If you’ve ever run in a race (or even watched one), you know about pace. If you start out too fast, you’ll burn out by the end, but if you start out too slow, you’ll never catch up to the pack. You have to pace yourself in order to compete.
Writing a story is no different, you’ve got to think about the pacing your story. If you’ve got too much action and excitement all in a big never-ending blob, your story can get overwhelming to read. You need to give your reader a pause to rest and figure out what’s going on. The opposite problem is slow pacing, focusing too much on exposition and description which makes a story slow and booorrrriiiing.
Your setting can help you pace your story by breaking up your non-stop action, but if you devote too much space to setting, your readers will put your story down.
Using Setting for Pacing Your Story
To help you decide how much space to devote to describing your setting, ask yourself the following questions
1) How important to this specific scene or section of the story is the setting?
If the setting is crucial, devote more time to it. If it’s not that important, you can cut some of it, but keep those details that give enough context that you don’t have floating heads in your story.
2) How can you make the setting enhance the action in the scene?
Using elements of the setting to enhance the action is a great way to get those details in without writing huge descriptive passages. For example, if you have one character chasing another character, you can have them trip over or hide behind key objects. Or maybe you’re writing a scene that takes place at a school. Should the scene happen in the hallway with a locker that has something important exploding out of it? The school bathroom with graffiti covered stalls where someone is hiding and eavesdropping? Or possibly the computer lab?
If you are intentional in choosing your settings, they’re much easier to tie into the action without halting your story to describe where your characters are.
3) If you need a break in the action, are there any objects or details in the setting that you can focus on to pause the action?
4) Can you use a focus on setting to dramatically slow the pace to create suspense?
A great example of this strategy comes from The Hunger Games. Right when the gong is supposed to ring for the tributes to begin fighting, Collins devotes two and a half full pages to Katniss’ descriptions of the setting and thoughts about it. She describes the cornucopia of supplies and weapons, the “plain of hard-packed dirt,” the woods, the other tributes, her own skills as a runner. This pause in the action to focus on setting, creates a ton of suspense. We’re with Katniss…waiting for the gong to ring
This strategy is a favorite of horror films. Who wants to see someone march right up to the closed door when you know there’s something scary there. Nope, never happens. Instead, we spend five minutes of movie time watching characters sneak around.
Think about how you can play with setting in your current story.