To me, all writing is like music. ~ Dirk Benedict
Your job as a novel writer is to structure the many elements in a story into a cohesive whole that will transport readers. The plot must unfold at the right pace, progressing in a logical order
Compare the similarities between music and writing, and you’ll gain insight into story pacing. Imagine, if you will, that you are a composer writing a master symphony with the goal of captivating your audience. Numerous considerations occupy your mind, chief among them the pacing of your composition. Each of the musical movements travels at a different tempo but should fit into the overall pacing. Every instrument must chime in at the right moment, not before or after. Entrances, progressions, dynamics, and resolutions matter. In short, you must weave the fabric of this musical piece from its individual threads.
Pace Your Story Like a Symphony
Learning to pace your story is both a science and an art. My college studies taught me the mathematical nature of music. However through what would seem a strict framework, beautiful melodies wend. This is similar to the way story structure supports creative artistry in a novel.
The Whole Picture
The overall pace of a symphony is the sum total of its passages. When people speak of a novel as fast-paced or sedate, they’re referring to the overall pacing. Individual scenes can move more slowly or quickly than the rest of the novel without changing the big picture, which takes the whole book into account. The mood of the piece, determined by what the author wants to impart, affects the overall pacing in both novels and music. A novel writer can use the expectations of the story’s anticipated audience as a guide to help determine this. Find out what they want by reading novels at the top of your book’s genre.
A story has a beginning, middle, and end. Those who advocate the three-act plotting model sometimes divide the middle section in two because it comprises about 50% of the story, divided by a midpoint scene. This segments the novel into four parts, causing it to resemble a classical symphony with four movements. The speed of a musical movement is called its tempo. In classical music, this follows a proscribed pattern—fast, slower, moderate, and fast again. Starting out at a fast clip, letting up to give the reader and your characters a little breathing room and deepen the story, then picking up the action leading into a fast-paced climactic scene makes sense for a novel.
The first movement of a symphony is divided into three main sections with purposes that align to fiction. The first introduces a strong story theme and a secondary one. It also gives the character of the work. The second section develops this material and puts it through changes. The third section briefly recaps the first, but in a slightly different form.
In a novel, Act I is dedicated to establishing the characters and themes. It introduces conflict and concludes with the main character engaging in inevitable change.
First Half of the Story Middle
A symphony slows for the second movement. The audience can relax for a moment and drink in the beauty of the lyrical phrasing. This movement provides a needed contrast with the more driving passages to come.
Maintaining an unrelenting pace in a novel can wear out readers. Give them a moment in the sun to rest and brace for your story’s climactic scene. Keep up the tension with unresolved questions, foreshadowing, and by incorporating conflicts between characters. This should take readers into the midpoint scene, where your protagonist has a change of heart. The midpoint scene leads into the black moment, where everything seems lost, followed by an epiphany, a moment of clarity that transforms the protagonist in a way that makes defeating the antagonist now possible. This shifts the story toward resolution.
Second Half of the Story Middle
The pace picks up for the energetic third movement of a symphony. The music splits into three sections once again. First there’s dance music, followed by a contrasting melody, then the dance returns.
The protagonist of a novel comes out of the epiphany moment ready to fight for the desired outcome. This struggle becomes a kind of dance with opposing forces.
The fourth movement of a symphony repeats the main theme several times, with other melodies countering it in a rollicking free-for-all before it comes to a satisfying finish.
The climactic scene of a novel restates and proves out the theme as the protagonist defeats the antagonist. The story ends with a reward as readers savor the victory.
Final Thoughts From Janalyn
It’s important to note that the basic structure of a symphony can vary. A composer might swap the middle movements or begin on a slow note. The form was not meant as anything but a guide. Adapt it to your novels with that in mind. To learn more about using musical techniques in fiction writing, read Teach Your Writing Voice to Sing.
Do you struggle with pacing? If so, let me know what you need help with most. If not, please share your tips.