In this article, I'm going to explore some of the pitfalls writers, particularly new writers, face when assembling a story, and hopefully help you avoid them. The Story Forum here is littered with unfinished works that could have been quite good, had the writer avoided the traps that derail a good yarn.
Pacing is a word which gets thrown around a lot, and it's somewhat enigmatic. Many new writers set out to write a story with a singular idea in their head, usually just a crucial moment where something spectacular happens. In their rush to tell the reader about this incredible event, they often forget to actually write a story beforehand.
Great stories, no matter how simple the plot, lead the reader patiently to the climax by introducing the characters and developing them over time. Rather than present characters in a, "Hi, I'm so and so, and this is my life story," manner, they gradually take the reader through a window into those characters' lives. The purpose here is to create empathy - to give the reader a reason to care about the people in the story.
If you just dive on in and write, "This is Joe and he's X years old and he was going to school one day and got tackled by a bunch of cheerleaders who put him in diapers and baby clothes and led him around school all day and he was super embarrassed but secretly liked it," you never gave the reader a chance to know who Joe was, who the cheerleaders were, why any of this stuff happened, or why they should care about any of it. While that little sentence is pretty out there, I've seen story fragments that aren't far from it. Your reader doesn't see into your head - unless you give them that window.
The other thing you need to consider regarding pacing is what happens after the big climax. If it's the tragic death of your hero, well, you're off the hook and that can be the end of your story, but most of the time it isn't, and a lot of people make the mistake of having nowhere to go from the big event. The story dies right there, or worse, it's finished with a half-cocked "happily ever after" paragraph or two that leaves the whole thing feeling cold.
Before you even start writing, you've got to think out the entirety of your plot, and know what sorts of little steps you are going to take to lead the reader into and out of your big event(s). It's very, very difficult to just improvise the rest of the story with no real plan in your mind before you start to write. If you have a plan, you'll find it easier to pace your story in such a way that the journey to whatever big moment or moments you have in store will be just as enjoyable for the reader as the big moments themselves.
This really is such a crucial piece of writing a good story, and is so often lost in the rush to spill out a great event. The important thing here is that the reader doesn't want a laundry list at the beginning of the story stating that the character, "...is X years old, lives with (person), does (hobby), and likes (fetish)." No empathy is established here. If you reveal your character's personality in pieces by presenting situations that demonstrate their likes, dislikes, family situation, quirks, and other important parts of them, then the story comes alive.
The best stories allow characters to gradually reveal themselves over the course of the first few chapters. We might find out that your main character is in 10th grade because he hops on the bus and heads to school, and casual mention is made of how being a sophomore sucks. We might find out that your character is AB because she gets home from school and pads up, or perhaps she gets distracted in class wishing she had her binky. We may find out that he has a self-confidence problem when he gets teased by some kid and has to struggle not to break into tears.
For example, you could introduce your story by saying "I'm 14 years old," or you could introduce your story by saying "Today is the last day of 8th grade, and I couldn't be happier to be out of middle school!" Both accomplish the same task, but whereas the first sentence tells reader who the character is, the second sentence shows the reader who the character is. This gives the reader something to chew - something to make your character interesting, instead of a bunch of stats on a D&D character sheet. It's all about flow, and introducing personality components needs to fit into that flow in order to make people care about your character.
I bang on this a lot when I look at stories in development here and on other sites. When you sit down to write a story, you have, no doubt, a movie in your head about what's happening. That's great - it's much easier to write when you can see what's happening - but, for the reader to see the movie as well, you have to give him all the details of what you’re seeing.
If you start your story with, "Jake woke up late and dashed down the stairs and yelled, 'Bye Mom! I'll see you later!' and ran out the door," what have you told us? Uh, well, his house has stairs and a door, but we don't really have a picture of what that scene looked like, because you didn't give us one. What did his bedroom look like? Does he have posters on the wall? Does he sleep on a bunk, or a single bed? What clothes does he put on before he runs downstairs? Is there a hallway upstairs before he gets to the staircase or is it just a couple of doors and then the stairs? What room is he in when he gets downstairs: the living room, the kitchen, or possibly another hallway? Where is Mom when he yells? What is she doing?
There are so many details that you think are insignificant to the story, but are what make the story come alive. These details are what make it real to your reader. If you pass over them, the reader has to imagine everything, and what they imagine might not jive with your vision, which ruins the story.
It bears repeating: the reader cannot see inside your head. You have to give them that window, by being detailed in your descriptions.
Instead of "Jake woke up late and dashed down the stairs and yelled, 'Bye Mom! I'll see you later!'' as he ran out the door," you could say:We haven't even gotten to "Bye Mom!" and we're already in a much more vivid story than we would have been, giving your reader a glimpse at the movie in your head.Jake woke with a start. His alarm clock was flashing 12:00. "DAMN!" he thought, and wished he'd gotten around to replacing the backup batteries. "Stupid thunderstorm," he muttered as he flung his blanket off, jumped up in his stocking feet, and dashed over to the closet. He stared in the full-length mirror and bemoaned his disastrous hair, then threw the door open and grabbed a pair of jeans off a hanger. He bounced toward his dresser on one leg, then the other, pulling his jeans up as he went.
What if you don't have a movie in your head? Well, you need to figure out those details before you start writing. You need to see that movie before you can expect anyone else to get excited about reading it.
Great storytelling doesn't start with a great plot, it starts with a great picture. The more of your story that you show the reader by giving the details, telling us how people feel rather just what they do, the more you make that picture come alive on the page.