I’ve mentioned in medias res previously. It’s a great way to get your audience into the swing of the story and can cut down on overwrought exposition. However, no matter how breakneck the pace of the opening, you don’t necessarily have to pound the metaphorical pavement from start to finish. You can’t spend all of your creative energy right up front.
You have to pace yourself.
Stage performers from illusionists to strippers know you can’t show the audience everything right away, and writing fiction is no different. Even in the shortest of stories, you can’t pull back the curtain right away. It’s a gradual work of unseen pulleys and ropes, not something yanked down before the audience’s eyes. Be your story a hundred words long or a hundred thousand, be sure to give yourself time to move your scenery, get your actors on their marks, and line up your shots before you pull the trigger.
This is especially true for stories broken up over time, be they serials or webcomics or a number of novels. Look at A Song of Ice and Fire, or Dresden Files, or Harry Potter, or Homestuck. In each case, recurring characters and permeating themes maintain or develop the world and atmosphere between ‘episodes’ in the story, allowing the audience to try and fill in the blanks themselves. Canny authors can leave clues or even red herrings for people to pick up and put together themselves, maintaining the feeling of discovery and anticipation even if it’s an unreasonable stretch of time between new entries in the story.
Authors must take care, however, that this sort of thing is not merely a carrot dangled in front of the audience to lure them towards some sort of soapboxing moment. It weakens the quality of the narrative itself. Smart writers can play with, lean on and even occasionally break the fourth wall, but such things must be done with a delicate touch lest the power of the story’s messages get plowed under by the author’s drive to make a point. It’s one thing to have the writer slip a wink to the audience or chase down a troublemaking character with a broom in a moment of light humor; it’s quite another when the characters become mouthpieces for the author’s political or religious viewpoints, especially when the audience is young and impressionable. Characters speaking on courage, perseverance or self-sacrifice for the good of their friends is one thing; characters moralizing on abstinence or abortion is quite another.
Even in these worst-case scenarios, however, you can see the evidence of good pacing amongst the fandom of a given title. There’s speculation, anticipation, even fans crafting their own works to fill in the gaps. True, some will try to impose themselves on the author for answers or to influence turns in the story to come, but even this behavior’s a good sign. It means the audience cares about the characters and the world in which they live. While you can’t leave them hanging forever, if you get the pace right (and don’t digress into soapboxing) they’ll happily admit the reveal was worth the wait, even if it wasn’t what they expected.
So find a good rhythm, set the pace, and don’t get tripped up or ahead of yourself. Short stories may be sprints, and novels & novel series a marathon, but in all cases you have to pace yourself. If you do it properly, you’ll have just enough energy to cheer after you cross the finish line before you collapse into an exhausted heap.