDACTED] battling [REDACTED].

Am I one-hundred percent yet? Well … no. This sickness wasn’t much though. Just a sore throat and headache, both of which have mostly faded into a phenomenally active nose (thank you for boxed tissues, world) as my system kicks everything out. And I am still kind of tired … But I blame that on being overly rested from the weekend and not being able to fall asleep last night until around 5 AM (either way, please excuse any typos that made it through on this post, I’m working despite a funk).

Regardless of feeling a little ill-rested, this bout of whatever I caught is mostly over. Huzzah!

To further that plus side of things, this weekend saw some good sales. If they stay constant, I just might be on that good side of the knife-edge after all!

Now, some other quick news updates before I get to this week’s Being a Better Writer post. As of right now, next week’s Being a Better Writer is planned to be a Live Q&A over on the Unusual Things Discord (The Makalay Camp). That’s right, I’ll be donning the headset (sans camera this time) and answering questions about writing live from the audience.

As to what time this event will be on Monday, January 28th, leave comments below if you’re hoping for a specific time and I’ll see what I can do. Last time holding it at 6-7 PM Mountain Time worked pretty well, but I know for some people who follow the sight that’s something like 2 AM. Does having it at 12 noon Mountain Time work better?

Also related is that today is the last topic on Topic List #17. Which means there will be a topic call as soon as the Live Q&A is over! So start thinking both about questions you want to ask live, and writing topics you want to see a whole BaBW post devoted to!

As a side note before we get started, it’s staggering to me that I’ve made it through #17 of these lists since I started keeping track of the number, and that Being a Better Writer has been going now for over six years. In fact, it’s closer to something like eight. Being a Better Writer existed before Unusual Things, which is six years old. Every Monday, save holidays, for almost eight years.

Sands and storms, that’s a lot of content.

Anyway, just thinking on it and a little stunned. How about we talk writing and clean the last topic off of Topic List #17 so #18 can start coming together? Hit the jump!

So, slow pacing and tension. Some of you might be wondering what the actual “question” is here today, so I’ll expand on that a little. Today’s topic actually comes from a reader, who asked about how they could write a slower paced scene while keeping it tense and—here’s the most important part—without boring their readers.

Well, there’s one really good answer here that comes to mind: Stakes. If you have stakes, then the tension is kept tight, like a piano wire, and there’s no room for the reader to relax.

Even if the scene is slow. Which … can create a bit of an issue, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s talk about a slow scene with lots of tension. Yes, it can be done, and yes, it’s been done quite a bit. The opening of Inglorious Bastards, for example, which I won’t even link here because it’s ten minutes long, is one long stretched out piano-wire of a scene. It’s slow, at least in the terms of people talking or things happening, with lots of deliberate movements, but the audience isn’t going to relax. Why? Well, for those of you that haven’t seen it, the movie opens with a farming family hiding Jews from Nazi’s secreting them as a Nazi “hunter” with a dangerous reputation for sniffing out those that have hid and a mind for cruelty arrives. The next five or so minutes are spent with this hunter slowly walking about, talking with the father and drinking a glass of milk while the audience waits to see if the hunter knows, or will find, the hidden family.

It’s not a fast scene. The conversation is tempered and deliberate, there’s no immediate sense of action. Camera pans are methodical as the character’s movements. But yet … you’re tense watching it, because there’s a lot at stake.

Let’s look at another slow-paced scene, in one of the standouts from No Country for Old Men. This scene is well-done enough that even if you don’t know who these characters are or what’s going on, just enough is off that you can feel the tension of the scene tightening as the seconds pass. Here, take a look:

This is an incredibly well-done scene. Again, even if you know nothing about the movie, the context, or even who these characters are, it still works because in that cause the audience’s tension rises with one of the two characters in the shot as his tension rises.

But it’s not fast. It’s shot from very few angles. The camera is still. There’s little (if any) sound other than the dialogue and both characters are quite languid in how they speak.

And yet you can feel the tension. The first time I ever saw this scene I was riveted. My phone was in my hands, but you couldn’t have pulled my eyes away. Had someone called, I’d have rejected the call. I was in that scene, slow as it was.

And when it was done? Like many, I let out a sigh of relief. The tension lessens slightly, and the story moves on.

But now we come to that bit I said I’d be turning back to. There’s a catch with these scenes, one that either sidesteps the question asked that led to this prompt, or avoids it entirely. See, while these scenes are “slow paced” they don’t really count as “slow pacing” for the purposes of the overall story. In both cases, the scenes immediately after these scenes are “breather” scenes, slow spots of the story with moments where the audience can relax after coming off of a high-tension moment.

Basically, this means both (and this question) dive headlong into the problem of using the same word for two different things. See, there’s “story pacing,” which is the pace given to the audience, and then there’s “scene pacing” which is how quick things may happen in a specific scene. And what I’ve talked about above are scenes where things are “slow,” ie the characters aren’t moving with great action or dropping rapid-fire quips to keep the audience invested, but despite that, few would call them “relaxing” as both are scenes where the audience is stretched out like a tight wire.

In other words, while the scenes themselves are slow paced, almost plodding, one would be hard-pressed to argue that they were “breathers” for the audience. In fact, they’re the opposite, eliciting as much tension from the viewers as a chorus of explosions in an action-packed set-piece. Just through a different manner.

Point being, we talk about “pacing” as a narrative structure in writing to keep the audience both invested but also to give them moments to “relax.” We give the audience moments of escalating tension and rising action to excite them, but we also have moments of “rest” so that the audience doesn’t get worn out. “Breather moments,” short and long, so that an audience can re-evaluate, relax for a moment, and then be ready for the next high-stakes moment.

And these scenes I’ve been talking about? They’re not that. They’re “slow” but only in scene. As far as pacing as a narrative structure goes, they’re both working to ratchet the audience up, not let them breathe.

So where does that leave us? Well, with two answers to that question that was asked, and more to discuss with the topic as a whole.

Okay, so let’s start with one of them, then discuss the other. First, let’s talk about a “slow paced scene” and keeping it tense. Note first that when it comes to narrative pacing, this scene is not “slow.” It may be slow in execution, tight and methodical in every spoken word. But to a reader, it isn’t a moment that will let them relax.

So how do you write a scene like this? How do you keep that tension tight, even while there isn’t much going on? You have stakes. Something has to be at risk, either of being discovered, destroyed, taken, killed, failing, whatever. But there has to be a risk of stakes.

Here I’m actually going to defer to an example from games for a bit, because games are a medium where in tense, slow-paced sequences, players need to be taught in some way the consequences of failure to show what the stakes are. So, for example, in the first Gears of War game, the first time the player encounters a berserker (a massive beast that hunts through sound, being blind), they’re treated to a red-shirt member of their team loosing their cool and running in a panic through the halls of the massive building the player is in. At which point this thing hears them, bursts through the wall, and rips them to shreds, very bluntly explaining to the player what will happen if they are caught.

What I’m getting at is that your audience needs to know what the stakes are in order for there to be tension. Is someone hunting your protagonist? Are they locked in a slow-moving game of hide-and-seek with some sort of hunter? Then the reader needs to have an idea of what will happen if they get caught. Even a vague one.

Sands, even not knowing at first but then growing to realize what can happen is a tool for fantastic tension, as in the scene from No Country for Old Men shown above.

But that’s getting aside from the point. If there’s writers out there wondering if a scene that is otherwise “slow” in action and events can still be tensa as anything, the answer is yes. It just needs stakes that the audience understands.

That isn’t to say it isn’t difficult to craft a scene like this. It is, and some writers really struggle with it. It takes practice to write a scene or a chapter that’s little more than 6,000 or 7,000 words worth of dialogue and yet have the reader feeling like someone is drawing a razor over their skin the whole time.

But it can be done. The audience knows what’s at risk, or suspects, and they watch each passing word, wondering when things might “snap.”

Now, before we tackle the other possible question, I want to talk for just a brief moment about this “snap.” Does it need to happen? Well, that’s up to the writer. You can have a chapter where things build, and build, and build … and then right at the end that wire breaks! The protagonist is found, something explodes, whatever. The consequence comes, and then the fallout from that is up to them (from a following chapter of explosions and death to the tense chapter ending with a sudden “snap” as the wire breaks, the follow-up left to the audience’s imagination).

But it doesn’t have to snap. Like the scene from No Country for Old Men, we can also release the tension on that wire and let the audience take a nice breath of relaxation. Some stories do this. Some then pull a “Gotcha!” on the audience and snap the wire tight in a sudden shock too.

It’s up to the creator and what they want the story to do. What their overall, narrative pacing needs to be for the audience.

Now, what about the other possible question here. What if we’re talking about a scene that isn’t supposed to be a high-stakes, tense moment, but is supposed to be slow narrative pacing for the audience. Can it still be tense? Can it still be something that doesn’t bore our audience if it’s slow both in narrative pacing and in scene pacing?

Well of course it can! Whether or not you’d need such a thing depends on the story, but you can write a slow scene that has some tension without having the readers be stuck in a point of “fast” narrative pacing. Now, can doing it without being boring?

Well, that does take a little more work, but it’s still very possible. In fact, I can find examples of this in my own work. Take any of the chapters in Colony, Jungle, or even Shadow of an Empire where the characters are relaxed around a table or a campfire discussing their next move and breaking down what they’ve figured out so far compared to what’s still bothering them or what their next move will be, and you have a “breather” where the characters aren’t doing that much, and are taking a breather for both themselves and the audience.

Now, I would point out that these chapters don’t ignore the tensions in the story, and as things move toward a climax, they become less “relaxed” as far as narrative structure goes. But even early on, these chapters don’t ignore the tension. They have the characters acknowledge stakes and what they’re working toward. But they also acknowledge that these stakes and tension aren’t going to change in this exact moment, and therefore the characters can breathe for a bit.

So the stakes aren’t gone. They’re still there. There’s still the threat, or the mystery, or whatever is going on. The characters and the audience both are just … taking a moment.

But is this boring? Well, you can still have lower-key things happen. You can have characters work at solving a mystery, or catch one another up. Romantic entanglements can form. Whatever let’s things relax for a bit.

However, there’s another detail to this kind of moment in a story that keep it from being “boring” and that’s that it isn’t sustained. It’s a breather, between moments of tension. For example, a good moment like this is in the final Harry Potter book when the protagonists (spoiler alert) escape the Malfoy mansion. There’s a breather chapter where they bury Dobby and figure out what to do next. Slow pacing in story, and slow narrative pacing, but the stakes are all still there. But the characters and audience breathe after a big tense moment.

Later in the book there’s a similar scene with the escape from Gringotts Bank. Prior chapter: Lots of action and peril. High pacing, in narrative and scene. Tension high.

The chapter after that? Breather. Tension drops … but the wire is still there, ready to go tight. The characters rest, recoup, and then decide what to do next. It’s slow in every aspect, but the reader isn’t bored. Not if something like this is done well.

Why? The tension wire is still there, for one. But also because the audience needs that break as well.

One of the better pizzas I’ve ever had in my life was a barbecue chicken pizza with everything from a place in Hawaii. Why was it one of the better pizzas? Well, I’ve had better pizza at other places (Stafford House of Pizza in Stafford Connecticut is incredible), but this place did something interesting. They stuck parsley on it.

Parsley, if you’re not familiar, is a palate cleanser in its raw form. It wipes flavor from your mouth. So every few bites, just as you were getting used to the sharp flavors of the pizza, the parsley would wipe your mouth clean, and then next bite would be sharp and new again!

Breather chapters, slow in both action and narrative pace, are like this. They let the reader rest for a moment before coming back and having another “bite.”

So yes, can you have a slower paced chapter, both in scene and narrative, without boring a reader? Of course! And that’s necessary sometimes!

Naturally, this does lead to the question of how. With both answers, really. How can you make sure the audience isn’t bored, is entertained, following along, etc?

Practice. Followed by audience feedback.

I’m sorry, I know that’s not the best answer. But it’s what each writer will have to work with. Work at it, do the best, and then let the Alpha Readers react to it.

Just don’t forget the key elements of what’s going on. Don’t forget that “wire” of tension. The stakes, whatever they are.

Aside from that, there’s not much more I can say save the usual. So …

Good luck. Now get writing.

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