pacing tricks header

4 Pacing Tricks to Keep Readers’ Attention

PACING TRICKSPart 21 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

Stories live or die on their pacing. Great characters and concepts are the heartbeat of good fiction, but even the greatest can struggle to keep readers’ attention if the pacing is off.

Pacing is a lot like tone. It varies depending on the type of story you’re telling, and it’s instrumental in informing readers what to expect from this story—both in terms of content and the speed at which it unspools. Stories with purposely leisurely pacing instruct readers to settle in. Writers like Lois McMaster Bujold and Susanna Kearsley draw patient readers in with a slow burn of detail and foreshadowing. Others like Brent Weeks and Steven Gould race readers through fast-paced action-oriented stories. These approaches create completely different reading experiences (even within the same same genre), but all signal competent authors who know how to use pacing to serve story.

A discussion of foundational pacing techniques will start and end with tips for controlling how “fast” or “slow” your narrative is, as well as for identifying when to utilize which technique. Since I’ve discussed all of that in previous posts, today, I want to take advantage of Part 21 of our ongoing series The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel to talk about some smart tricks you can employ to tweak your pacing and keep readers reading (or watching).

On Why Captain Marvel Wouldn’t Let Me Look Away

I have to admit I wasn’t just dying to see Captain Marvel. The trailers didn’t wow me; Carol Danvers seemed to come across somewhere between boring and annoying. Plus, I just haven’t been in the mood for a theater movie lately. However, mostly because some of you guys were already asking me about this post, I made it happen.

All of this is to say I went into the theater in a slightly grumpy “make me like you” kind of mood. And… two hours later, I left with a big smile on my face. (I love it so much when that happens that it almost tempts me to get grumpy before every movie.) Captain Marvel was one of the best Marvel experiences I’ve had since probably Ragnarok. Like Ragnarok, it felt less workmanlike than the other (mostly) solid entries we’ve been seeing lately. It wasn’t wildly original by any means, but it felt different enough from the series’ other origin stories to keep my attention.

A lot of that had to do with the story’s solid pacing. Unlike, say, Ant-Man and the Wasp (in which I have to confess I was pretty bored), Captain Marvel used several important pacing tricks to gel the story and keep the plot tight and progressive. We’re going to look at four of those tricks in a second, but first let’s talk about all the other goodies.

  • Gorgeous visuals. I loved the look of this thing. The visualization of Carol’s suit (yay for not putting her in heels!), her powers (I’m calling it “rainbow disco”), and her comet-tail mohawk when in the helmet (not to mention zero helmet hair) were all fun to watch.

Captain Marvel hair

  • Gorgeous score. Loved the ’90s playlist, but especially the unobtrusive uniqueness of the instrumental score. This is probably my favorite Marvel score since Tyler Bates’s beautiful take on Guardians, Vol. 2.

Captain Marvel mohawk

  • Goose. I’ve been seriously contemplating getting a new dog. Goose is starting to sway me toward considering a flerkin instead.

Captain Marvel Goose

  • The girl herself. As mentioned, I really didn’t think I was going to like Carol. But I did. What seemed like bland smugness in the trailers worked as wry humor in actual context.

Captain Marvel

  • Ben Mendelsohn. I was psyched to see him end up as a sympathetic character. It was a great bait and switch that had me rooting for the character long before the truth about him was made known.

Captain Marvel Talos

  • Fury (and Coulson). I’m a sucker for ’90s nostalgia right now, so throwing all that in there from the younger perspective of some of our favorite characters was a joy.

Captain Marvel Nick Fury

  • The wooden dish brush. Yeah, I know, while everyone else was impressed with Sam Jackson’s singing chops, my sustainable-living obsession had me mostly geeking out about the fact that Carol’s friend Maria had a wooden dish brush (and dish drainer). Go girl.

Captain Marvel Maria

There wasn’t a whole lot I outright disliked about the movie. Jude Law’s turn as the inevitable traitor was a little yawnable (as someone said to me, “Of course, he betrayed her. He had his bad-guy face on for the whole movie!”). When I see it again, I’ll probably be more nitpicky, but for now I’m just enjoying the afterglow of the first good popcorn flick of the year (and I’m now officially dying for Endgame).

4 Pacing Tricks That Are Easy to Miss

Most advice about pacing has to do with adjusting the “speed” of the story. The most common techniques have to do with either using short sentences, paragraphs, and scenes to speed things up—or lengthening everything to slow things down. Today, however, I want to use Captain Marvel to point out four pacing tricks that aren’t always obvious as pacing tricks. When used appropriately, they go a long way toward grabbing an audience’s attention and keeping it.

Pacing Trick #1: Hit Your Structural Beats

Aside from the sentence by sentence choice of word flow, no pacing decision will have greater effect on readers than your placement of structural beats. A long slog of a First Act usually signals that the Inciting Event and First Plot Point are either slow in coming or aren’t strong enough to create a true turn in the plot.

Same for your Second Act: “saggy middles” are almost always the result of a story that either lacks a solid Midpoint/Moment of Truth and/or fails to frame that Midpoint with solid Pinch Points on either side.

And if your Third Act fizzles? Very likely, it’s because the Third Plot Point is weak and the Climax is more of an anti-climax.

Solid structural timing won’t guarantee your story will keep reader attention (just hark back to the structural problems in Iron Man 3—which had nothing to do with timing or pacing). However, solid structural timing that features a coherent spine of truly plot-changing beats—that is a structure with the ability to shuttle readers from one plot event to the next without ever losing their attention.

How Captain Marvel Hits Her Beats

With a few exceptions, most of the Marvel movies do pretty good in the structural department. As a comparatively short medium, movies in general must adhere to accurate timing, and Marvel is no exception. In a two-hour movie, such as Captain Marvel, viewers should experience a big event about every fifteen minutes (which translates to every eighth of the story).

It’s important to note that not just any “big” event will cut it. Randomly deciding to blow something up around the next eighth mark in your story won’t be enough to keep your audience happy. Fireworks aren’t nearly as important as change. With every major structural moment in your story, something should change. The character must be captured and mind-probed by the enemy. Or get marooned on a technologically-challenged planet. Or team up with a new partner. Or learn she’s from said technologically-challenged planet.

With every structural beat, the character must be faced with decisions. What will she do next that will lead her to the next plot beat?

Captain Marvel mind probe

Pacing Trick #2: Start In Medias Res

Although the technique of in medias res (or starting your story “in the middle of things”) has enjoyed a certain misty popularity for quite a while, in some circles it is also frequently met with increasing resistance. Mostly, this is because when executed poorly or without proper understanding of the First Act’s structural requirements, in medias res is just an annoying mess.

When done well, however, in medias res can kickstart your pacing right off the starting line. In a nutshell, a proper use of in medias res should fulfill Elmore Leonard’s famous writing resolution of leaving out “the part readers tend to skip.” In short, get to the point.

Again, this is not necessarily a flashing sign that says “Fireworks Here.” Opening with a big battle won’t hook readers unless they are first given enough context to care about what happens in that battle. An incredible prose writer might be able to make readers read on simply by virtue of the extraordinary verisimilitude of his descriptions. But most of us need to focus on creating openings that present readers with the following:

1. A character.

2. A reason to be intrigued by this character.

3. A problem in progress.

The “problem in progress” part is where in medias res becomes handy. Instead of beginning the story when everything is hunky-dory, choose an opening that places your character already in the middle of an ongoing problem. Usually, this will allow you to cut the throat-clearing and start right off with the bits readers are eager for.

How Captain Marvel Got Right to the Point

Captain Marvel opens with the protagonist as a Kree warrior in the middle of a campaign. That in itself isn’t necessarily enough to make viewers care about her or invest their interest in her plot goals. But throw in the strange dreams that have clearly been haunting her for a while, and suddenly we have a mystery. She’s not just a soldier in a war; she’s a person with personal problems, who also happens to be fighting a war. Much more interesting.

This movie could conceivably have begun all the way back when Carol was still in the Air Force. For that matter, it could have opened with scenes from her childhood when she looked up at the sky and dreamed of being a pilot. But both of these choices (particularly the latter, which smells of an unnecessary prologue if I ever I smelled one) would have failed to properly telegraph to viewers the point of the story. The story would have had to roll through a ton of scenes before it could get down to the actual point of Carol’s journey.

Instead, the film did an admirable job of identifying that oft-mythologized “last possible moment” at which the story could start and still make sense to the audience.

Captain Marvel Kree Team

Pacing Trick #3: Use Flashbacks With Panache

Flashbacks are all about pacing. This is so for two important reasons—one with the opportunity to enhance solid pacing and one with the potential to interrupt otherwise solid pacing:

1. Flashbacks Allow for a Shorter Timeline

Why use a flashback at all? Simple—because you don’t want to take the time to tell the entire story chronologically. Maybe that event from your protagonist’s childhood is really important. But everything else that happens in between her thirteenth birthday and the retirement party that starts the main story? Not so much. Instead of creating a bunch of useless filler, you choose instead to open your story at that “last possible minute” and insert the important backstory info as a flashback at the appropriate time.

2. Flashbacks Interrupt the Story Flow

As useful as a flashback may be for shortening the timeline, it is always an interruption to the main story. This means flashbacks should be kept in the box marked “Emergency Only.” This does not mean you should never use flashbacks. Most stories will require a flashback here and there. But it does mean you should think twice—and maybe a third time—before quick-drawing your flashback. If the flashback isn’t crucial to the progression of the plot (i.e., it moves the plot), and if the flashback isn’t every bit as entertaining as the main plot—then leave it lay.

How Captain Marvel Used But Didn’t Abuse Her Flashbacks

Because Captain Marvel began so late in its protagonist’s personal story, it required a relatively hefty use of flashbacks. Often, this is annoying even when necessary, but most of the flashbacks in this film worked well.

Particularly admirable is the Inciting Event scene in which Carol is captured by the Skrull and mind-probed. The scene could have just info-dumped the necessary information in one of those overly-familiar “dreamlike haze” scenes as Carol emerged from unconsciousness. Instead, it created a clever and amusing sequence in which the Skrull commander Talos repeatedly “rewound” her memories, forcing her to visualize details she had previously forgotten. Both the audience and Carol received important information that turned (and, indeed, launched) the plot, but in a way we enjoyed.

Captain Marvel memory

Because Captain Marvel is really a mystery story about solving the protagonist’s amnesia, the flashbacks are given a solid reason to be present. They don’t exist merely for self-indulgent or convenient reasons; rather, they are the entire point of the story, which leads us to….

Pacing Trick #4: Replace Info Dumps With Revelations

Perhaps the single greatest pacing trick any writer can master is that of luring readers ever deeper into the story, via a breadcrumb trail of revelations. The careful dance between foreshadowing and revealing a plot turn is the secret power of master writers.

Of course, the first step in creating this fascinating chain of cause and effect is ensuring your story has something worth revealing. Make a list of the most interesting things your characters will learn over the course of the story.

The second step is to resist, at every turn, the impulse to simply dump this information at your readers’ feet. They don’t want that. They want to be made to sweat and suffer. They want to earn the reveal.

What that means, of course, is that the third step is all about setting up those revelations. Foreshadow them. Make your characters ask questions. Make those questions deep and burning and primal. Only provide the answers at the moment when the information is so crucial it will impact the plot with all the power of a photon blast.

How Captain Marvel Kept Reaching for Revelations

Stories are, with few exceptions, mysteries. The most obvious approach to this is, of course, the whodunit. But even quiet internal stories of character growth are ultimately a search for something the character starts out not knowing. An artful writer understands this and starts scattering clues right from Page One.

If we look beyond the rubber-suited trappings of the superhero genre, what we find in Captain Marvel is a buddy-cop movie in which the amusing interaction between mismatched detective partners entertains us as they travel around in search of a resolution to a central mystery. As such, this story is an obvious example of how a solid string of revelations can be used to keep the audience’s attention.

Almost all of the information Carol learns in this movie could have been info-dumped. Instead, both she and viewers (and poor “not Nick” Fury) have to earn those revelations. This means that when she recognizes herself in a picture of a dead pilot, the moment is more than just information. It’s a Moment of Truth that turns both the plot and the her arc.

Captain Marvel Plane

***

If pacing is about keeping readers entertained, then entertainment is about good pacing. Figure out ways to apply all four of these pacing tricks to your story, and you will be that much closer to creating the kind of adventure that will leave readers smiling big.

Stay Tuned: In June (personal reasons will keep me from being able to post until then), we’ll conclude our series with an examination of the long-awaited Avengers: Endgame.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are some of your favorite pacing tricks? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. You mean, an infodump isn’t an infodump if… if we *care* about what’s shown. If the pieces are given in the right order, lined up so as many steps as possible will each change or shock us, while what’s shown between them is enough to understand why the next twist is a twist without bogging down. Which is definitely the opposite of “dumping” a heap of facts out at once.

    Don’t dump, reveal. And something only reveals if the facts before it had been concealed– at least enough to make us care.

    Words to live by.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, Stories *are* information, so it’s not the info that’s the problem, just the artless dump.

  2. I now feel vindicated about my flashbacks. 🙂 Seriously though, I love your thoughts on pacing. It’s an area that I’ve been working hard on these past few years.

  3. Great article, thanks.

    I just re-read your article on mentor characters. If the mentor character already has the Truth, does that always make him an impact character? Or do you have an example of a good mentor who is not an impact character?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Mentor archetype will always be an Impact Character. If a Mentor’s mentoring doesn’t impact the protagonist, then he’s not really mentor. Ya know? 😉

  4. I enjoyed this article, and the movie. One of my favorite elements in the flashback sequences was that not everything was revealed. The most important part of Carol’s character, the one that saves her, is her ability to get back up, which we are shown – and Carol remembers at a crucial point – in a montage of flashback endings.

    “Make a list of the most interesting things your character will learn over the course of the story.” This struck me as pertinent to any character development, not just pacing. Thanks for the marvelous post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m always a sucker for amnesia stories. They’re often the perfect blend of plot and character.

  5. Oops, I think you mean Elmore Leonard! Great tips, especially the one about revelations. Helps me solidify a recent plotting decision I’ve made with my current WIP.

  6. Casandra Merritt says:

    My Inciting Event occurs before the first chapter, which leaves me with some backstory that will have to be revealed at some point. I will certainly use your idea of a list of things my characters will learn throughout the plot. Sounds like a good way to deal with it. Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Even if the plot is kicked off by some event that happens prior to the main story’s timeline, there should still be a structural Inciting Event/Call to Adventure that takes place halfway through the First Act and turns the plot out of the setup phase and into the buildup to the First Plot Point.

  7. I haven’t seen this latest movie, but I’m intrigued you liked the sound track. “Wonder Woman’s Wrath” from Wonder Woman is literally the only comic-book movie soundtrack that stuck with me, though I haven’t seen the majority of them. Even the YouTube commentariat marveled at how memorable WWW was. It was probably the electric cello that made the difference 🙂 I’ll look for Captain Marvel’s soundtrack.

    But flashbacks! I love them precisely for layering mystery and suspense and revelation, and they can be used very well as foreshadowing. They definitely require planning beforehand if you’re a pantser, or surgical editing after.

    Captain Marvel as a buddy cop movie with a mystery at the core? Okay, I think you should have been in charge of marketing, because that angle would have tempted me to see it. If you ever do posts on the business side of publishing, Captain Marvel and a few others I can think of would make a great case study in marketing that alienates vs. draws in fans.

    The visuals do look gorgeous! I always wonder how the “super saiyan” effect would look like on a live-action character. If you’ve never had to watch Dragon Ball Z, a super saiyan is what a saiyan — super powered people from another planet — transforms into when they’ve powered up to a titanic level. Then their hair turns blond and points straight up, like Captain Marvel’s is doing in your “gorgeous visuals” gif 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. Her hair is kinda “super saiyan,” now that you mention it (although I didn’t know that’s what that effect was called).

  8. What if my flashback won’t actually move the plot along or is only a bit tied up to the plot, but it establishes a personal connection between characters (who are important for the motivation of the protagonist)? Is it still worth putting in?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The best litmus test is always: What happens when you take it out? Does the story and the character development work without it? If so, it’s probably a “darling” that should be killed.

  9. PS: the audio does not work on Chrome Version 72.0.3626.119 (Official Build) (64-bit) – Windows 10. I had to open it on Firefox 😉

  10. Great article. Thanks so much!

  11. If we’re using terms from the Dramatic theory of story, it should be pointed out that the Impact Character is a subjective (character) point of view while Guardian (Dramatica’s term for mentor) is an objective character role. (archetype)

    My personal view is that the mentor’s job is to prepare the main character for the struggle ahead. (What Dramtica refers to as the story requirements.) Since the IC’s job is to point the character toward the truth he needs and since (in a story with a “change” character) the truth is key to overcoming the story conflict, the two seem to naturally fall into the same role. But not always.

    A few years ago I wrote a novel where the main character’s mentor was (what Dramtica would call) the Contagonist. He wasn’t the bad guy, but he (the mentor) worked for him (the bad guy) grooming the main character to join a mage terrorist group. It was as if Obi-Wan Kenobi had turned out to be Darth Vader in disguise. Which, of course led to a most difficult and painful fight to the death.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think of Impact Characters in a slightly different context than that in which Dramatica uses them. (I think they use the term “Influence Character”?). But, yes, within their terms, this is all legit and can be very helpful.

  12. Andrewisediting says:

    Wow, I don’t think you and I have been as on-the-same-page ever. I thought Captain Marvel was brilliant, and pretty much point-for-point everything you said – Buddy Cop, Ben Mendelsohn, Coulson, Goose, the visuals, everything. And yeah, probably #2 or #3 after Ragnarok (and perhaps Winter Soldier).

    Great tips, my WIP (which I’ve been struggling with editing for the last FIVE MONTHS!) has a bunch of timing issues. I’m going to take those tricks and see if I can’t get the 20lb sledge and knock it into shape!

    Great post, thanks as always 🙂

  13. Karla Diaz says:

    Loved Captain Marvel! Thanks for this post, Katie. I wanted to ask what’s a bigger problem with pacing. Is it the story structure or at the sentence level? My hunch is structure, but how much damage is done by bad sentence construction? Could it be as bad as missing your story beats?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Bad pacing at either level will cause problems. Ultimately, of course, structural pacing will be a big factor in determining whether the story works (as well as whether readers get bored). But sentence pacing can have create a more immediate effect. If I’m browsing for books and open one only find that the sentence pacing is off, I’m likely to assume the writer doesn’t know what s/he’s doing and pass on the book.

  14. Casandra Merritt says:

    If my story has a flat arc main character, will it still work if there is only one change arc character? I also have one who doesn’t finish his arc for three books. Can this be done, or would it be a better idea to do one solid change arc in the first book?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Each book should represent a beat within the change arc, but it can definitely be stretched out across an overarching storyline.

  15. I’ve to see Captain Marvel but I’ve intended to from the first trailer – wheelchair-bound so it will be a blue-ray watch for me. I’ve been working through my protagonist’s amnesia and revealing her past to assist her – well, she does that herself with subtle prompts. Great advice here – many thanks.

  16. Casandra Merritt says:

    Good! Was wondering if that would work.

  17. Saw the movie and ie was great. I totally agree with you. You want to get the audience hooked so that they can turn the pages and be intrigued. Also, Carol Danvers might be a love interest for Thor. He said that he liked her since she seemed to be cool in his mind.

  18. Usvaldo de Leon says:

    One thing I love that sets up a bit of mystery and is a commentary on the frailty of memory is the opening scene, where Carol is bleeding green blood from her nose and being attacked by a Skrull.

    It establishes a mystery – what is this scene? How does it relate? – and that helps propel us along. If there is a mystery, readers or viewers want to get answers and will stick around to find out what that answer is.

  19. Hannah King says:

    I didn’t mind the movie but didn’t find it all that great either, which is surprising as we almost always agree on Marvel movies. Maybe it was the overly-high expectations I had 🙁 Or maybe I’m just getting older 😉
    I didn’t find that her character journey really happened along with the theme. I wasn’t quite sure what the theme was. Was it about being emotional? Not letting herself be used by others? (Although I’d argue that’s not a theme or character growth, seeing as she didn’t really have much of a choice as she was tricked into thinking they were the good guys.)
    Also, when she changed as a character, she just seemed to ‘decide’ it, rather than go through something that made her change.
    There wasn’t much sense of jeopardy in the final scenes so there didn’t really seem to be a climax. I feel like a show-down with the Supreme Intelligence would have served much better as a climax.
    I do have to agree though that the cat was awesome 🙂

  20. Dennis Michael Montgomery says:

    The story I’m working on right now started out being linear. Someone said or implied that it didn’t get to the point of the story, so I went right to the point then gave a flash back to give the reader some idea of who the character is why.

    • Dennis Michael Montgomery says:

      The story I’m working on right now started out being linear. Someone said or implied that it didn’t get to the point of the story quick enough, so I went right to the point, then gave a flash back to give the reader some idea of who the character is and why.

      However I’m not totally happy with this ploy because I’m leaving out material that I liked. Also I find it disturbs the flow of the story, but if I don’t do this then the readers are left without some of the who, what, when. or why.

  21. Watched the movie and it was great, but I must admit I wasn’t aware of these pacing techniques while I watched it and now I see those were there all the time!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Big picture craft elements can be hard to work with, as they intertwine every scene. William L. Hahn reminds us to be sneaky with world building, Janice Hardy wants us to understand and control our pacing, and K.M. Weiland lists 4 pacing tips to keep readers’ attention. […]

  2. […] 4 Pacing Tricks to Keep Readers’ Attention […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.