Writing Excuses 10.32: How Do I Control the Speed of the Story?

As we said last week, we’re talking about pacing, and we’ve divided the concept into two parts. Last week we covered “sense of progress.” This week we’re talking about the passage of time. We discuss the tools we use, some of which are very mechanical (scene breaks, chapter breaks) and some of which are quite intricate, and require finesse to get right.


Take something you’ve already written (a chapter with a few scenes would be perfect.) Change scene breaks to through-scenes. Then try moving the scene breaks around. See what happens to the pace of the story.

Seveneves: A Novel, by Neal Stephenson, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal and Will Damron

15 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.32: How Do I Control the Speed of the Story?”

  1. The episodes where at parts y’all are all but talking over each other because several of you have so much to say on a topic… I wish were longer, lol. I want to hear everything each of you have to say.

    Pacing is one of the hardest things to teach or learn, IMO. So much of it is learning the feel of how this or that works for your own style, but also how these different tools impact and intersect with the genre and the type of story you are trying to tell. Or, it is more an experience thing than anything else.

    An episode worth relistening to a few more times (over weeks and months, not all at once, lol), letting all the little bits sink in.

    1. A good micro-example is the Hulk/Thor “sidepunch” moment in The Avengers. We’ve been having SCENE with the fight (to the point of action fatigue, really), and then we, with Hulk and Thor, literally stop to take a breath and admire our work. SEQUEL. The SEQUEL moment continues, and ramps its way up into more SCENE, but it’s been a while since I watched the film, so I can’t describe in detail how that was done.

      It bears re-watching for that section alone, as an example of the craft.

  2. This is very helpful! I am working on a short story with fortune telling that creates a new future by removing bits from the current reality. I’m struggling with pacing and passage of time in so few words, but I’m getting there. I think the homework assignment will help with this – Thanks!!

  3. MICE Quotient needs to add one more letter for Humour, though MICEH isn’t quite as pretty.

    Pace is interesting because you always need a decent level of pace to keep us engaged. However, maintain the same breakneck pace and all of a sudden you lose effect, the reader gets tired.
    One solution is to add rests. But you can’t have nothing happening in those rests, you can’t just drag out description and talk over what’s already happened.
    So what you do is you make sure your rest hits different notes to the scene that came before it. If you’ve got explosion after explosion, you can and should cut to other notes (Mystery: Why is this happening? Character: How did Joe deal with losing his arm? etc) . Do that right and the next explosion will still matter to us.
    Hollywood does a cut-to-character-note all the time before the final climax. The “but wait” and the two lovers admit their true feelings, just before plunging into the final sequence.

  4. First gear, it’s all right, second gear, out of sight… faster! Faster! FASTER!

    No, no, no. Scene breaks, chapter breaks, through scenes, cut to black, and where’s the cliffhanger, who’s waiting outside the cell door, how does a little white space mix in to all that expository lump? Check out the pacing in the archives, or over here in the transcript:


    Watch out for the little Nash Rambler… Beepbeep, beepbeep, his horn went beepbeepbeep.

    Just don’t get run down in the race. Keep up the pace.

  5. @-CDMcDonald: Re MICE and Humor—no, MICE does not need another letter for Humor. That would open the taxonomy to include Horror, Romance, Action, and a zillion other things, and the model would lose its utility to writers.

    Humor stories that are not already Milieu, Idea, Character, or Event stories are just comedy routines or joke books. MICE isn’t meant to help you write those.

  6. This is not really a comment about the content of pacing part of the podcast, but more about the book of the week: While Neil Stephenson is a phenomenal writer, Seveneves is one of the worst books recommended by this group of authors as part of the Audible promotions. I have heard, several times, several of the podcasters warning against data dumping/info dumping especially as part of world building, and that happens to constitute a significant portion of some chapters in Seveneves… as in pages and pages and pages of nothing but info dumping with no connection to character development or plot, and on several occasions information that wasn’t even important to the upcoming events of the story (I believe Brandon called these types of books encyclopedias earlier this season).

  7. Adding Humor/Horror, Romance, and Action would turn MICE into some sort of CHIMERA.

    Mostly though I just wanted to point out an amazing example of the “they opened the door” cliffhanger that Brandon mentioned. There’s an issue of Spider-Man where Peter’s visiting his Aunt May and the doorbell rings; the issue ends as she opens the door and standing there, asking if Peter can come out and play, is Eddie Brock. Instead of spending the next month wondering what happens next, readers spent the next month thinking about all the many, many ramifications and wondering how things can ever be the same again.

  8. I’ve heard you all mention the video feed a few times. Are there video recordings of these episodes, or is it just you all do while you record the audio?

    1. It’s a running gag I lifted from an old Monty Python audio cassette of the “Crunchy Frog” sketch. There’s a visual gag (literally) in that sketch, and in the audio version a narrator speaks over some odd noises: “FOR THOSE OF YOU NOT BENEFITING FROM THE VIDEO, THE CONSTABLE HAS JUST THROWN UP IN HIS HELMET.”

      There’s no video here. We’re just narrating the action on those occasions when we think it’s funny.

  9. I love this podcast. I have learned so much and am grateful that this sort of thing exists. The cast is excellent and the topics are amazing. You have assisted in getting me out of a writing slump, and putting me on the right track to finish this novel. Thank you.

  10. I still think Humour needs a mention in MICE in regards to the notes you can hit for pacing. I didn’t say it was pretty but I think it would be useful.

    Genre is different story, as MICE is higher-level analysis than genre.
    Romance are almost always character + event stories. Action is heavily event stories. Horror, just like thriller, just like detective, have focus on Idea (the revealing of infomation, what is hidden and what is known).
    No story just contains one element. Or else a milieu story would just be a map or descriptions and character story would just be a long internal dialogue.
    Humour is an aspect of stories, dunno if it should be put in MICE at the macro level, but if you’re going to use MICE in regards to pacing, then it should be there. Humour is a great note to cut to in order to grant relief to pacing (as seen in Terry Pratchett). If you want all the options, put it on the list.

  11. (Even at the Macro Level. If the intention is Humour, this will effect the kind of Milleu/characterisation/ideas/events in the story. Terry Pratchett world would be seen as inconsistent and unnecessarily chaotic if it wasn’t humour. If you read Card’s What Kind of Story are you Telling, that’s the whole point of MICE, to figure out what the main interest of your story is and decide how that should influence the elements of your story.)

    But yes, Howard was right to point out that every genre will spin elements a certain way. So I guess it’s not enough to say “I’m writing a milleu story” you should go further and say “I’m writing an epic fantasy where soldiers ride dinosaurs.” You need to really know your story, in that concise focused way, in order understand how the elements (MICEH ;p) should all work together.

    Because of this, I find MICEH more useful in regards to the notes you can hit for pacing.

  12. Alright, finally getting around to my Writing Excuses backlog.

    I understand the concept of the scene-sequel and I understand the purpose of these “breather” chapters, but I’m having a hard time coming up with examples. Can anyone provide chapters or scenes in popular media that fill this role?

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