Should You Slam Your Story’s Brakes?

This week’s video cautions against allowing your story’s “ticking clock” to speed things up too much.

Video Transcript:

High stakes are important in any story. To one extent or another, we always want readers to feel a sense of desperation and urgency. One of the best ways to ramp up that feeling is to tighten the story’s timeline and speed up events. You have to disarm a ticking bomb? How much more exciting if you have to do it in five minutes rather than five days? But there are definite downsides to allowing your story to run along too quickly.

To begin with, we’re going to have to deal with simple logic. We have to give our characters enough time to accomplish the task. Maybe it’s impossible to disarm this particular bomb in five minutes. If so, the character better have enough time to get the job done; otherwise either his head’s going to explode—or your readers’ heads are.

We also have to consider character development. Is it possible for two characters to fall madly in love and form a lifelong attachment in just one day? Yes. Is it likely? Not so much. Is it possible that a scumbag character can completely turn his life around in a day? Yes. Likely? No. Sometimes sacrificing logic in situations like this is worth it to gain that sense of urgency in the ticking clock. But never do so without due consideration.

Finally, perhaps the most important reason to slow down your story’s timeline is for impact’s sake. This is going to matter in segments in which time becomes important not just for your character’s development, but to emphasize his state of being—and usually that state is going to be one of suffering. Getting thrown into an oubliette for a day or two isn’t going to be very fun, but it’s not going to compare to spending months or years locked away in horrible circumstances. Allowing that extra time in certain stories can sometimes make all the difference.

Tell me your opinion: Are there any areas of your story that could benefit from a longer timeline?

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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. Giving my two protagonists more time to form the emotional bond they’ll need later on to survive the ‘disaster’ could theoretically benefit from a slower pace, but the antagonists being on their trail isn’t going to allow for that. I must be very, very careful how they interact with one another under the stressful circumstances I’ve put them into, so it won’t seem like it happens too quickly, even though it will be only a few days’ passage of time.

  2. That’s trick really. How many thriller movies end up with two characters in love after only a few days (or few hours)? On the surface, it might seem ridiculous, but the pacing of the story can make viewers, and readers, feel like an epic amount of time has passed.

  3. Generally at this point I can pad it out a little bit, since write now I only have a sentence to summarize each chapter of the story. (Yes a chapter, because I have a hard time with scene length.)

  4. Most chapters divide down into one or two scenes, so outlining according to chapter is rarely problematic.

  5. Another great post. I’m tempted to rush the action and agree, a good outline makes it easier to stretch out the ending. Thanks again for sharing good article.

  6. I’m usually prone to step on the gas myself. But readers (myself included) appreciate thoughtfully slow segments to balance everything out.

  7. My hero and heroine are trapped in a cistern where the water fluctuates during the changing tide, so I had to research the passage of time during a complete tide cycle in Key West. There is no way out, the tide is rising, and the dark night encourages their senses to be heightened. Panic grips them, but the intimacy that trembles between them is palpable. I’m still learning the best way to extend the tension in this scene.

  8. Great set up. Whenever the odds are stacked that high against characters, you gotta know readers will be hooked.

  9. I do try to have a balance of places where the action speeds up and then a calm after the storm, give everyone a chance to catch their breaths. I enjoy reading stories where there are breaks in the action as well, especially when I care about the characters.

  10. What you’re talking is the balance between scenes and sequels. Slower/longer timelines require the same balance as in faster stories; the difference is solely in the amount of time that passes during and between events.

  11. Oh as a general comment when writing scenes, it might be important to find a better reader that does not have a general checklist of things to knock off on any manuscripts, and treats it on it own merits. ]

    Epic Fantasy is not going to flow the same way as Urban fantasy, Space Opera not in the same way as Hard Scifi.<_< Unless I submit it to an agent, using a general check off list is not fair to me.

  12. Yes, it’s always important to select beta readers who understand the type of story you’re going for.

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