When I taught Language Arts, I used to tell my students their stories needed a beginning, middle, and end. We would study plot arcs and the basic structure of a story with conflict, complications, climax, and resolution.
Now, I knew these were fundamental truths for most books, but I didn’t really view these truths as applicable in my own writing. I’m not sure why. Perhaps, I thought these truths were elementary in nature, but the more in-depth I’ve studied the craft of writing, the more I’ve discovered these are the fundamentals of story.
When we’re pacing a novel, we don’t always think about the three-act structure.
Act 1: The Beginning– Well, duh, every story has to have one. What’s so special about it? The beginning of your novel is essentially your “gotcha moment”. The reader will pick up your story, glance over the first page, and make a decision. At that moment, it’s pivotal you’ve captured their attention. The beginning of a novel is the shortest of three segments. In a small amount of time, it must present likable characters with insurmountable problems. This is where you stage your story. Now, that doesn’t mean each character’s backgrounds or every detail from their past. What it means is you’ve set the conflict in such a way that it propels the reader to turn the page. Setting the conflict in writing is called “the inciting event”. It’s the moment where you expose the problem and tell the reader the basic point of the story. It needs brevity while carrying weight. This is a huge trick of the trade and one worth studying further.
Act 2: The Middle- Some writers struggle with this part of the story, because it can tend to lag. Good middles expose subplots to keep up the intrigue, while demonstrating growth and change within the central characters. This is where you make your reader invest. See, they’re spending time developing a relationship in a sense with the characters on the page. They should feel like their enduring the same struggles and the risk is growing with each scene. At points, the main character may even fail. Readers relate to flaws and hardships. This makes the middle attractive to the reader, and it draws them forward through the novel. The tension continues to grow. In this section of the novel, your conflict is embedded with complications. The impossible now seems impenetrable. The stakes have heightened. Your characters’ chances are next to none. That’s how we writers avoid a sagging middle. Now, it’s not easy to write in such a way, but it’s worth studying. If your book lags, a study in perfecting your middle might help the pace.
Act 3: The End- The end is where the gnawing tension screeches to its destination. Here, we find the climax of the story. This is where the conflict and the complications reach a satisfying turning point. We used to illustrate this in my class on a mountain diagram. The climax sat at the peak. It’s that moment you’ve craved to reach in the story. It’s the final showdown between a life of misery and the improbable. Once it’s over, the reader feels a bit of satisfaction, but since they’ve invested in your characters, they often still want a “happily-ever-after” resolution. This is that sigh-worthy moment. It’s where the characters come through the struggle and now we see the change in them on the other side. This, for me, may be the hardest part of writing a novel. In a realistic way, you need to wrap up any loose ends. Tie the story into a neat bow. Let your reader set aside the book with reluctant satisfaction.
Sometimes, pacing a novel delves into scene length. At other times, it’s a problem of utilizing the tools we carry, and of course, there are moments pacing is affected by our sense of story structure. When we study the writing craft, we begin to notice each piece plays a role in the pace of our story. We can impact how our story reads by increasing our knowledge. Read blogs by agents, attend conferences, pick up a book from the shelf and study the craft of writing. You won’t regret pursuing this art with fervor.