Pacing is the aspect of your book about how quickly or slowly the story moves. It sets the length of the book and the speed at which it’s read. It also lets you “zoom in” by slowing down the most important moments (like declarations of love or thrilling car chases) and speeding through less vital scenes (like a two-day road trip or waiting in line at a store).
Good pacing is vital to the success of your story. There are many ways to pace your book well, but if you want a shortcut you might try pacing it like blockbuster movies. Script reading professionals can tell you when major events will happen, because most major movies run on the same skeleton of pacing and events. Although this may feel uncreative or like cheating, it works for a reason.
Humans have told stories for thousands of years. Over those millennia we have developed an innate sense of how a story should be paced. Hollywood blockbusters have mastered matching that pace, and we suggest you at least give doing the same a try.
The Story Skeleton
Hollywood divides any movie, ranging from a suspenseful thriller to a cozy romcom, into four major sections. Once you’ve read this, you’ll be able to see it happening on the screen pretty much every time you watch from now on.
Different experts call those sections different things, but I like the approach used by Larry Brooks, who defines them according to how the protagonist acts during each:
- Section One: Setup, in which you establish status quo for the protagonist and setting.
- Section Two: Response, in which the protagonist is mostly acted upon by the conflict of the story.
- Section Three: Attack, in which the protagonist takes initiative and acts on the conflict under their own steam.
- Section Four: Resolution, containing the buildup to the climax, the climax itself, and the story’s conclusion or denoument.
For the rest of this article, we will look at each section in turn. We’ll define it, give some examples, identify its ideal length, and note some important pieces within each.
The setup will occupy the first 20 percent of your manuscript. Any more than that, and you may risk losing readers before you get to the real action. Any less, and readers can become disoriented from lack of context.
- Setup begins with a hook, which should appear in the first page or two. This is an attention-grabbing piece of action, dialogue, or description that demands the reader continue.
- Some place between the hook and the 10% mark is an inciting incident: an event in the protagonist’s life that begins to upset the status quo. It’s the beginning of the adventure, the first sign that a story is about to begin.
- At the 20% mark, the setup ends as the Response section begins by introducing the first plot point. Where the inciting incident got the protagonist’s (and the reader’s) attention, the first plot point is when they commit. It’s the point of no return, after which nothing will be the same whether they fail or emerge victorious.
Let’s look at the components of the setup as built into three different genres:
- Romantic Comedy: The charming protagonist is in a humorous verbal argument with her cat.
- Horror An unnamed traveler dies horribly at the location our protagonist will soon visit.
- Thriller A bank robbery embroils the protagonist, who saves the day.
- Romantic Comedy: A chance encounter with the love interest, when they meet at a pet hotel while on their way to the airport.
- Horror The protagonist moves in to a new home, with property that borders the haunted location.
- Thriller Two days later, criminals try to kill the protagonist while she’s on her way to work. She survives and drives the attackers away.
First Plot Point:
- Romantic Comedy: By coincidence, both meet again on the cruise ship where each went to have some “me time.” They find they’re assigned the same table at dinner.
- Horror Weird sounds and terrifying dreams beset the protagonist in their new home. They consider leaving, but find they can’t afford to sell.
- Thriller A friend with underworld connections tells the protagonist her attackers are part of a cartel making inroads to their city. She has to choose to leave town forever, or take the fight to them.
The response should take up between 25 and 35 percent of the book. This is where the protagonist mostly reacts, getting oriented in the conflict and the story. A lot of sagging middles happen here because the protagonist has less agency and direction, so when you’re ready to move on…move on.
- Response begins with that second plot point, followed by the protagonist’s first reaction to what they discovered.
- At the 32% point, you need your first pinch point. This is a major place where the protagonist’s hopes and dreams can fail. It adds tension and risk, either by introducing a new and dangerous element, or by upping the stakes in a meaningful way.
- Response ends with the midpoint, at the 50% to 55% point. At the midpoint, something happens to turn the tables. The protagonist learns something, sees something, or acquires some power or asset that lets them become more proactive.
Let’s continue our genre stories for those two parts.
First Pinch Point
- Romantic Comedy: The love interest’s ex shows up at the same resort, and they start spending time together.
- Horror: The hauntings escalate, to the point that the protagonist barely escapes a supernatural attack with their life.
- Thriller: Another assassination attempt turns into a multi-scene foot chase through buildings, parking lots, and a museum.
- Romantic Comedy: After seeing an argument between the love interest and his ex, the protagonist decides to make a real attempt at winning his heart.
- Horror: Using clues from the attack, and with the help of a friendly local librarian, the protagonist learns the secret of the haunting and decides to make it stop.
- Thriller: The attempt ends with the protagonist capturing a cell phone, loaded with information she can use to attack the cartel.
You might have heard about “try-fail cycles” as part of the Response. These are what they sound like. The protagonist tries something, and it doesn’t work out. Then he tries again. And again. With each cycle, they close in on a final victory by eliminating false leads, gathering resources, finding clues, or similar small victories even in defeat.
If you use try-fail cycles, you still want to include that pinch point and midpoint within the rhythm. Give those cycles special significance or power to keep your story on pace.
The attack should also take up about 25-35 percent of your book, bringing the total to 80% as it closes. After the midpoint, the protagonist goes on the offensive. They might not have all the resources they need to win yet, but they have enough to start taking control. Stakes rise right alongside their power and agency, creating a second half filled with conflict appropriate for the kind of story you’re telling.
- Attack begins with that second plot point, turning the tables and the tide of the tale.
- At the 62% point, you need your second pinch point, a scene or sequence of scenes where the conflict hits back hard, and it looks like your protagonists may not save the day after all.
- From the second pitch point to the 80% point you have your all hope is lost lull. Sometimes this lull is one of pacing, sometimes it’s one of tension or action. This is where things get as bad as they possibly can for your protagonist, so his heroism in the conclusion seems all the more heroic.
Continuing our stories:
Second Pinch Point
- Romantic Comedy: When the protagonist tries to give her love interest advice about his ex, he takes it the wrong way and storms out.
- Horror: Entering the haunted woods, our protagonist confronts the evil spirit lurking there…only to discover he made a mistake in his research!
- Thriller: After tracking the cartel to its local lair, the protagonist is invited to a “peace talk”. Upon her arrival, she is taken prisoner and locked in a storage unit.
All Hope Is Lost Lull
- Romantic Comedy: During the day before an extremely romantic outing, the love interest is clearly avoiding the protagonist. All is lost if she can’t come up with a way to apologize and mend the connection.
- Horror: Wounded, confused, and alone, the protagonist watches as the evil spirit begins a demonic rite…one which requires his presence for a sacrifice.
- Thriller: As she struggles to escape, cartel thugs bring in additional women and leave them there. It becomes evident the protagonist is to be trafficked along with them.
You can use try-fail cycles here as well, but be warned. Everything else is escalating during the Attack phase, so the tension, stakes, drama, and tone should escalate as well. You don’t want just another set of tries and failures, or your readers won’t stick with you to the big finish.
This is your climax and epilogue, where the action builds to an inevitable and emotionally satisfying conclusion. It occupies the final 20% of your novel, and contains several key components.
- It starts with the second plot point, landing at 84% of the way through, where the final piece of the puzzle slides into place. At this juncture, the protagonist has all they need to achieve victory. The only remaining question is if they will.
- From that second plot point you build to the climax, which begins anywhere between the 85% and 90% mark. Sooner is better, but if your story requires a little action (or a little breather) between the second plot point and the climax, that’s okay.
- After the climax, you should spend 2% to 4% of your book’s total length on the finale. This might be immediate after-climax details, an epilogue set a few weeks or months later, or one of those bits where you spend a paragraph each on the final results for each major character in the story.
Let’s put those in place and see how our three stories finish up:
Second Plot Point
- Romantic Comedy: The protagonist learns a secret that is sure to help mend the rift, and begins a lavish plot with resort staff and a spunky new friend to make it happen.
- Horror: Lying abandoned as the evil spirit begins its preparations, the protagonist puts together clues from the bodies and artifacts surrounding them. They have a eureka moment, and now what they must do.
- Thriller: Desperate, the protagonist searches each new woman for some way to escape. Though none have anything individually, she is able to work a solution by combining an item from each.
- Romantic Comedy: As the ex and love interest begin a super-romantic evening, the protagonist springs her plan into action. Ultimately the love interest realizes his mistake and enjoys a quirky moment of true love with the protagonist instead.
- Horror: As the sacrifice begins, the protagonist leans into the rite (the less details here in this family blog the better), and seizes control of the magic. They use the spell to banish the spirit forever, losing a hand in the process.
- Thriller: When the next woman is brought to the storage space, the protagonist springs her trap. The women overwhelm the guards and rush out into the cartel’s base, spreading chaos. In the confusion, the protagonist finds the cartel boss and kills him messily.
- Romantic Comedy: Flash forward to their one-year anniversary, which they celebrate by going on a cruise…only to see the protagonist’s ex step on board, gorgeous and clearly single.
- Horror: The protagonist limps back to civilization, falling into the arms of paramedics who had been part of a search and rescue operation. They are taken to the hospital, their mind whirling from horror and the exhilaration of survival.
- Thriller: Back at work, the protagonist stifles a laugh when an attorney from a rival firm tries to intimidate her. She is forever changed, forever stronger, even if the dreams are a bit much.
A Note to the Pantsers
Colloquially, writers are divided into two camps:
- Plotters, who plan their stories out with an outline or similar structure beforehand.
- Pantsters, who “fly by the seat of their pants” and write what comes to them.
If you’re a pantser, the idea of creating a story skeleton like we just described may seem like anathema, but we’ll make a suggestion. There’s plenty of room in the meat, tendons, brains, guts, and connective tissue of your story to let the tale tell itself. All this process does is simplify your writing process and make your editing round much easier.
Image by Vadim Tashbaev.