Module 3: Writing

Writing Your First Draft, Part Three: Pace the Narrative

Join Jim Menick, an editor at Reader's Digest, as he eases you into part three of "Writing Your First Draft," which is a lesson on plot development. You'll learn writing techniques that will help you create a compelling story, including narrative pacing, and you'll hear about the endless plot possibilities available to you as a writer.

Video Transcript

Hi, I'm Jim Menick, an editor at Reader's Digest, and we are now up to part three of our webinar on writing a first draft. This time, we're going to talk about plot development and to talk about the narrative. There are a lot of important elements to any book – characters, certainly – but, if you don't have a story, you don't have anything. Story pulls you along. As a reader, I choose books for our Select Edition series and the one thing I'm looking for is a good story. And what makes a good story is me asking, as a reader, what's going to happen next? What's going to happen next? That's the kind of thing you want your readers to ask, and that's what we're going to talk about in the next webinar.

A plot is a sequence of events – a journey from here to there. It is characterized by rising motion set in action by conflict. Many common conflicts drive plots. All plots must have an internal and external conflict. These conflicts should be wrestled with and resolved by a main character. If your character isn't suffering, then you don't have a plot. Instead you have a string of incidents.

There's an endless array of plot possibilities. There's man versus nature, man versus man or woman, man versus the environment, man versus machines or technology, the supernatural, man versus himself, man versus God or religion. Most stories have elements of more than one of these basic plot themes. Each plot can be divided and subdivided. It's up to you as the author to formulate which one works for you.

As you formulate your plot, remember one word: compelling. A plot begins just before everything changes. When everything changes, the main character is forced into a decision. This decision launches the main character on a journey. The worst possible thing that could happen to your character is a good place to start. Effective novel plots have a point of no return at the center of the novel. This point commits the main character to change. After the midpoint, the action continues to rise and the character rises up to each challenge. During this time, it looks like the main character is figuring it all out, but now disaster and then another disaster hit, plunging the character to the emotional low point of the story. This low point is the darkest moment of the plot. Finally, the climax arrives. All the moments of the journey have led up to this one. The hero must come to the brink of losing everything and then resolve the conflict. Dragging out this portion of the novel annoys readers. Tie the loose ends and wrap it up.

Stories follow rhythms. Some are slow and sensual. Others are rip-roaring reads. This underlying rhythm and speed within the novel is called pacing. Chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences and word choices all affect pacing. Pacing differs from genre to genre. Thriller readers are looking for breakneck action while readers of literary fiction are content with a more reflective, leisurely pace. The pacing of a good book is not monotonous. You need lulls in action to create a high. If you stay at a place of high tension, and don't break this tension with some good breathing room, you will lose your readers. On the other hand, if you remain at a relaxed, low tension state for too long, you'll put your readers to sleep. Think about pacing like a roller coaster. You slowly climb up the hill, building tension, and then you reach the top and speed down.

There are different methods to use to slow down your story. Long words and sentences work. You can also use long scenes and chapters. That will slow the pace and then you can bring it back up. Some authors use long chapters throughout a book but add variety and pacing by breaking up long sections with bits of action or narrative to hold the reader's interest. Another special scene employed by writers is the flashback. In terms of pacing, flashbacks decrease the pace of a novel. Use it sparingly. If you must include a flashback, make sure that it doesn't last too long. There's no set rule, but flashbacks are often more effective after the central conflict of a story is set in motion. Long blocks of descriptive narrative stop the pace of a novel. You should visually inspect your writing for these long blocks. Inside the blocks, vary the sentence lengths. If you want your readers to reflect or notice details, stretch out the sentences in the paragraphs.

There are also techniques to speed up your story. Use action verbs and skip the adjectives, adverbs and prepositions to drive the story forward. Short scenes and chapters are easy for the reader to digest and breeze through, but don't just plop a chapter break in the middle of an existing chapter. Each chapter or scene should still include a complete action that advances the story. Additionally, quick-fire dialogue ups the pace of any scene. Insert dialogue to break up the monotony of long narrative stretches. Live, real-time action shows the reader what's happening at that moment in your story. Different from the narrative passage, action scenes lack detailed descriptions or distractions and move the story forward quickly. Ending a chapter with a character the action left hanging drives the reader to turn the page to find out what happens. Use this technique sparingly. Overuse will annoy the reader. You should use these methods to ensure that you have balanced, genre-appropriate pacing that will keep readers turning pages from start to finish.

That concludes part three. In part four, we're going to talk about writing realistic dialogue and how to do research on your story. For information about publishing your book, go to, where you can get some information and a free consultation.