How Not To Walk Your Dog: Poor Pacing In The SCP Format
rating: +42+x

Have you ever walked a dog? There's a certain art to it that's hard to appreciate. Both the pet and the owner have to be in step. If the dog slows down, the owner better slow down if they don't want the dog to choke their on the leash, and if the dog speeds up, then the owner better be ready to chase a squirrel at mach 5. In order for a walk to be good for both the dog and the owner, ultimately the owner has to be able to predict the dog's pace and respond accordingly.

Now, what does walking a dog have to do with writing for this site? It involves going outside so we're immediately raising some red flags here. This is obviously an analogy. The author is the dog, and the reader is the owner. The author controls the pace of the story, but they better hope that the reader understands where that pacing is going.

If a walk is poorly paced (the dog spends time wandering off the path, the path itself is too long, etc), you'll run the chance of boring the owner. You want each walk to make the owner yearn for another. And in the same spirit you don't want your stories to feel long and rambling without purpose, but instead they should feel purposeful and rewarding.

In this essay I'm not going to tackle pacing with regard to fiction in general. That is a topic for another time. Instead, I'm going to focus on pacing specifically with regard to the SCP format, as there are certain pitfalls that are inherent to this format that don't creep up as much in other forms of fiction.

What is Pacing?

Before I go too far into how to look at pacing within an article, its good to have a common definition so we're all on the same page. There's many definitions of exactly what pacing is, each one is going to be a little bit different and will probably vary from person to person (like many literary terms). However, for the purpose of this essay I'm going to define pacing thusly:

Pacing is the speed with which a story unfolds.

Now, let me clarify a few things about this definition: when I am talking about speed, I'm talking about how fast the story unfolds for the reader. I can summarize the events of an entire week in a sentence, or I could describe a single minute of action over the course of a page. What matters is how long it takes the reader to get through the story, not how quickly it unfolds in-universe.

Good pacing is generally the skill of spending the right amount of time on any given component of a piece of fiction. Spend too little time and the reader will begin to feel lost, but spend too much time and the reader will get bored. As long as the reader feels compelled to see what happens next in your article, then that is generally a sign of good pacing. The owner should want to finish that walk.

Escalation

Before we get into the individual components of an SCP, I want to first address important aspect of pacing that is applicable to every part of an SCP. Even when you're scoped out the content to be as tight as possible, the presentation of that content matters. You want to make sure that each part of your article drives the reader onward. There are a number of mechanisms for doing this in general fiction (building suspense, using cliffhangers), but one mechanism that is exploited often in SCPs especially is escalation.

Escalation is really the act of pushing the boundaries set previously. Escalation can happen over the course of an entire article, an addendum, or a single paragraph. You can also escalate with a number of different attributes: humor, horror, tragedy. As long as the next "part" does "more" than the previous "part" then you're escalating.

Bringing this back to our dog walking metaphor, its like making sure that each leg of your path has a constant slope. If there is a constant upward slope for one leg, it gives the owner a goal to reach. If there's a constant downward slope then there's the joy of letting gravity take charge. Either way, it gives the owner a reason to keep going.

Now, that's still fairly abstract, but I think it will make a little more sense with an exercise. Take a draft of yours, and look at the description. Divide that description up into either paragraphs or sentences; whatever level of granularity you think best segments the different ideas you are presenting. Finally, order those segments in order of how interesting you think they are, from least interesting to most interesting.

Assuming you didn't end up with the same order you have in your description, you should be able to compare the way your description currently reads, to the newly sorted description you've just created. There's a good chance that the new description will have a sense of build, like it's progressing toward something in particular. This feeling generally encourages a reader to continue reading, since the sense of progression feels rewarding.

This is the power of escalation. It's something that can be applied to almost any part of an article, be it the description, containment procedures, or even the SCP as a whole.

Special Containment Procedures

Let's jump right into the SCP format now, shall we? And where better to start than at the beginning: with the containment procedures.

Pacing in containment procedures is strangely tricky business, since they have to serve both the out-of-universe role of being a hook for the rest of the article, as well as an in-universe purpose of detailing how exactly the anomaly is contained. The issue here comes at the crossroads between "what is necessary for a strong hook" and "what is necessary to contain the anomaly".

This brings us to a common pitfall, especially for newer authors: writing overly-detailed containment procedures. There are a number of details that normally need to be worked out in-universe, but would bore any reader. This brings us to our first Kirby Rule That Probably Has Many ExceptionsTM:

Kirby Rule 1: You want to make sure that each part of your containment procedures directly creates intrigue or suspense. If a sentence in a set of containment procedures doesn't raise some sort of question in the mind of the reader, it should probably be cut.

Description

The description is another one of those meat-and-potatoes aspects of an article. It's also similar to the containment procedures, in that the description serves an out of universe purpose that somewhat conflicts with its in-universe purpose. Because of this, descriptions can run into the same problem of being unnecessarily detailed.

However, we can't use the same rules for descriptions as we do for containment procedures, largely because their purposes out-of-universe differ. Where containment procedures generally work as hooks in an article to make the reader interested and want to read on, the description is largely used to set up the premise for the rest of the article.1 This means that each part of the description shouldn't necessarily raise questions, as it should work to answer questions as well.

How do we reconcile this difference? Well, we need to ensure that the reader has enough information so the rest of the article makes sense, but we also need to make sure the reader doesn't get bored with unnecessary details. Luckily for us, we have our next Kirby Rule That Probably Has Many ExceptionsTM:

Kirby Rule 2:To ensure that the description of an article is tight, each section of the description should fall into one of three categories:

  • Mechanics: These paragraphs describe something about the way the anomaly works. Since explanations like this tend to be more on the boring side, make sure that you only describe mechanics that are required for the story to make sense. If the reader doesn't need to understand a mechanic, you shouldn't include it.
  • Imagery: Imagery in the description should only really be included if there isn't a picture to do the work for you. If you have a picture, you generally don't need to go into great depth describing what the anomaly looks like. However, if you do not have a picture, and there are interesting visuals you can describe, it is in your best interest to paint a vivid image. Besides, providing extensive imagery is one of the few aspects of the description that makes sense both in-universe, and out-of-universe.
  • Plot Point: Sometimes there is necessary plot information that must be included in the description. Whether or not you choose to include a plot point in the description should be dependent on how necessary that information is to understand the article overall, much like with mechanics.

One thing to note is that, often times the description does not need to be all-encompassing. You can purposefully leave information out of the description so you can explore it in a more engaging manner in addenda later on. One of the key rules we will talk about regarding addenda is that they should not repeat information from the description, but this could also be solved by simply trimming down the description.

Addenda

Now we start getting into a part that is going to vary greatly between different articles. Addendum are so varied in nature that I can't make pacing suggestions that will cover every possibility. While things like escalation can generally be applied to any given addendum format, there are nuances to any format that will allow for its own unique pacing mechanisms. What I'm going to do instead, is just talk about a few common types of addenda, and speak to things to watch out for when pacing those specific types.

Experiment Logs

Experiment logs are a fairly common thing to find in an SCP article. Usually a number of them are serially presented to expand on the description. However, before I talk about how to pace an experiment log, I want to first address the circumstances when you even should include one. The following Kirby Rule That Probably Has Many ExceptionsTM should help you determine if your experiment log is even necessary in the first place:

Kirby Rule 3: Experiment log entries should probably fit the following three rules:

  • They do not reiterate information presented in the description
  • They contribute something new to the reader's understanding of the anomaly
  • They either escalate from the previous entry, or explore a different aspect of the anomaly entirely. (See Escalation above)

Usually experiment logs are put to best use on simple article that include relative simple anomalies, that can be interpreted in increasingly complex and surprising ways.2 They can also be utilized in more complex entries, however usually they are a supplement instead of becoming the core of the article.

If you follow these rules your experiment log will keep the reader's interest throughout the log. If you can't think of any entries in an experiment log that satisfy these rules, then there's a reasonable chance that you don't need one.

Interviews

Interviews are another topic that could probably use its own essay. There's so much that you can do with just the power of dialogue. But we're not here to talk about that. We're here to talk about keeping an interview clean and tight.

One of the interesting differences between interviews and almost every other part of an SCP article is that this is one of the few places where you really build characters. This changes a lot of the core ideas we have built up previously, because that means that there could be parts of an interview that don't contribute at all to the plot, or the reader's understanding of the anomaly, yet are perfectly justified because they help with characterization.

In some sense, characterization in an interview is a lot like imagery in the description. It may not directly pertain to the core of the narrative or an important part of the anomaly, it still has its place in the article. The only difference is that, instead of painting a visual, characterization paints a person.

However, this doesn't mean that you can have characters in an interview give long, winding answers just because it might give us insight into their personality. There's still a balance to be struck between a character telling a shaggy-dog story, and dropping a few extra details to round of the character.

So, let's talk about how to write a tight interview with yet another Kirby Rule That Probably Has Many ExceptionsTM:

Kirby Rule 4: The entirety of an interview should seek to give the reader new information regarding the anomaly, or some aspect of the narrative. Much like with experiment logs, there should be almost no redundant information.

To determine if a certain exchange is worth adding to the interview that doesn't contribute to the reader's understanding of the anomaly, it should satisfy the following three criteria:

  • The exchange must make sense given the personalities of the characters involved.
  • The exchange introduces or reinforces an attribute of a character that is relevant to another part of the narrative (usually in motivating a character's actions later on).
  • The exchange flows smoothly from the previous part of the interview, and integrates smoothly into the next part.

Criteria one and two are generally more important than three, however if the transition is too jarring you could interrupt the flow of the reader, which hurts the pacing.

You can also aid the pacing of any interview (or most dialogue for that matter) if there's some sort of conflict between the characters involved. It might not play out directly on the page, but if there's some semblance of a struggle between characters, it makes the reader want to read on to see who comes out on top. If everyone in an interview is working together, then it usually plays flat, since a story's sense of progression is usually tied to the characters' struggles against conflict.

Conclusion

Hopefully I've outlined some tips you can use to tighten up the pacing of your SCP article. As always, this sort of thing is very subjective. What I've presented here is just how I go about making sure my SCPs flow well, and feel compelling to read. There's going to be some exceptions, and not every rule will work for everyone, but hopefully this gives you a place to start if you have no clue what you're doing with regard to this thing we call "pacing".

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License