Use pacing to maintain sense of tension in story

As developing your story, maintaining a sense of tension is vital. Without dramatic tension – a feeling of uncertainty in the reader about how the main character will solve (or even if he will resolve) the central problem – the story will be flat and vanilla.

Creating tension involves controlling the story’s pace. Pace is the timing by which the major events in the plot unfold and in which the big scenes are shown.

The “better” the story, then the better that the author handled the pace. “Star Wars IV: A New Hope”, the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, Douglas Adams’ comedic novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder” all are examples of masterful pacing.

Every story has a different pace. Those that are more introspective tend to move at a slower pace while those that are action-packed tend to be fast. Because of this, all stories run on a “story clock”. This is a measurement in which action is internally described. As with the wider universe, however, there is no objective clock. A true sign of craftsmanship is when an author sets the story clock winding at the right pace for an individual tale.

Regardless of the story, however, good pacing always involves compression and expansion of time – In “real time,” events don’t unfold at the same rate as they do in a story. For example, a suborbital flight from New York to Tokyo in real time might take a hour, but in the story it’s handled in a phrase that takes a couple of seconds to read. Usually the authors speeds up or slows down the action to match the emotions he wants the reader to have.

Another aspect of good pacing is “travel time”. Characters don’t change their personalities or their minds about important decisions overnight. A character must “travel” a certain emotional distance to arrive at such changes. The author’s wording and dramatic action must mirror that pace.

Of course, you have only so many words to tell a story, so reducing that “travel time” is important. There are a few ways you can accomplish that without cheating on the emotional distance that a character must traverse:
• Intercut a different story – Sometimes a parallel story or subplot can help lead the character to change more quickly because he realizes, through analogy, that he must change.
• Fill intervening time with straight action – A change often doesn’t occur because one has thought through a problem but because physical experiences test and uncover what one truly believes. Straight action can be a crucible that helps the character come to a new understanding.
• Develop other characters – As with a parallel story or subplot, other characters who undergo change can affect the protagonist. Their changes can test and alter the protagonist’s beliefs.
• Offer description – Changes in the landscape and climate can symbolically represent the emotional currents in the protagonist’s thinking.