Space to Breathe
So I've been thinking a lot about pacing and structure in my own stories, and one thing that's become increasingly clear is the importance--the necessity, really--of giving your story space to breathe.
Particularly for novels* with a lot of tension, there's a tendency to think the whole story should be tense: if you drop the tension, all of the air goes out of the story.
But in fact, the opposite tends to be true. As is true with so many things, if you spend an extended time in a feeling of suspense or anxiety, it all tends to flatten out into something less meaningful. The moments that are supposed to feel very impactful end up feeling the same as the less impactful moments.
What you can--and should--do instead is give your story space to breathe. Deliberately lower the tension for a scene or even a chapter and let everything settle. Here are a few ways to do that:
Have your character process a traumatic or impactful event. One of the easiest ways to cheapen a character injury, death, near-death, or massive reveal is to not give any time to process it. So give your character a chance to cry, talk about it, or otherwise process what happened. It doesn't need to be immediately after the event, because often you will want to keep that tension high for a while, but if you are giving the reader a traumatic event, give them the emotional payoff of having the characters deal with it.
Have your characters feel safe. This can be a real safety or a false safety, but if your characters feel/are in danger for much of the story, giving them that sense of safety can ease the tension for a little bit. It can also increase the impact of an event immediately after it--being attacked or injured when they feel safe has a very different emotional payoff for the reader than being attacked or injured when they already feel like they're in danger.
Have your characters take advantage of a lull in tension. Along with the previous instance, this can take place when there's an in-story lull--the prom isn't for another week, the ritual can't happen until the full moon, the enemy is still a hundred miles away--where the characters themselves deliberately decide to put the tension aside and take some times for themselves.
In all of these instances, you give yourself an opportunity for an even higher emotional payoff later while also providing the characters with an opportunity for more normal interaction. How do they interact when the stakes aren't so high? What do their relationships look like?
*short stories have an entire different structure and different sense of pacing and tension, and this advice doesn't apply nearly as well to them.
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