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The Slow Burn



The Slow Burn

One of the elements of a really good story that we’ve discussed before on this board had to deal with ‘pacing’. Now, while it seems like such a thing should feel natural and almost effortless to some writers...it’s actually not that way for everybody. In fact, it’s a very delicate balance that I feel should be recognized and respected when it comes to putting a story together in a way that could be considered ‘effective’ when it comes to getting your message and your emotions across to your audience. Too many moving parts can come off as being chaotic and confusing, while too few can come off as directionless and downright boring. For most of the stuff that I put out, I try to balance the two extremes out in a way that will draw readers in and give them a full experience...while still providing enough entertainment to keep them interested and invested in what’s going on. BUT...there are times that I definitely want to slow things down and take my time to build a story that will have more depth and character building than anything that I could write in a ‘confined space’. Things like sex, romance, humor, or direct conflict, are present, sure...but they don’t take center stage until later on in the story. At least not in the way that I imagine it.

Now...why would a writer ever want to slow down their pacing when they’re obviously trying to grab the attention of their audience and hold onto it for as long as possible? And if such a thing is possible? How do we pull that off?

That’s what we’re talking about today! Feel free to add any thoughts or feelings of your own on this topic, as I’m always looking to learn as much as I look forward to teaching. :P

So...what is a ‘slow burn’, exactly? It’s the craft of telling a story that is heavily focused on the characters involved in the plot, but doesn’t necessarily push for story advancement or major events until the readers are fully immersed in the proper mindset. It might seem like nothing major is happening, but the idea is to give your audience the promise that everything that they’re reading and learning about is all a part of the master plan, and will have some deeper meaning later on. It’s a gradual rise towards something great, if only they’re patient enough to stick with it. I’ve incorporated this technique into quite a few of my stories, and I’ve learned to hone my instincts to leave just enough breadcrumbs along the trail to inspire the kind of patience that I need for the story to work. Nothing major or too flashy...but interesting. That’s where the magic lies.

The advantage of writing a slow burn story is that it gives you almost limitless room to explore the ‘space’ of your story and the characters that populate it. There are going to be times when you might feel as though you need to force your way towards that big moment that you think your readers are looking for, and I definitely think that you shouldn’t allow your story to stall in some state of limbo where nothing I happening at all...but if you really have more to say before anything ‘big’ happens...take your time and let it happen naturally. Give yourself some room. Working on a project with a slow burn approach give you time to do some world building (If applicable), or to really give everyone a deeper understanding for your protagonist and the people surrounding them. Ask yourself, what’s the backstory? What’s the motivation? If there are obstacles waiting for your main character on the horizon...what are they? And why do they affect your characters the way it does? Let’s get the whole story from you. I realize that every little tiny bit of information isn’t necessary to tell a story if it isn’t needed...but if you’ve got parts of your story, your character’s history, the relationship that they have with their friends, or their siblings, or their parents...don’t be afraid to add those elements into the mix and explore them at length before rushing to get that first kiss or sexual experience out of the way.

Get to know your own characters, and allow your readers to get a chance to know them as well as you do. Sometimes, this can be essential in making a good story GREAT! The idea is to always keep a sense of momentum building in every chapter, even when your main character and your love interest aren’t making out or getting naked for ‘sexy time’. Know where your story is headed, but relax a bit and take some time to weave your protagonist’s mind set into the expectations of your audience. Make it your goal to learn at least ONE new thing about one of your spotlight characters per chapter. Remember when we talked about story arcs? Keep that in mind when you’re doing this. It can be a direct action, a bold piece of dialogue, or even just a series of inner thoughts that shows a change and a progression in your character that you can later use to your advantage. So, when those big moments DO happen in your story...they’ll have increased meaning and purpose to everyone invested in your narrative, because your audience will have gone on that journey with the characters that you’ve taken so much time and such care to build up from scratch. And nothing makes your story more memorable than having your readers be actively involved with your characters’ growth. Trust me.

What you need to do as a writer is make sure that you stay focused on the plot that you have planned out from the very beginning. The last thing you want to do is start wandering aimlessly where your readers get lost as to whether this story has a point of not. Concentrate and stay on track! A slow burn is not an abandonment of story structure or an excuse to throw your instincts about story pacing out the window. Please don’t take this article as a license to do that. It isn’t. It’s merely a call to slow down when putting your story together to see things from more than just a few angles. It’s meant to give you room to ‘explore’ as a writer, and create a rich and satisfying experience for the crowd that might actually really like diving deeper into the hearts and minds of the people you’ve written about. The more they connect to your characters...the more they care about them. And the higher the stakes are when it comes to them possibly getting hurt or rejected by the boy of heir dreams. Those stakes will keep readers glued to every word, and it will help to create the kind of momentum that I was talking about. Whether your protagonist needs love, or needs courage, or needs to get over past mistakes and hardships, or simply need protecting...you readers will provide that energy for you when they’re moving from page to page. It’s difficult to explain, but not really all that hard to do.

Think about the times you spent hanging out with some of the best friends that you’ve ever had. Sometimes...it’s just a good time for the sake of having a good time, right? Some laughs, some deeper thoughts being shared, a couple of memories exchanged, whatever. But even though you’re not expecting that particular time spent together to be leading towards anything magnificent...it doesn’t lose its significance. You’re building a true connection, a foundation, and a history between characters. This is all a part of the ‘show, don’t tell’ process of writing. What may seem slow and mundane to some is actually a strengthening exercise for your story to take. If your protagonist’s best friend happens to be a bit of a hot head...this is your opportunity to display that through a more involving interaction. Maybe you have that character come close to losing their temper over a simple slip of the tongue or a misunderstood joke. Or, maybe they’re having fun and begin talking about how they both got into a heated brawl on the playground with a couple of punks when they were younger. If it’s some expansive world building that you want to do? This is the time to explore that as well. Is this world heavily ruled by a militaristic regime? Is it a fantasy world full of monsters and magic? Does it take place in the current day, or in the future? Or maybe many decades in the past? A slow burn progression in a story is an opportunity to flesh out the details of the reality your characters have been given to work with. You can get a feel for the lingo and the gestures that are used. You can show your readers the kind of advantages or dangers that they might have during this time or in this particular place. You don’t want to explain everything and cause it to be an info dump that will ultimately overwhelm and possibly confuse your readers. What you want to do is make everything feel three dimensional and ‘real’ by giving the characters, the plot, and the world in which they exist, the feeling that this is simply the way things are and have always been. I believe that it helps to create a certain level of familiarity with the illusion that you’re trying to paint with your fiction. It’s like...whenever I talk to an old friend or a family member that I haven’t seen in ages...my brain has to create a ‘story’ that links the two of us together. I remember old parties that we went to, or sleepovers that we had, or laughs that we shared over the years...and I have a wealth of inside knowledge into who this person is and why we have the relationship that we do. That ‘story’ is what bonds us together. If I had total amnesia and didn’t remember the little things about this person at all, or vice versa...would we still be close? Without that history of random events and knowledge of so-called mundane moments, what would there be left to bond over? The idea of using the slow burn method is to fill in those gaps with something more personal. More emotionally engaging.

Sometimes, more often than you would think, I see authors simply using their characters or the scenery around them to simply carry the plot forward without really involving them in the story in any significant way. You read on, and if you were to ask yourself, “Why is this character in the story?”...chances are the answer is, “They’re here to deliver this particular piece of information to my protagonist.” Well...ok. Straightforward, and right to the point. But once the information has been delivered, what else is there for them to do? They either fade into the background, or simply vanish altogether. And they’re simply not needed anymore. Which begs the question...

...Were they ever really needed in the first place?

Now, I’m not saying that it’s totally wrong to use certain characters in this fashion, but when you have enough space to explore their necessity in a story, and make them a memorable, three dimensional, part of the narrative...you can create a need for them that goes beyond the ‘one’ thing that they were meant to do. If that makes sense. Otherwise, they come off as that random guy in the red shirt on an episode of ‘Star Trek’. What is their purpose? Their purpose is to die and demonstrate the threat that the characters we care about most will have to face between their last breath and the roll of the end credits. As opposed to series like ‘The Walking Dead’, where even the most beloved and well loved characters may end up not coming home by the end of the show. Using a slow burn to fill everything out and give it some color and meaning can occasionally be a better way to go than using your characters to just move the plot forward from point A, to point B, to point C, with no real involvement beyond that.

We all have people in our lives who basically exist in the background as far as our goals and motivations are concerned. I don’t mean for that to sound as bad as it does, but it’s true. Acquaintances, co-workers, people we see in the hallway on our way to class, or that one guy that we always see at the coffee shop or on the bus or train on the way to work. We may turn a blind eye to them as an actual human being...but the truth is, those people have thoughts, passions, wants, and needs, just like the rest of us. The next time you’re out and about...look around you with that in mind. Take a moment to actually see them, and think about who they might be beyond being an ‘extra’ in your personal movie from day to day.

A slow burn approach to a story can make the world around you so much more interesting than you might give it credit for...once you get everyone to pay attention.

I hope this helps, folks! Happy writing, and I’ll seezya soon! We’ve got so much more to talk about! Hehehe!


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5 hours ago, CassieQ said:

I've noticed that drama and romance lend themselves to slow burn extremely well, much more that books that are very plot based, like thrillers and mysteries.  

I would have to agree! A gripping mystery/thriller often makes me want to read that story faster, just to see how everything comes together. But you could say the same about a multitude of media these days. Maybe there's an argument to be had about modern attention spans, or the lack thereof. I still stand by the fact that slow burn is really hard to pull off well in the web fiction medium. And I don't think it has anything to do with how well a piece is written, but perhaps more the feeling that something is burning too slowly, and you're having to wait 'x' number of days/weeks to get to the thing you really want to read already, because obviously posting quality chapters with any consistency is a skill in and of itself. I haven't been on GA long enough to have a worthwhile opinion, but as you say, romance and drama seem like really compelling genres for slow burn. Everything I've read so far on GA has pointed to that fact at least. Thanks for all your hard work GA authors 👏👏👏

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9 hours ago, CassieQ said:

This is a great article dealing with a complicated issue.  It's SO HARD to find that perfect balance between moving the story forward and fleshing out the necessary components.  

100% agree.  Finding that balance makes a big difference between a good story and a great story.  The slow build can give the author more time to develop the characters and give the readers insight into their feelings and how those feelings can dictate their actions.  Give the readers a reason to fall in love or fall in hate with a character.  Make them as real as possible and the reader is invested in them and the outcome of the story.

I would only add that sometimes, a red herring or two can keep the reader entertained if done right.   Sometimes, readers enjoy trying to figure out the puzzle of a good mystery before it's properly revealed towards the end.  So, adding a few dead ends can go a long way.  Just don't make a habit of it or else it'll become too transparent or too frustrating for them.

If you're really feeling sadistic, you could draw some secrets out over the course of several books and even then keep them more suggestive than just hitting the reader over the head with the "truth."  Not that I would ever do anything so mean....

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As a reader, comments often lead us to think of slow burn in a romantic/sexual context.  You touched on this, but made me realize that that the term covers so much more than sex or romance.  It covers many things like changes in attitude, healing, and beliefs.  Thanks!

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This was such a good and insightful read, thanks for writing this up! 

I think slow burn stories require patience from both the reader and the author. The reader has to have patience to go through all the slow burn chapters until the story picks up the pace, and of course the author's job is to make sure that initial part of the story is engaging and not boring. But the author must also have the patience to properly lay out the story and characters, and to make sure the pacing is just right - because sometimes it's very tempting to ditch that idea and kick off the story with a bang (something I like to do) instead of taking it slow. 

I agree with the comments saying that slow burn works really well with drama and romance, but it can also work well in other genres if done correctly. I remember reading a visual novel where the first 6 or so chapters seemed like your average romcom, though we were getting clues here and there that there could be something wrong. It wasn't until chapter 7 or so that shit hit the fan, all the clues we'd gotten so far fell into place and it was revealed that we're actually dealing with a sinister sci-fi mystery. The slow burn made the reveal that much more satisfying to read. 

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I guess for me, I've always considered slow burns to be stories that take their time unfolding. Showing and not telling events, plots, characters arcs, etc. Although I mainly (exclusively so far) do romance/drama, I think slow burns can touch on almost any genre. Except very short stories. I love reading books that make me use my brain the way 'slow burns' do.

Great article. Definitely walking away with a few great points to think on.

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