Story Tempo and the Average Writer

Let me start by saying that when I talk about the average writer, I mean me. This is as much about my experience with trying to find the tempo of stories as it is anything, hopefully you’ll be able to glean some useful thoughts from my experience.

The tempo of a story is basically supposed to consist of a series of highs and lows that build steadily upwards and culminate in a climax shortly before the end, followed by a brief conclusion letting the reader decompress and process what happened during the story. I’ve talked some about this idea in my beat outline post and I don’t plan to rehash it much here.

Now this is no great revelation to most people. Standard story structure has been around pretty much forever, we see it in stories like The Odyssey and many of the other classical stories. But, as we so often find, the key to this is not in the concept but in the execution. You can structure the tempo of your stories perfectly but that’s just the beginning. Everything has a tempo.

If you’ve ever practiced music in the Western tradition you’re familiar with how beats can be subdivided. Each measure has a number of beats in it, each beat can be broken down into smaller and smaller notes, they all have a different notations and a huge chunk of musical theory revolves around the ways they compare and contrast. Oddly enough, writing has no such system for analyzing beats, even though tempo is horribly important to building a good story or even writing an interesting factual report. It’s true writing is more art than science, but so is music and it has a well regulated system for analyzing tempo so why not writing?

It is impossible to formulate a way to alleviate this problem quickly or without a widespread recognition of the problem on the part of the writing community. So for right now, I’m just going to make the case for why I think such a thing should exist.

Take a short story. It could be any short story but I’m going to use Emergency Surface, which you can read for yourself by clicking that link, as an example. There will be spoilers here, so you’ve been warned. The pacing of the story is thus:

  • In Emergency Surface, the story begins with the problem being introduced – a submarine, Erin’s Dream by name, is taking on water.
  •  Complications arise when the leaking compartment can’t be completely sealed and two compartments flood as a result. But they are sealed off in the end.
  • Unfortunately, those two flooded compartments are the largest on the sub and are putting huge stress on the ship. It will break up if they can’t be pumped out.
  • Taking the ship to the surface is a viable way to repair the hull, since the pressure there will be much less and allow the crew to work on the pressure hull safely and they run no risk of being crushed.
  • Erin’s Dream is crewed by a group of people who want to avoid being seen by the people who live on the surface. Not only does the crew not want to go there it could actually get them into trouble, not just with the surface people but their own people as well.
  • Duffy, the sub’s captain, decides to run the risk of discovery and sends the ship to the surface.
  • The amount of water in the hull is starting to become a real problem – the center of the ship is much less buoyant than the ends and the ship may snap in half before it can surface.
  • Herrigan, the sub’s salvage commander, leads a detachment of minisubs out to brace the center of the Erin’s Dream and try and relieve stress on the hull.
  • One of the minisub pilots panics from agoraphobia as he finds himself in the middle of the dark ocean with no fixed points of reference. He breaks away and sends his vehicle back towards the ocean floor.
  • At the climax of the story, Herrigan decides to break away from the Erin’s Dream as well in an attempt to rescue his wayward pilot while Erin’s Dream proceeds to the surface with what they can only hope is enough support to keep the sub from being destroyed in the process.
  • The problem is resolved when we find Oscar assessing the repairs needed with his crew – so far undiscovered on the surface of the ocean. Herrigan returns with his wayward pilot and the crew is reunited.
  • A short conversation about the dangers of salvage sub operations followed by a decision to visit Australia and see what the surface world has been up to provides a denouement and lets us know that the crew is, on the whole, back on top of the situation and planning for the future.

So there it is. Looks like a typical story pacing, right? There’s a problem, solutions that create problems of their own, a climax when the outcome for everyone is in doubt, a resolution and a brief unwinding period. Nothing groundbreaking here.

But if you compare it to the average “chapter” post I’ve been making as I hammer out novels, if you outline them by beats and events, they don’t match this pacing at all.

So the question that I feel writers need to analyze more deeply is, does every scene need a similar pacing to a short story? Should each beat of your beat outline itself match the pacing of a good story, with challenges, solutions, a climax and a resolution? It’s not impossible – short stories find that pacing in as many words all the time.

Should there be different kinds of pacing for scenes? How many? What should we call them to make discussion easier? Musical notes are infinitely divisible, how much can we dissect storytelling and still find the rules of pacing and tempo unchanged? How did one question for discussion turn into so many so quickly? I really don’t know.

This is an issue that I have no clear cut idea on yet, I’ve been struggling with it in my own writing of late.  It’s entirely possible that this whole concept has been hashed out before and I’ve just never heard of it, so I would love to hear of any resources you’ve found on the subject of tempo and pacing and how it might be broken down in the writing of stories. This is also a topic we’ll probably revisit in the future, so I hope you’ll look forward to it.

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