Written by Sarah Yoon
Whether you’ve completed a work or you’re simply honing your skills, you need to balance the story’s pace, which occurs on a macro and a micro level. On the macro level, an arc encompasses the whole plot. Tension rises throughout the story and falls again at the end. As I mentioned in “Problematic Plot Diagrams and the Power of Retrospection,” writers create their own unique plotlines—partially through the timing of tension and rest.
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling starts each of her books with a medium build, reestablishing her world and introducing new conflicts. She builds slowly, but includes enough entertaining character and world interactions to keep her readers interested. She plants hints here and there, while letting the kids live the magical mundane. At the beginning of the third act, her hints quickly draw together to create a high spike of tension that lasts until the very end.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern builds very slowly, but an aura of mystery keeps the reader begging for more. Morgenstern rests and revels in describing the circus, but continually plants more questions in your mind throughout, answering them in her own time. As secrets are answered, the awareness of more secrets only draws you further in. About halfway through, you see the world start to crumble around the characters, and you feel the floor slowly break under your feet.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie is punctuated by discovery, as it excites curiosity and invites you to guess at the culprit. Between peaks of tension, it lets the reader rest as Poirot mulls over facts through conversation. In the end, one last jolt of tension draws everyone together as Poirot reveals the murderer.
In Young Miles by Lois McMaster Bujold, tension starts early and stays high. A few breaks occur through conversations, but mostly action and suspense keep the reader wired. When the reader discovers that our hero has ulcers by the end of the book, she’s not surprised. As you rush through each manic adventure with him, you nearly get them yourself, but can’t help enjoying the ride.
Each of these books employs tension to create different reactions in their audiences, and to encourage different moods. The Night Circus lingers on your mind and seduces you into reading more, while Miles drags you onto a starship and doesn’t even bother to buckle you in. Harry Potter, on the other hand, is a gentler Miles. Its roller coaster starts off softly, rising bit by bit until the long, final drop that leaves the pit of your stomach rolling somewhere on the ground under a cotton candy cart. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is set up almost like a Sudoku puzzle, clearly organized as it tromps determinedly onward. These authors use an array of elements to help them pace accordingly.
Want to know how they do it? In How to Pace your Plot with Tension and Rest, I delve into the details of how these roller coasters achieve their ups and downs, and how they strap their readers in for the ride. Stay tuned!