Picture a juggler at a carnival. She tosses a tangerine into the air, lets it fly in lazy circles from hand to hand, again and again. Then she tosses a second tangerine into the air and juggles it, too. Then a third, and a fourth. Perhaps the fifth addition isn’t a tangerine at all but an apple, and the sixth is a pear, and your eyes watch the flash of color as the fruit spin in the air. She keeps catching them deftly. As she adds the seventh fruit—an avocado—to the mix, she changes the path of the juggled fruit from a circle to a figure 8. You catch your breath. She adds another avocado, then, unexpectedly, a golf ball, something still spherical but clearly inedible. As the juggling gets more and more complex—while also still satisfying in the regularity of its pattern of movement (that is, in the predictability of the circle or the figure 8, though perhaps the juggler keeps shifting back and forth between the two)—your attention is held riveted. You are waiting for the moment when she will miss a beat and all the fruit will come crashing down to roll away from her feet. Or for the moment when she will maintain the perfect figure 8 with twelve fruit for an entire minute before catching them all in a bag and taking a bow. You don’t know which will happen. Perhaps she fakes a stumble but doesn’t drop any fruit. She keeps you guessing. Perhaps, at the end, after dropping all the other juggled items back into her bag, she will hold the golf ball last and will take a big bite out of it, revealing that it was actually a candy (and edible) all along—an epilogue performed with full cheeks and a cheeky grin.
Each time she added a fruit, she was upping the ante. And you could guess but not flawlessly predict which fruit she’d add. Sometimes, she’d surprise you entirely by adding something fruit-shaped that was not a fruit, only to reveal later that it really was a fruit all along. And you really didn’t know until the end just how far she would go. How far would she push the juggling act? How many fruit? How many times would she switch back and forth from circular to figure-8 juggling? An expert storyteller, like an expert carnival juggler, is a master of pacing and a master at upping the ante.
In your fiction, add ingredients to the story’s conflict, and then keep adding them—while keeping them all in motion, all moving and brought continuously into the reader’s view, juggled for the reader’s delight—until the moment when secrets are revealed, conflicts are brought to a head, and the fruit all crashes either to the floor of the stage or neatly into the bag. You can up the ante comically or tragically or romantically, but it’s the same technique, regardless of the mood.
How many ingredients do you add? The precise number that you can successfully juggle for the reader’s delight (and yours) without fumbling—that’s how many.
– from Write Pacing Your Readers Won’t Forget – a toolkit for fiction writers
Of all my toolkits, I might have enjoyed writing this new book on pacing the most, so far. (Unless I enjoyed writing the book on worldbuilding more, which I confess is possible. That was five years ago, and I can’t be sure.) I am excited to share this class-in-a-book with all of you. Come master the craft of suspense, tension, and revelation – or, put another way, the art of surprising your reader and keeping them surprised: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1736212761