Pacing comes in several forms. This time I’d like to discuss how pacing passes or captures time.
When we have a lifetime to condense into a short story, or a weekend that we stretch out into a book, we need the tricks of the craft. There are many ways to show time passing, seasons changing, children growing, or light fading; but what about passing moments, or years? Somehow we need to decide which moments to keep and what to toss. To save time, and words, most of us try to start in the middle of the action, medias res, and use foreshadowing and backstory as filler. Once all the parts are collected, the goal is to string them together in a fun and logical way.
The passing of time is relative–some moments pass unnoticed, some seem to stretch on for days, and others pass so fast we almost miss them. We express quick moments in summaries, stretch out milliseconds indefinitely using descriptive and sometimes flowery prose. There are occasions we travel through time and space incorporating backstory, or tempting our readers with foreshadowing. We can jump around using words like before lunch, winter 1902, when I was a kid; and how we stay organized and clearly convey what we mean is not easy. Usually, all of the events are linked by an idea, a person or place. We use common element to thread the moments together on a long beaded necklace of scenes, and summaries.
I’m going to cheat a little and suggest using the Three-Act Structure. We have plot points, and increased tension, and most importantly a place to begin. Select the profound moments–the moment of no return, when everything twists into the unexpected, last attempt out of desperation–fill in the supporting points in order of dramatic effect and link together with summaries. This hopefully has built a reasonable chronological timeline.
You may have a play-by-play, but you don’t have to start from the very beginning. One approach is to start closest to the end (in a short story) or middle (in a book)–adjusting the plot points as needed. The old inciting incident will become the new backstory and the original hope/dread foreshadowing, adding motivation and suspense to the writing.
It is times like this that many are tempted to share everything–hold back. In some cases it is prudent to keep the reader guessing. There is also the choice of informing the reader but not the players, and letting the information trickle in when necessary. Either way can work, unanswered questions encourage the curious to read on, and making the reader secret keeper can escalate the tension,
The timeline is the story behind the story, now take your artist license and rebuilt it. Think of it like clay, slicing it, rearranging it, reforming it and make anything you want. Sure you need to follow some logical order, but that comes from what you want to say and how you want to say it. What’s your message? Don’t tell me, get writing.