Epistolary Pacing

I’ll be honest, when I wrote TECHNICALLY, YOU STARTED IT I had only a vague idea of how to manage the pacing. I had the basics: a sense of time and story progression. I had a weak beginning and an ending too spread out to achieve the right emotional payoff.

But those are normal pacing problems.

The epistolary format brings extra fun challenges of its own, both within the structure and in service to the plot.

Character vs Plot

Because the format limits your story not only to character perspective, but voice as well, there are sacrifices that have to be made. To decide how to proceed, you have to know if you want to prize plot or character more highly.

Even in the most beloved epistolaries you’ll start losing the tightness of perspective in service of the plot. Consider Dracula where whole exchanges are transcribed in a way that makes no sense within the context of a letter, because progressing the plot transcended the authors adherence to format. The result is a more exciting story and pacing that matches the genre.

I chose character, because, for me, the arcs were most important. There are elements of my story that are reinforced by the strictly limited perspective. Others have done the same to great effect. Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster is slow at first but picks up speed as the reader grows invested in discovering the identity of the titular character. The plot is limited by the concerns of the letter writer.  The result is a quieter story whose pacing matches the main character’s development.

It’s important to know the limitations of each. It’s also important to choose the priority for yourself. Knowing ahead of time if you want a tight plot or a devotion to character will impact the decisions you make on what is important to emphasize and where to slow your readers down.

Maintaining Pace within the Format

In addition to being character driven, my entire story is written in text messages. In writing, that’s basically the same as a book in pure dialogue. Readers slide through dialogue faster than narrative. They don’t sit with it the same way they do description or blocking. To make sure story elements stayed with the reader I had to slow them down.

To achieve that, I began playing with grammar and punctuation. By giving one of my characters a very different cadence from the other, I changed the rhythm in the reader’s head. That makes them work a little harder than if both characters’ cadence was identical.

Then I played with repetition. Important people had to be brought up in different yet consistent ways. I needed them to be memorable based solely on these references because they had little or no dialogue. But, because I was using callbacks structurally, I also had to be careful with lingering too long in any situation or repeating unimportant information. Some of my dearest darlings had to be cut in service of the story.

Assignment:

Chart out your epistolary or epistolary elements and determine if they’re serving plot, character, or both. Evaluate how emphasis in each impacts the overall pace of the story. Make sure each scene is going the right speed for your readers. Use the tricks described to slow the readers down or speed them up. For sections that emphasize neither character nor story, take them out and see what you’re missing.

Lana Wood JohnsonLana Wood Johnson was born and raised in Iowa in the time before the internet but has spent the rest of her life making up for that. After years working in wireless communication for companies of all sizes, she now works doing the same for a local youth shelter. Lana lives in Minnesota with her husband and their English bulldog. TECHNICALLY, YOU STARTED IT is her debut novel.

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