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The Five Act Pacing Structure

We all know that good stories begin with a compelling plot, characters, and themes. But behind the scenes, all stories are driven by pace: it’s what keeps your story moving. The way you pace a story affects the development of your characters, the unfolding of your plot, and the engagement of your readers. Pacing can be a confusing thing for writers to navigate, but luckily there are some great guidelines for you to use!

Now, there’s no one right way to pace your story, but this is the general structure that many writers follow. Keep in mind that each story is unique; you don’t have to adhere to strict rules to make your writing good. But learning the basics about controlled and consistent pacing is super helpful for writers of any level to make their stories better.

1. Exposition

This is where your story begins! The setting, characters, and main conflict are all introduced here. The goal of your exposition should be to ground your reader in the world of your story before anything too crazy happens. Exposition isn’t all description, though; it can be interwoven with action to make it both informative and exciting for your reader. But don’t spend too much time here, because rising action is where it’s at!

2. Rising Action

This is the largest chunk of your story, where the majority of the action happens. There is usually an inciting incident that occurs, which marks the end of the exposition and start of the rising action. Take your time here! Build tension slowly and consistently, switching between fast-paced and slow-paced scenes to keep your reader engaged, and remember to always keep your central conflict in mind.

3. Climax

This is the highest, most exciting point of your story, where everything comes to a head. The climax will look different depending on your genre: for an action or thriller story, it could be the final battle, but in a romance, it might be when your main character finally proclaims their love for their best friend. Try not to resolve anything too quickly. You spent time building tension in the rising action specifically for this moment, so don’t let it go to waste!

4. Falling Action

If the rising action is the upward slope of a mountain, and the climax is the peak, then the falling action is the slope down the other side. Falling action usually shows the aftermath of the climax. The pace begins to slow as the conflict comes to an end. You don’t have to slope back down to where you started, though. Your characters went on a journey: let the readers see how it’s affected them.

5. Resolution

Think of this as your story’s conclusion. You don’t have to wrap everything up neatly, but the reader should feel reasonably satisfied that the story has come to an end. What do you want to leave your reader with? What do you want them to think about?

To get some more practice with pacing, try taking one of your favorite books or movies and applying these five elements to it. Where does the exposition end and the rising action begin? When does rising action become the climax? Learning to identify these elements in works you know well will give you a great understanding of pacing and help you apply them to your own writing.


About the Author: Lindsey Odorizzi is currently working towards her BA in English and Creative Writing at Brandeis University. She lives in upstate New York with her parents and two sisters, and her cat, Sister. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, or watching Marvel movies. She hopes to be an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their writing.


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