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May 23, 2019

How Pacing Helps Readers Care about Our Characters

Dog in sunbeam with empty food bowl with text: Be Patient! Find the Right Pacing

I need to make a confession: I never watched Game of Thrones. *grin*

As the series wrapped up over the last few weeks, I often felt like I was in a very small minority of those who didn’t watch the show. Pop-culture osmosis means I know a strangely large amount about the show—far more than for any other show I don’t watch—as I’m familiar with most of the characters, their family bonds, the highlights of their plot and arc, etc.

All that exposure means that even though I didn’t watch the show, I’ve heard many of the complaints about the last few episodes: how the story felt rushed, how many of the character arcs felt off, how the pieces didn’t come together, and so on.

Many of those complaining have brought up how the show could have made several of the last twists work…if only the writers had taken the time to properly show the last part of the characters’ emotional journeys. The writers had built up many hints of the future potential turning points, but many viewers seem to be of the opinion that the writers didn’t actually show the final veer into the twist and instead just jumped to the twist itself.

In other words, this last Game of Thrones season is an excellent example of the importance of pacing. Let’s take a look at how pacing can affect character arcs and readers’ relationships to our characters. *smile*

What Creates a Story’s Pace?

When we talk about pacing, we usually think about whether it feels like things are happening on the page or if a story is dragging. However, we could be referring to several different writing or craft elements that affect pacing.

For example:

In addition, character connections—giving characters enough time and understanding (which is often gained by spending enough insightful time with characters) with one another and with the reader—creates another aspect of pacing. Let’s explore how that affects our story…

The Basis of Relationships

For most relationships in the real world, time is an important factor in how close people feel. When we first meet someone, we don’t know them enough to care about them beyond objective measures.

What do real-world relationships have to do with our story's pacing? Click To TweetIf we see a stranger suffering from an injustice, we can care enough to want a basic sense of fairness, but that doesn’t mean we care about them as an individual. We wouldn’t understand them well enough to care at that level yet.

Time changes that equation, and we learn to understand them. We learn how much to give them the benefit of the doubt. We learn of their goals, their fears, their hopes. What they want as an individual will usually matter more to us.

Relationships in the Writing World

In our stories, the same principle of time and understanding applies to our characters on several levels, such as:

  • In romance stories, readers usually want to see the characters know and understand each other well enough to trust that they’ll be able to make the relationship work. The story needs enough time with the characters together to show the characters facing and overcoming obstacles together.
  • In any type of stories, friendships and other attachments often need time and insights to seem real to readers. The story might need to show why they’re friends and not just a puppet to the plot.
  • Between readers and characters, time helps readers care about characters as individuals. Getting insights into the character’s thoughts and feelings helps readers understand them, which makes readers more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt, etc.

When There’s Not Enough Time or Understanding…

…in Romances:

  • Not Enough Time:
    Some plot-heavy romance stories barely have the couple together in the same scenes, so the characters don’t seem to spend time together. Other romance stories don’t create a realistic relationship for the couple because they haven’t spent enough time convincing the reader how they’ll approach problems as a team.
  • Not Enough Understanding:
    In many romances, the Black Moment brings a crisis of faith in the other character, and there’s a breakup scene for the “boy loses girl” idea. After that Black Moment, characters need to reach a new understanding of each other for readers to trust that the couple will be able to give each other the benefit of the doubt again.

…between Characters in Any Type of Story:

  • Not Enough Time:
    I’ve read stories where I assumed a perfectly innocent character was devious and manipulative because the friendship came together too quickly to feel real. The closeness between the characters felt like something the author needed to have happen or just knew would happen so they skipped the journey, creating a sense that one character seemed too trusting too soon.
  • Not Enough Understanding:
    Sometimes if an author knows the characters will be great friends, the author neglects to show how the characters learn to understand each other. They don’t show the friendship actually develop.

…between Readers and Characters:

  • Not Enough Time:
    Just as we wouldn’t dump our life story on a stranger, we don’t want to info dump a character’s history on readers. “Undeserved misfortune” and other techniques can help readers care about our characters on some level at the beginning of a story, but adding time by spreading information out will help readers see them as individuals.
  • Not Enough Understanding:
    Readers can forgive a lot if they understand where someone is coming from and why they’re doing what they’re doing. We need to give readers insights into our characters’ stakes, emotional turning points, behavioral changes, why they’d work against their best interest or act illogically, etc.

The Right Pace Is a Balance

As I said, I don’t watch Game of Thrones, but many of the complaints I’ve seen about the last two episodes hint at a time-and-understanding pacing issue. Many of the articles talk about how the time wasn’t taken to give viewers enough insights into characters as unexpected events occurred.

What's the right pace for our story to make readers care about our characters? Click To TweetA fast pace isn’t automatically good, and a slow pace isn’t automatically bad. Too fast of a pace can mean that we’re shortchanging character development or skipping the insights that will help readers understand the depths of our characters. As with most aspects of our writing, a balance is best.

We want to fully develop our characters and ensure readers understand them. And sometimes that means slowing down the pace to make sure we’re not skipping important context.

Readers Will Care If They Have the Right Context

No matter how much time we let readers and characters spend together, if we skip the journey during big emotional turning points, a piece of the arc will be missing. It’s not enough to include all the disassembled puzzle pieces. We also have to show at least glimpses of how they fit together.

The same goes for behavioral changes or otherwise illogical or non-obvious actions. If we show a character saying and/or acting like they’d never do X, it won’t matter how often we hinted in the subtext that they would, indeed, do X in the future if we don’t show the actual turn.

Subtextual hints are all well and good, but without spending the time to clarify the reasons for why they veer in a new direction now—helping readers understand the trigger that pushes them to the foreshadowed shift—the changes can still feel too forced. The reasons, the trigger, are important for seeing the whole emotional journey.

There are times we want to bring ideas out of the subtext to make sure readers fully understand our story. Stakes, big turning points, and the like are often places where we want readers to know and not just guess.

The Right Pacing and Context Increases Reader Investment

Time and understanding gives readers context. With context, we understand what romantic partners see in each other and how they’re good for each other. We understand why characters behave certain ways toward each other. And we understand their motivations, even if we disagree with them.

In other words, the context readers gain through time and understanding helps them truly care about our characters. Time and understanding makes readers invested. A character readers care about is one that will keep them turning pages all the way to the (hopefully) satisfying ending. *smile*

If you watch Game of Thrones, what was your impression of the finale? Do you think pacing was an issue, and if so, in what way? Do you think more (or clearer) context for our characters can help readers care about them? Thinking back to characters you’ve read but don’t care about, was a lack of time or understanding part of the issue? Do you have other insights into pacing to share?

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Melissa Maygrove

You are not alone. I didn’t watch GoT either.

Deborah Makarios

Me neither! Haven’t read the books either. Just not my cup of tea.

Larry Keeton
Larry Keeton

Though I don’t comment very often, I really enjoy reading your insights into the writing craft. Today’s post is outstanding. I gave me insights into a problem I’d been having with two key characters connecting in my WIP. I can see a solution based on this post.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

I haven’t watched, I’m sure it’s a great series (and made in Northern Ireland!) but I don’t have time for tv except the news at night.
Pacing – yes, I particularly hate the big infodump about characters in the first chapter. Much better to get on with some action and have the character explain how they came to be there etc. to another character.

Laurie Evans

I did watch GOT, and I agree with those who said the ending seemed very rushed.

I was reading a contemporary romance once where the couple met in the first chapter, then went their separate ways…and then still didn’t spend any time together 100 pages later. The book was only 300ish pages. I didn’t finish it.

SomebodyLost
SomebodyLost

I don’t watch GoT too. Nor did I watch Avengers End Game. Come to think of it, I never watched popular movies/shows lately…

Anyway, I agree with this. But funnily enough, one element in the story can kind-of get away with little screentime/pacing, and that’s Big Bad. Especially if the villain is an all-around evil villain with no bias or seeming weakness, like zombies or the supernatural shadow? But that also means that the more interesting villains aren’t like that; they’re the ones we spend time with and get invested in.

Although speaking of evil villains, there was one guy in a game (Persona 5) where he was made out to be a villain for one of the heroines, only to be unceremoniously offed offscreen. It was… unfulfilling. He was used as a plot device for the heroine’s story to progress, but it was still…. eh.

Anyway, thank for this post.

Sieran

Hey Jami,

I haven’t watched any of the Game of Thrones episodes either, but I read all the books. However, I’ve already let others spoil it for me (I gave them the permission to do so).

Yeah I do think that some stories, not just the GoT TV series, are too rushed. They’re not boring stories, but the transitioning between the before and after versions of the character, was insufficient and unsatisfying. The author may try to show the internal dialogue of the character to justify the change or the unexpected decision they make, but the “mental turmoil” they go through was still not compelling enough for me.

Recently, I read some wolf shifter “romances”, but they feel more like erotica, not just because they have little to no relationship building between the two (or more) partners, but because the character motives and actions were so unconvincing to me…I get that the alpha-omega lust/mating instinct is supposed to be very strong, but surely it’s not SO overpowering that they would leap to sex so easily, with almost no hesitation, despite all the personality and doubts they had before they meet this amazingly hot alpha. So it REALLY feels like the characters are not agentic people, but are rather chess pieces that the writer moves to advance the plot…

Morgan Hazelwood

I read the books and episode synopsis, but I found the show FAR too time intensive of an investment, for such a depressing storyline. Bad or decent people forced to choose between horrid and even more horrific options.

But, from what I’ve read, you’re spot on.

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber

Jami,

Recently, I was devouring a romance trilogy. The first book was page-turning at it’s best and had a jaw-dropper I did NOT see coming. Excited, I dove into book two…. and the author lost me. At the end of chapter ten, the lovers were split apart, done. But at the beginning of chapter eleven, they’re in a room, together and, within moments reuniting. I truly expected her to wake from a dream (she’d had a nightmare in the first book), but it wasn’t. I read to the end of book two and started book three, but just felt… Why am I bothering? The author could just pull that trick again on me. No thanks. After the jaw-dropper of the first book, the poor pacing of the second book was doubly disappointing. :sad face:

I have similar concerns about my own work — am I putting it all on the page so the reader knows it? This is where I feel my local writing group comes in: these readers will definitely let me know when I’m not showing enough of the character’s internal journey.

Thanks again for another great post. This one tied my feelings as a reader to the terms I’m learning and navigating as a writer. While it is my goal to “elicit emotions”, I want those emotions to be about the story first!

Anne

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