Tension, Pacing and Speedboats

This post, by Ben Whiting, originally appeared as a guest blog entry on Tricia Goyer’s My Writing Mentor blog on 4/20/09.

Every good story has some degree of underlying tension. Even in a character-driven novel like Pride and Prejudice, which is totally devoid of exploding helicopters and other modern action conventions, is full of internal and external conflict. The question is not if? but how much?

Think of your story as a speedboat. You, as the author, are the pilot of this speedboat, charged with controlling both the speed and direction of your story at all times. The reader is pulled along behind you as a water-skier and is free to let go of the rope at any point. Your job is to keep the ride interesting—by taking unexpected turns or traveling at break-neck speeds. Another method of maintain interest is alternating your speed, which is our focus here.

The first reason to vary the speed at which you pull your reader is simple: boredom. Going at the same pace through an entire novel, no matter how gripping that pace may be initially, will sooner or later grow tiresome to the reader. Clichés are avoided for the same reason. Variety is the spice of life. Familiarity breeds contempt. We’ve heard these self-condemning sayings so many times they have lost their impact, and a constant pace in your story will have the same affect.

Perception is the other reason speed variation is important. You need go no further than your local highway to test this theory. To the pedestrian standing on the side of the road, sixty miles and hour is very fast. To a passenger in a car going ninety-five, sixty seems as slow as dial-up Internet access. By taking advantage of this comparative aspect of pacing, an author can make an already tense portion of the story seem even more intense.

Ben Whiting is a full-time English student at the University of Texas at Arlington and co-general editor of the award-winning collegiate publication Marine Creek Reflections. His current writing project, Penumbra, is a contemporary suspense novel that he hopes to finish over the summer.

Read part two, ‘More Boating Techniques’, on Tricia Goyer’s My Writing Mentor blog.

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