The Visual Writer’s Guide to Pacing & Tension

Pace Tension2I always thought being visual and a writer was a massive contradiction. I don’t mean having an imagination. Obviously a writer needs an imagination. I mean, in the way we process information.

See, when I think, or try to work out a problem, like how to prevent the terror tot shoving his finger up his nose in public, I think in pictures and voices. Yes, I hear a voice in my head, but not the kind of voice that whispers violent temptations, although sometimes it might be nice to blame my rage on it… Where was I? Some people think in words or numbers or actions. If you have synesthesia you might even think in colours, senses or feelings.

This has never been a problem for me. It just meant I created mood boards for my story worlds and characters on my pinterest or instagram, rather than filling out character templates and scene plans.

That was until I wanted to check the pacing and tension of my novel.

Once you’re knee-deep wading through the slush of your story, you know as well as I do, you can’t see the commas for the sentences. Let alone step back enough to see the shape of your newly trimmed bush manuscript.

So I set about some research and have figured out my own method, using a Sacha sandwich of pilfered ideas, to help visual writers figure out their uppers from their downers.

But before I launch headlong into visual trickery, I need to caveat what I’ve done.

Story structure takes many forms. All stories build the tension until they reach their big O crescendo ending.

Murder mysteries usually start with a bang, have a gradual build up followed by a spangly-jazz-pants reveal at the end. Fantasy stories, Young Adult in particular tend to have a few more ups and downs spread throughout their stories.

Like anything in fiction, there are as many story structure followers as dark horse structure breakers. But that’s what makes stories interesting.

However, for the purposes of allowing me to wear my scientists white jacket and entertaining my experiment for a while longer, lets accept that most stories need to follow a progressively increasing line of tension.

There are a couple of basic story structures that are easy to follow, Dan Wells gives a great lecture series on the Seven Point Plot Plan which you can see in this YouTube video. If you haven’t watched it, you should.

In the videos he explains the various key points in a story:

Hook

Plot Point 1 (conflict)

Pinch Point 1 (more conflict/pressure/shit goes wrong)

Midpoint

Pinch Point 2 (more conflict, shit gets real when we think the heroes going to lose/die/spontaneously combust)

Plot Point 2 (suddenly the hero has the thing/tool/power he needs to win, yay)

Resolution (big fight, hero wins, villains dragging his spanked tail between his legs)


K.M Weiland follows a similar structure but has a couple of additional points she adds in. Because I am particularly visual, I happen to like her diagrams, links to them all can be found here. She adds:

Set up which is between 1 and 12% of your story

Build up between 12 and 25%

Reaction between 25 and 37%

Realisation between 37 and 50%

Action between 50 and 62%

Renewed Action 62 – 75%

Recovery 75 -87%

Confrontation 87 – 98% (climax starts)

Climatic event 98%


THE DIAGRAM

That’s all great y’all. But when you’re a visual/diagram slut like me, a bunch of words and percentages ain’t doing shit to help me sift through the opaque sludge my book’s pacing, structure and tension have given me.

So… In a moment of indecision I decided to chuck ‘coin flipping’ in the fuck it bucket and smush them both together in a Weiland-Wells LoveOff, curtsey of the diagram below.

You may want to click on it to enlarged it.

  • The black line across the horizontal X axis has Mr. Wells’ points in black.
  • Above the line in the turquoise are Miss Weiland’s added extras. Because hers stretch over a period in the book, I’ve represented them as that too.
  • The horizontal dotted lines represent low, medium and high tension, low tension being the first line, high tension being the top line.
  • The zigzag line doing the conga across my page, is my guestimation of where the ‘average’ novel should be according to their structures.

This is a baseline. What an average novel’s tension and pacing would look like. But I want to know how my novel compares. Is my tension right? Is the pacing correct? Is it too much, too little? Long rest periods?IMG_6871

In order to unfrazzle my head I decided to overlay my book onto the chart. You could over lay by scenes or chapters or just by plotting the main events. But for me, I wanted to know where every chapter (in order) sat on this map.

I have 1-2 sentence summaries of each chapter which give me enough information to remember roughly what the chapter is about.

I made a judgement call, using the sentences (and a hazy caffeine fuelled memory) to plot each chapter on the chart. This is the result (note it’s only a section so it’s enlarged)

IMG_6872

*claps hands, gives self a gold medal* I can use a ruler. So what. What does this actually tell you? and how does it help figure out pacing and tension?

Word Counts  

I’ve probably written too much as chapter 25 (which is meant to be getting on for 40% through the story) is 31,000 words into my novel. In actuality, chapter 25 is probably only 25% of the way through my story. Meaning the book would come in at 120,000 if I carried on at the same pace. That or I’ve broken the rules and will speed up later. *cough*

I’m not going to do anything about this yet, at least not in this edit, but it does tell me to keep an eye on my word count.

Pace

It also tells me to watch my pace. I don’t want to race readers through the story during the first 31k only to bore them getting to the climax because I used all the action points early on. I think looking at the ups and downs there’s a fairly good rollercoaster, which if you put a line of best fit in, would gradually increase. So my pace, if I have my word count right, should be ok.

Tension Variation

I have three consecutive chapters (8,9 & 10) all at the same tension level. Maybe that’s ok, maybe it isn’t. Without reading the book start to finish I can’t tell the impact yet. The point is, I didn’t realise until I saw it visually. Now when I send my book to beta readers I can ask them to check whether the book slows too much during these three chapters.

Structure

When comparing the chapters and the events within them to the diagram, I can see (thankfully, *wipes brow*) I’ve actually included all the plot points I should have so far *huzzah – pats pantser back* What’s also helpful, I now know which chapters they are in too!

Are you a visual writer? How do you work out your plot and pacing? Do you even need it written down? Or do you go with your gut? What techniques do you use? Let me know in the comments.

For more reading on this topic (as well as the aforementioned authors) I also recommend Jane’s post on the plot planner,


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104 comments

  1. Sacha, this is a great post and how you gave examples and shared the tips of experienced and successful writers. But as you say, it is so difficult to stay in that pattern. It sounds more like dry maths than a vivid and inspired writing. I never thought of this when I wrote stories or my novel (which is still in the drawer). I just wrote. When I have time I have to check how well it fits these tips which really sound smart!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well it’s less about maths for me and more about finding a mechanism for me to check that my pacing is right, not too fast not too slow. I could have just read through the manuscript I suppose. But it wasn’t working for me. I wanted to ‘see’ what the pacing looked like. I guess that’s why I am a bit weird when it comes to being so visual! 😂😂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know you were, and I wish my brain would accept that and try to absorb something, but no matter what I do (or read) I cannot make it behave. I must be a lost cause or something…

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      1. I’m sure the idea is sound, Sacha, but I have this problem with so much of todays technology, my brain refuses to work the minute it sees a graph or chart. I wish it didn’t, believe me…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s what I love about your posts, Sacha…. you always come up with something different. If you’re a visual writer, then I can understand that could work really well. But looking at it made me realise that I am definitely not a visual writer, and that wouldn’t work for me at all. That graph gave you a ton of useful info, hooray! All it gave me was a headache lol! I work it out the boring old fashioned way, by reading and making notes where chapters are failing and need improvement. But everyone works differently, and I’m amazed and impressed how you can break down a book scientifically into a graph! It never even entered my head that it could be done lol! Always learning from you!!,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awww shucks. Thanks Ali <3. hahaha, lots of people feel the same! Too mathsy. But we can't all use the same methods hey 😀 This seems to be a bit marmite. I tried reading… didn't work 😦 maybe as time goes on and I learn more about pace I will be able to pick it out of my books by reading… sigh… so much to learn still. 😀

      hahaha, I am a secret scientist… shh. Don't tell any one 😛

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  3. This is such great information! Thanks for sharing all this. This is yet another thing that I need to figure out with my novel. Right now I just need to make sure the dates make sense, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. This makes less sense than my plots! The name you see on my posts is the name from my original account from an eternity ago. I since deleted this (at least I think I did) to change the username, but there user name does it appear when I post. I’m less technically minded than a blind, three legged rhino.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. LOL. I am sure your plots make perfect sense! you should try and contact the wordpress happiness engineers – they will be able to tell you whats going on. Are other people able to see your posts?

        Like

      3. Right. You have far more pressing things to worry about, so I shall invade your inbox this last time. I have just messed about with settings and when I clicked on my name, it now takes you to my new, beautifully empty site. Fingers and toes crossed…

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Fuck me, it actually worked! LoLLLLLLLLLL thank god that’s over. Now I can feast myself on your stories… tomorrow. It’s rather late now. Can’t wait to have a look 😀

        Like

  4. You know that I’m pretty mathsy at the best of times and this felt quite technical. But neat, very neat. I especially like how you identify the tension phases this way. That said, for me I’d find this over analytical for my sort of writing and I’d probably get a bit bored plotting it out. Still I can see how it would work for a novel where pace is critical. Well done, that’s a heck of a piece of work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup, lots of people said they thought it was mathsy. The irony is I HATE maths! I can’t add for shit! I just couldn’t figure out another way to visually depict pace, and reading the book just wasn’t cutting the mustard. I think you’re right though, I do analyse a lot… maybe too much… still, each to their own. 😀 ❤

      Liked by 1 person

    1. haha, no. My wife is though! maybe I picked up some traits from her. Although I was an instructor in the Army Cadets for a while. I do want to start running writing workshops though. So thats encouraging to hear 😀 ❤ ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What an interesting exercise, Sacha. I’m a gut writer. Charts and diagrams and structuring methods feel like a heavy wet blanket to me and I freeze up. But I like the way you diagrammed your book as a learning tool, and there’s value in that even for someone who doesn’t write that way. I might have to try it on a finished book 🙂 Happy Writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s funny, because I am more pantser than I ever realised. But after the first draft of my first script some of my more usual ‘planner-ish’ tendencies came out and now I want to do all kinds of structuring and checking and planning. I am still finding my way and I think I will end up sitting somewhere in the middle in the end.

      I completely understand the freezing up. Lots of people said it feels too much like maths for them. For me, it’s all about seeing a picture. I couldn’t get an overarching concept of my pace from reading so I had to physically ‘see’ it. This is why I love writers, so many methods, so many tricks to try 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahhh ha!!! It’s AWESOME it what it is. It’s an annual get together (not online but in person) in London for bloggers. We give out awards which are voted for by bloggers too. This year we have a masterclass from a special guest speaker. Then the rest of the day is devoted to socialising and catching up with other bloggers. It’s open to any blogger from any platform across the world (we have people come from all over)

      If you fancy joining us let me know I’ll point you in the direction of a couple of posts with more info and then you can email us if you still want to come

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  6. Ooh I love this post, Sacha! I’m a visual writer too and struggle with the whole % vs.% – I always start off with a Pinterest board where I build up character and scene/setting ideas, then it’s every woman for herself!! Love your graph and as I’ve just started plotting another novel I shall be using your guidelines. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. Watch this space 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay. Glad you like it. Think its off putting for most people because it looks like maths. But its not really. You could make it look like anything really as long as you depict your timeline and increasing tension somehow.

      Let me know how it goes and if you find it useful 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I understand how ‘form’ like your charts can be helpful in multitasking the plot and pinch points etc. I can see me try this IF I did an outline first. Sigh. I fly by the seat of my pants. Still this makes good sense. I like how you’ve laid this out. Even I understand this. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahh see I actually did this AFTER I’d written my story. So I am editing at the moment and just used it as a bit of a tool checker, I wasn’t getting enough of a sense from reading back through the chapters. But that’s a good idea, I hadn’t even thought of using it with an outline… hmm I might have to try this. 😀 Thanks

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I find pacing quite intuitive, knowing when to back off a bit and then when to ratchet up the drama is easier to execute when fully immersed in a story, as in writing plenty words daily for an extended period of time.
    Being aware of plot points etc is useful, but for me following a hard structure kills creativity and the pacing ends uo like every other book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lots of people agree about it being intuitive. This isnt something to follow. I used it to check if my pacing was right (after I’d written the story) so it’s less about following a formula and more about checking if I’ve taken too long to get the action in. But I take your point, I am a pantser, so I couldn’t deal with too much structure either. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is a great idea, Sacha – I like your visual method and how ordered it is. I especially love how your story is working along with the chart – it bodes well for the finished piece.
    With my own writing I do tend to go with my gut, to be honest, because I think that if I focused too much on creating a certain outcome, I’d lose the story thread. Instead I prefer to travel along it, surprising myself along the way with things that happen. Then, when I go back and read again I can see where I need to spice up the action/tension (or my editor tells me as well). And I think in pictures too – maybe it’s a Fish thing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ahh well I understand you there. I wouldn’t do this unless I was where I am (i.e. editing) I am not sure it would work for me if I was doing a first draft, as I don’t know where the story is going to go before I write it. So I guess this is more of a checking method for me. I tried reading to see where it needed spicing up but just couldn’t really get enough of a feel. sigh, I still have so much to learn

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You have plenty to teach, too – your posts are always informative. And I can see what you mean about doing this during a second or third draft – I think it’s a great method for working out how the story flows and whether the pace is sufficient 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I am! The edited MS has just come back from Lucy and I’m doing the edits now, then formatting, and hopefully published in the next week or so! Then it’s back to Silver and Black – little snippets are still coming through but I have to finish this other book first. How’s your edit coming along? (dare I ask)

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Halted completely. Haven’t written properly for well over a week. Literally no time. The bash is all consuming we had over 350 nominations! So trying to deal with that, finalise the venue, schedule posts. READ bloody posts! lol, got some other personal stuff hitting the proverbial fan too so all in all I am a bit short of time and feeling rather frazzled.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Oh no! I’m sorry to hear it’s all so full on at the moment – sounds as though you’re getting hit on all fronts. Can’t believe you had over 350 nominations as well! Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. Hope things settle down a bit for you soon x

        Like

  10. Formulas like these might make the process feel slightly like painting by number rather than painting a masterpiece, but using them as a rough baseline really does help, particularly in the editing process. Nice share.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. haha, didn’t really use numbers so much though, just percentage through the book and chapters but that doesn’t count. I see what you mean though – it does actually look like one of those colour by numbers from a colouring book! lol.

      Like

  11. I just go with my guts and write, write, write. I’m a writer, and that’s what I do. I only think in words, so I write. This all looks very complicated to me, but I guess being a short story writer it’s not going to apply as much? Anyway, we’ll see when I finally kick my *!* into gear and get on with publishing the book. Now that begs the question “where are you with your publication Ms. Black?” 😄

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Why of course you did. It caught my attention instantly. Your posts are always entertaining. I love the way you spice up your words. It makes reading information fun. 🙂

        Like

  12. Interesting. Both Weiland and Wells have a structure that’s sounds a lot like the pulp fiction formula I wrote about a bit ago. I suppose a story is a story is a story. So your graph is cool. Not for me, I don’t think (though I’m going to try it). It’s awesome that you have a visual of exactly how your plot is moving chapter by chapter. I love how you hit a wall with something and either find a ladder or a sledgehammer. 💖

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not for most people to be fair. But I did ONLY use it once I had finished my first draft. So for editing purposes really. I like many others here, have to feel my way through the first draft. haha, what a lovely compliment. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  13. That is one sweet graph. I love a good visual system! This month I’m thinking circular; inspired by Dan Harmon’s ultra-simplified story circle, which is based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey: Start with a couple of opposed notions; an external one (eg. home vs exile), and internal one (eg. selfish vs selfless), and you slap them into the circle top vs bottom (home top, exile bottom) and right vs left (selfish right, selfless left). Count out 7 steps around it, clockwise to pace out key incidents that will be your story engine. It’s for brainstorming: My plan is to start there, throw down a seven step story and then add details, layering up using Campbell’s more detailed circle as a guide. It’s going to happen. It’s going to work… but likely not until the kids go back to school. Meanwhile I’m blogging structure, plot, brainstorming systems. I want to be ready to launch when I get my free time at last.

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    1. Thank you 😀 I am so going to check out that system – thanks for the recommendation 😀 Sounds really helpful. 😀 At the end of the day, anything that works at the end of the day. AND LOL – free time? What’s that :p

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      1. I hope you like it. I’ve written it up mostly for my own practice, rather than other eyes. It’s partly an attempt to battle through the tendency to not put my self out there. An attempt to get opinionated, as I’m not generally like that. The story circle is a fun brainstorming tool, but I think if you stuck tight to that format for your final draft it might not be so great. The key is flexibility; focus on setting your imagination free, rather than aiming to strike plot points at given times. Like this; you’re stuck at stage 4 – what should I write next? No idea. Well so let the characters search for something. Something trivial even, and perhaps in the process something meaningful will be found. The trivial item can be exchanged for something more story-specific in later drafts.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh I completely agree – it’s like genre tropes – they are there for a reason – because people like them but that doesn’t mean we have to replicate them – be fluid – be unique

        Liked by 1 person

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