Pacing your book like a TV show - Authors A.I.

Alessandra Torre
June 29, 2023

In this First Draft Friday chat on pacing techniques, screenwriting expert and bestselling author Ines Johnson emphasizes the importance of using key beats in a story to keep readers engaged. Beats can be used regardless of the genre or length of the novel.

Watch our chat where Ines discusses the use of different storylines and tropes to create mini plot points and how to maintain continuity and flow between pacing points. Ines has a fantastic course on this subject if you’d like a deeper dive at

It was a fascinating discussion, one you won’t want to miss! Click below to watch our 30-minute recording and hear the questions we answered from the live audience. Keep scrolling if you’d prefer to read the transcript.

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Enjoy the show? Check out our upcoming and past First Draft Friday episodes.


Alessandra: Hello everyone, and welcome to First Draft Friday, number 61. I am so
excited to be joined today by Ines Johnson, and we are going to be talking all about
pacing in your novel and how you can use techniques and I guess rules of the road from steel secrets from TV and films to make your novel better. I am beyond excited about this. Me and Ines go, I say way back.

Ines: Years. Absolutely.

Alessandra: But as you guys will see, she’s a fantastic instructor and conversationalist
on the matter. So without further ado, and I forgot to say, my name is Alessandra Torre, I’m with Authors AI. Without further ado Ines, do you just want to introduce yourself and give the audience just a little bit of background?

Ines: Sure. Hi everyone. I’m so excited to be here. I’m so excited to meet you. As
Alessandra said, I am Ines, and as I say, I write kissing books. I come from the world of
television. I was telling Alessandra I originally wanted to be the next Sesame Workshop.

We all remember Sesame Street. I grew up on TV. I grew up on Saturday morning cartoons. I grew up on afterschool specials. If you read my books, you can tell, because there’s always some kind of a lesson to be learned in there. And so, when I was in school, these are the techniques that I learned.

This is how I learned story, and I just assumed that everybody knew this stuff. So when I would go to these conferences and I would start talking about, oh, I saw how you did that there in your book. You just used a novice. And people would look at me like, who, what is she talking about? Or I would start talking about the beats of television, or I would start talking about what we call buttons, which is how you go into a commercial break, but you keep the readers, the viewers, excuse me, at the edge of their seats. And so, I would just be throwing out this jargon and people would just be like, she’s crazy, but she’s making sense also, let me ask you more question.

Alessandra: I want to know more, but I have no idea what she’s talking about talking.

Ines: So, yeah, so I learned in television, because in television, television writing, it’s often, you’re around a writer’s table. It’s not just you who’s writing, so you have to talk to other people. So there wasn’t this whole debate about plotter versus pantser because you had to talk to other people. So you had to at least outline your story because someone had to know what you were doing because it was going to affect what they were doing in, say, a 13-episode season of a television show. And so, we had to be able to communicate with each other about certain plot points, about certain beats. And in doing that, there were also rules that you need to follow because unlike the chapter endings, we had commercials to contend with. We had different channels to contend with. We had the bathroom break and the snack break to contend with, so we were taught these tactics to keep the viewers in their seats for that two and a half minutes, or for the seven days or until the next season. And I just simply transferred these things that I knew how to do over into my books.

Alessandra: And what you just said, I just realized how difficult it would be if we only
gave our readers like a chapter at a time or like three chapters at a time, and then they had to go seven days and then we had to remind them or get them. It had to be so captivating that seven days later they would remember, oh yeah, I need to go and read another three chapters.

Another thing I just realized is what did — like when the commercial breaks were like eight and a half minutes in, and you would have to then write something that had a bit of a cliffhanger exactly at eight and a half minutes in?

Ines: That’s exactly what you had to do. That has been a thousand percent what you had to do. It’s very formulaic, which I don’t understand why some writers kind of – some authors balk at formulaic because television is a billion-dollar-a-year industry. They’re doing something that works with these formulas that are keeping people in their seats. They’re having them talk about it over the water cooler that are having them rage at, I can’t stand that, I have to wait. They’re doing something right. So I think when people are doing something right and they’re doing it consistently, I sit up and I pay attention to that.

Alessandra: Yeah. And I’m throwing this at you without warning, but are there any TV
shows that nailed the writing? Like if I as an author, wanted to watch something and
really be like, this is what it’s done right. Are there any TV shows that you really

Ines: Anything Shonda Rhimes. See, here’s the thing, when I was in the writer’s room, not everybody there went to school for this. There were like philosophy majors and people that just came off the street that had a good story. But Shonda Rhimes is my goddess because she studied this and I think she got the Disney fellowship, which is like incredibly hard to get, but it’s basically where they come and Disney basically teaches you ABC, teaches you how to write. She understands it, and you can see the technique and what she does, and you can see it over and over again. It’s why she became such a household name. I mean, watch Queen Charlotte. She’s doing it still there. Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, she uses the techniques that I learned in textbooks and she does it flawlessly. So anything that she does, just watch and take notes.

Alessandra: I love that. So let’s talk about a little bit of these techniques. And by the
way, anything that you hear or that you want more of, because we only have 25 more
minutes, so we will only be able to do a very light dive, but Ines does have a full — can
you talk a little bit just about your course that you have that’s in this topic?

Ines: I do. So I do have a course, it’s called Page Turner Pacing, where I basically talk
you through; I learned a lot of what I learned by just sitting and watching television. And then when I got to school and I got in the writer’s room, that’s when I started to get the language, to be able to communicate it with other people. So one of the things that I do in Page Turner Pacing is I tap into what you already know that you don’t know, you know, because if you sit and you watch television, your brain has already been trained to consume the pattern that story follows on that weekly serialized basis. And Page Turner Pacing, it gives you the words, it gives you the phraseology, it shows you how the tactics are being used and how you can then turn those tactics around and put them into your books. So I start with showing you how a television show is structured, how every television, how every great television show is structured. And then I take that and I transpose it onto a novel and show you exactly where to put things.

Alessandra: And what she’s saying, it sounds a little bit like you’re saying patient to
patient. She’s saying Page Turner Pacing. I just want to make sure that they knew so
they could find it. And that was the link if you missed it. I’ll also put it in the chat later, but it’s if you go to, you can find out about that course. So let’s talk about Page Turner pacing. What’s like the typical structure of a TV show?

Ines: So in a television show, you’re going to have about 15 scenes that are beats that
should be there. And when they’re not there, it’s kind of like you get a record scratch,
you miss something, but you don’t exactly know what, or if they’re out of order or if they don’t hit right, you feel it, but you don’t necessarily know what you’re talking about. So the first thing that I do is I talk you through the acts of a television show. And television usually comes — a 60-minute television show comes at about six to eight acts, but I show you how to take those six to eight acts and break them down into three acts structure, which is what we’re used to in novels. And the very first thing that I talked to you about is the setup. That is the most important thing. And in the setup, what I think that every author should do is focus on the empathy.

If you can get us to care about your main character, you’ve got us for longer. So
one of the very first things that I do is I talk about ways to establish empathy. And I think that there are three ways to do that. I think that you either need to introduce the extraordinary qualities of your character, like Superman is all these powers that nobody else has. Or even if they’re ordinary in an extraordinary world, that’s a second way to introduce empathy because you’re like, oh, they’re an average Joe or Jane and everyone else around them, or this world is super extraordinary. And that also makes you lean in. And the third way is doing what we call saving the cat. And you do that metaphorically, because we all empathize when a main character does something to save someone else, like climbing up a tree and saving a cat.

Or think of the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When we meet Buffy the Vampire slayer, this hits all three. When we meet her in the pilot television episode, we see first that she’s in an extraordinary world. There are vampires in this world. Oh my gosh. Then we learn that she’s an extraordinary person because she’s the slayer. This petite pretty little girl is the slayer who can kill these vampires. And then she saves the cat. If you remember in that pilot episode, the character Cordelia, who is the mean girl, she’s mean to Willow and Buffy. Instead of following Cordelia’s lead and trying to be popular like Cordelia, she saves Willow making her the metaphorical cat. She did all three. And that’s one of the reasons why we absolutely love Buffy.

Alessandra: Well, now I have to see Buffy the Vampire. Never had an interest before,
now all of a sudden, I want to know more. OK, so when we’re looking at a novel, you
said there are 16 beats in about…

Ines: 15.

Alessandra: 15 to 16 in a TV show.

Ines: Six to eight acts in a television show and 15 beats that constantly repeat

Alessandra: OK. And then when we move that to books, how many beats are there
versus acts in a book?

Ines: This is where I start to lose a pantser when I start talking beats. And the thing that I want you to understand is that with these beats, they just happen. And sometimes two will happen at the same time. But you start to notice after you see that setup that happens, you’re not really realizing that they’re setting this up by introducing the world or the person or saving the cat. The next thing that happens is that character will talk about what they want, that goal that they have. And sometimes they don’t say it out of their mouth. Sometimes you see them doing it, or someone kind of says, oh, it looks like you’re going to do this. And that’s the goal that we want them to have, that’s going to propel them forward. Then they make a plan. And sometimes they don’t vocalize the plan. Sometimes they just start to do it.

And as they start to do that plan in order to get to get to the goal that they have an obstacle gets in their way, that all happens in the first act of a book. And it often happens in the first act to the first two acts of a television show. And we don’t necessarily…it’s not drawing attention to itself, but it’s there. It’s always there. And if you sit down now and you watch a television show and you look for these four, just these first four beats, you’re going to see it.

Alessandra: I love that. So when we talk about pacing, and when you’re talking about pacing a novel, it’s not necessarily how quickly a scene is moving, it’s where it’s ramping up or coming down? What is pacing?

Ines: So pacing can be two things. Pacing can be the speed of how you do this, but pacing is also having the step, one step in front of the other. I like to focus on having all these steps, not necessarily in order, but they’re all present. And when they’re all present, that’s when we’re like, Ooh, I can keep going with this thing. I think pacing speed-wise depends on the length of your novel, it depends on the genre or subgenre of your novel, so I see these two different things, and I don’t really like to talk to people so much about the speed. Like when I think speed, I often think length or genre. I like to point to these key moments, these key beats that should be there, that’ll keep your reader hooked and keep the pages turning. That’s why I say page turner pacing, because if you miss one of these, the readers kind of kind of be like, they don’t know that they missed it, but they know that something is off.

Alessandra: Yeah. Their interest level droops, right?

Ines: Our minds are so trained because we consume so much of that TV, we’re inherently looking for this pattern, even though we can’t name it.

Alessandra: I love that. If I typically write 70,000-word books, should I not even focus on the word length? Or should I say, OK, I know I want these three acts and that basically 25,000 words in I should be done with these beats.

Ines: See, I’m a writer, not a mathematician. When people come at me with those
numbers, I’m just like, just have the beats. Just have them there.

Alessandra: Write up and see what happens. See where you end up.

Ines: Some people’s brains need the guidepost, and I understand that. One of the things, because I was a film major for one semester before I went to television where I belong, but one of the visuals that they would use is a clothing line. I know we have dryers now, but when I was younger we had clothing lines. And you would basically put the very first pacing point, which is that setup. And the very last pacing point, which is in television, we call an open door. We’ll talk about that. And if you don’t have any clothes pins in the middle, that sheet that you’re trying to get dry, it’s going to sag. So the visual that I’m so used to is that you would put each of these clothespins and there’s about 15, you would put one at equal distance so that you stretch the story out so that the clothing line would dry and your story would be supported. I’m not a stickler for how close or far apart that you put them together. I’m a stickler for half 15 clothespins there, so that your story is supported.

Alessandra: Before I go to my next question, I do want to get to one from the audience. Mamaduddy from YouTube asked, “What are your favorite pacing craft books?”

Ines: See, that’s the problem. I came from TV and I’m years old. A lot of the textbooks
that I use are not – yeah, I think a lot of us are years old, right? But a lot of those
textbooks are not in print. One of the ones that I can think of, and a lot of them don’t
focus on this. A lot of this I really learned sitting down at the television table or being in a lecture hall. The one book that I always point people to, and it’s a film book, but it’s called How to Write a Movie in 21 Days. And she’s one that uses the clothesline metaphor. I think that that is even – you can easily translate what she’s telling you to do in that book into a book. It’s really old. I think they just turned it into an ebook, and it’s really thin. But I think that’s going to be one of the best ones. There really isn’t much in terms of television. You really learn that in the lecture halls and around the TV writer’s room.

Alessandra: We just had another comment from Facebook; that closing line analogy is gold. I love that. And what do you think about Save the Cat? I haven’t read Save the Cat, but a lot of people recommend it.

Ines: I have no loyalty to any plot, and I will just take them all and I will mix and match them. I love the Save the Cat method. I use it all the time. I love Gwen Hayes’s Romancing the Beats method. I love The Hero’s Journey. I know that I’m going to have my 15 paces. I feel that pacing points and plot points are not 1000% the same. So, I will have my pacing points laid out, and like in the second act, we didn’t talk about this, but the last point that I talked about, that fourth point is the obstacle. And then
when we get into the middle, that’s what I call a try/fail cycle, where you have scenes of growth, setback, regroups repeats, growth setback, regroups. Because a lot of times in a story, you have more than one obstacle. And the amount of obstacles, it’s going to depend upon the length of your story. This is why I don’t get so hands up, because if I’m writing like a 20,000-word novella, then there’s probably going to be maybe two obstacles. But if you’re writing something that’s like 70,000 words and you’re going to have more obstacles than that, you’re going to have more try/fail cycles. And you just keep going through that try/fail cycle until you get to the final obstacle, which we call the confrontation, and then you move into the third act. What was the original thing that you just asked me?

Alessandra: Well, you were talking about being a plot whore.

Ines: There are some of the pacing points that I repeat, but one of my favorite plot points is a plot point, and it’s called Write Your Novel from the Middle by James Scott-Bell, and he calls it The Mirror Moment. And when I learned about this mirror moment, it’s a reflective moment where if you – he saw that if you take a 90-minute movie, because you know, movies are now two hours long, but if you take a 90-minute movie and you put it at 45 minutes, you will see the character having a reflective moment where they’re thinking about who they were and who they want to be. It’s fascinating. And I love having this moment, and I will put that moment in there regardless of what plotting system that I’m using, because that’s not in Save the Cat. And Gwen Hayes, she has this moment called the No Way Beat, where the lovers are like, I’m not going to fall in love, I can’t deal with love. And I feel like I have to have that. So I take, and I mix and I match all these points together in between my pacing points. I’m a plot whore.

Alessandra: Yeah, you take a little bit of everything. It’s all good. From Facebook, someone said, would you recommend we go through our novel and write out a little sentence or summary of each of the 15 beats and then try to slot them in if missing.

Ines: That sounds like a really great developmental editing strategy. If you feel like something is wrong with your book, yeah, pull it apart that way. Look at the pacing points. But then here’s the other thing, and this is what I teach you how to do in the Page Turner Pacing course. You look at those plot points, those pacing points. But then you have to also consider what is my genre or subgenre? Because if you have a paranormal romance, I believe that in a paranormal romance, you’re going to have different beats. You have to show that world, that extraordinary world; there has to be a show of power where the vampire shows as fangs or the wolfshifts, so that beat has to be there. In today’s paranormals, there’s a claim of mine, so you have to look for those as well. Or if you’re doing a small-town romance, then those are going to have different beats as well. So, you want to look for – you have your pacing points, and then there are different beats. So don’t just do the 15 pacing points, also look for the genre beats, because those are what readers of that genre are expecting.

Alessandra: OK, wait. So are there 15 beats or are there 15 pacing points?

Ines: Sometimes I use those terms interchangeably. Let’s call those the 15 page turner
pacing points that are going to be there in any television show you watch, so I say that
they should be there in the novel. Then depending upon the genre, like thrillers are
going to have different beats, romance has different beats, and the beats are the
reader’s expectation of that particular genre.

Alessandra: So just for those obligatory scenes would be like, there has to be a meet
cute. I mean, you know, at some point in the romance, two people have to meet, you
know, at some point…

Ines: Thriller, there’s a hero at the mercy of the villain scene. We know this because this is our genre that we read a lot and we write a lot in.

Alessandra: Yeah. Fantastic. From YouTube, J Sheridan said, what about certain
writing techniques or tips for speeding up or slowing down the narration of a novel?

Ines: The narration of a novel? Ooh! You’ve stumped me for the narration. I write dual
perspective romance all the time, so I know how to slow up or speed down the actual
pacing speed. And that’s usually in the act two with the amount of try/fail cycles. When
you’re talking about the narration…

Alessandra: He or she is just saying like the telling of the story, I think is what they’re
just asking. Like, any tips for speeding down or slowing down the progression?

Ines: If we’re talking about the telling of the story, of the events, the plot line of the story, then I think that that really happens in act two. And that is a matter of, again, that try/fail cycle, that gross setback regroup that happens in a try/fail cycle. That’s what I think that is.

Alessandra: And they clarified just mean the movement in general. Like the movement of the story in general.

Ines: I think your pace really comes to life in act two where your character is going
through ups and downs and the types of ups and downs that they go through. That’s
where I think that comes into play.

Alessandra: So if they feel like it’s slow and they need to speed up, should they do
shorter scenes?

Ines: Yes.

Alessandra: Eliminating scenes?

Ines: What scenes?

Alessandra: Like delete scenes, like cut scenes, eliminate them or just keep the
scenes and just…?

Ines: Here’s an idea. So another thing that you can do. So in television we talk about
leads, hooks, and sequels, and we talk about there’s four ways that you can lead or
launch into a scene. So in launching into a scene, there’s narrative, there’s action,
there’s setting, and there’s one that I’m forgetting. Like a lot of times, narrative can slow things down because it becomes very inward, inner monologue, inner dialogue, maybe try action instead of that or maybe try to pull us into the setting. Those are other ways that we can speed stuff up, like starting in media res; those are the only things that I can think about. You’re going to make me think about that question a bit more though.

Alessandra: Elaine asks, any tips on continuity or flow so we hold the reader between pacing points?

Ines: So one of the things that we do in television is we have what’s called a story
question. And ask the story question at the beginning of the show. For example, in a
mystery, it’s going to be who done it, right? But also in television we have different
subplots. So there’s an A storyline, and the A storyline, like in a mystery, it’s going to
be like in a procedural mystery. Like one of my favorites is Castle, so it would be, well,
who, who killed the person, right? But then a B storyline might be the relationship between Castle and the Detective Beckett, who is his love interest.

And so one of the things that I love to do is, so you have your A storyline, your B storyline, but they all have a question. So the A storyline question would be who done it? But the B storyline question might be that Castle is dating someone new and Beckett is jealous, and will Castle or Beckett finally admit his feelings or her feelings to him? And then that becomes another question, so that gets its own bits of plotting point. But you have to answer that in the middle. So what I would do is I would start with the A storyline.

And again, I’m jumping around a little bit. In television, we have those six to eight beats, excuse me, those six to eight scenes, six to eight acts, I can get myself together. Maybe in act one, you start with the A storyline. In act two, you start with the B storyline, and you stay on the B storyline for maybe two chapters or two acts. And then you come back to the B storyline. So the flow starts to happen with how much you’re going between these different storylines, between these different plot points. You can condense it by pushing a specific B storyline or even a c storyline closer together. You can make it go longer by spreading them a little bit apart, kind of like an accordion. And that becomes another pacing point with how much you’re going back and forth between these two or three storylines. That’s how I would do it in television, and then just translate that over to a novel.

Alessandra: How many like max?

Ines: It depends on the length of your story. Like a 70,000-word book could handle four plot lines. I write shorter. So if I’m writing like a 30- or 35,000-word novella, two, and then it just becomes too much. It becomes too much story. And you can also mess it up by not giving it enough room to breathe, and all of a sudden one. Another thing that we play around with because I used to work at National Geographic, so Desmond Morris put out these 12 stages of intimacy, which a lot of romance authors are using. And it starts with – the first stage of intimacy is the couple is aware of each other, and then there’s things like eye to eye, hand to hand, hand to face. And it ends with the last point of genitals to genitals.

Well, if you went from eye to eye to hand to genital, then that would be like a record
scratch, right? So that becomes another pacing point where you want to move slowly
down, and then if something goes wrong, if there’s an obstacle or a conflict where the
characters, again, I’d speak romance, where the lovers are having a spat, then they
move back up to just eye to eye. Or maybe they’re not even speaking to each other. So
that becomes — I love that sliding scale where you can go up and down. And then if one of the lovers tries to jump over some of those points of these 12 points of intimacy, that’s going to be a record scratch as well. Because it’s like, wait a minute, I didn’t give you permission to go that far. You want to look at your pacing points the same way; you’re going down this line, or you’re going horizontally across this line and you don’t want to leap over because then it’s just going to kind of be … It’s going to take them out of the story. And in television, we spent so much time, so many strategies, keeping your butt in the seat and not getting you to pick up the remote or not making you squeeze your legs you wouldn’t go to the bathroom. And that’s why we keep on this progression just to keep you in your seat.

Alessandra: I love that. So many questions I want to make a minute. It’s so good. It’s great. As you write, how often do you go back and edit the beats, for example, change the obstacle.

Ines: I like again, romance novelist. Lisa Daley introduced me to this idea of three dates in a disaster. In my head, those three dates, they’re going to be obstacles, they’re going to be conflicts, so I love the three date idea for my whole fun and games, so I do three. Again, it’s going to depend upon what you’re writing, like a thriller. Like they might face five, I like to call them bangs. They might face five bangs and one final explosion. It’s going to depend upon your genre, it really is, and the length of your books.

Alessandra: But for you, you plan out your beats in advance so you’re not, as you’re
writing going and changing.

Ines: Not really. Sometimes I don’t even outline because these beats are in your head. If you watch TV, these beats are in your head, so you can feel the flow of them, you don’t have to outline them because you know them. So sometimes I don’t even sit down and outline. Sometimes I just know that I’m going to have these three obstacles. Sometimes I might pull an obstacle four that I had planned and then I have to plan an even bigger bang. But no, I don’t really go back and edit in that way.

Alessandra: Mamaduuddy said, what if it’s just a contemporary romance without anything dominant like a mystery or action suspense? Do you have any tips on rotating or having different storylines with that?

Ines: The tropes. It’s going to depend upon your tropes. If it’s a contemporary romance, if it’s secret baby or maybe it’s military or it’s a billionaire, you got to think about the tropes because each of those tropes can become a different storyline. So you could have all three of those tropes in your contemporary romance, and each of them, I would say, you need to have a mini plot points for, so then it becomes about the tropes inside this contemporary romance.

Alessandra: Yeah. So whatever the conflict is in your story, that can be a storyline. And then also their love story and their progression is a storyline, but the conflict is brewing or whatever.

Ines: If it was a secret baby, well at some point the father is going to find out that there’s a secret baby, right?

Alessandra: It’s going to make an appearance, right?

Ines: Military, let’s say she was the soldier and she has PTSD, then at some point
they’re going to have to address that. So each trope that you employ has expectations
that you need to follow up on.

Alessandra: Yeah. That’s fantastic. We are already out of time. I’m sorry guys. No,
there’s no such thing as talking too much. Great questions. Thank you so much to
everyone who joined us live. I know that we just scratched the surface of this topic.

Ines: I’ll be talking more about it at Inkers Con.

Alessandra: If you want a deep dive into this topic, if you want to know
more, be sure to check Ines’ course, which stands for Page Turner
Pacing. Okay, fantastic. Thank you all for joining us and we’ll be back in another two
weeks with another first draft Friday. In the meantime, I hope you guys have a fantastic weekend and that the writing flows.

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