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.
- Story Structure: We can use beat sheets to verify that plot turning points are happening at the right point to satisfy readers.
- Tension: Emotion, contrast, strong goals, conflict, foreshadowing, and even paragraph breaks can all increase tension, which affects pacing.
- Narrative Drive: The story should have a sense of forward movement, that events are moving toward a satisfying ending.
- Obstacles: A sense of conflict—if the conflict is meaningful and not random—creates tension, which increases a story’s pace.
- Goals and Stakes: Pacing drags if the stakes aren’t rising throughout the story, and stakes can’t exist without goals at risk.
- Infodumps: Dumping information from backstory, worldbuilding, or descriptions without a point of view will pull down the pace of a scene.
- Narrative Elements: Too much of anything—action, dialogue, description, introspection, etc.—in a row can hurt pacing, so we want to limit any one element to about two or three paragraphs before adding something else to the mix.
- Sentence Structure: Long, complex sentences slow down a paragraph’s pace, and short, choppy sentences speed up a paragraph’s pace. There’s a time and place for both.
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…
- 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?Pin It