Sunday, August 14, 2011

Writing Advice 9 — Pacing

Pacing is the speed of the events that take place in the story, but it really is a lot more than that and runs deep into the very sentence structure of the novel.

Holding the story out at a distance so that most of the detail is obscured you might see a pattern to the events, the high exciting points, and low duller points. In this very general scope, it would not be the best choice to have all the action pressed together at the end of the book with nothing in the front but character and setting development. This creates an unbalanced plot that can cause readers to get a false impression of your story. Someone who wants an exciting book might stop reading before they get to the action, and those that want a more thoughtful story might be upset when the actions blasts off.

A story doesn’t need to be evenly spaced—in fact you will want to avoid a consistent pattern. Usually it begins with a bang, then relaxes a bit, allowing characters some development time—which is hard to do during action scenes (why, I will explain in a minute)—then there will be a spike of action, then a slow build of events, then the drop to the anti-climax and the rise to the climax and then the resolution. This is a very general pattern and can be varied dramatically, but the idea is to not create deserts and floods but to keep the pacing running in a more enjoyable range. It is also important to vary the pace of heart pounding scenes with reflective character development scenes. Everyone likes variety.

I remember when I first saw the original Star Wars I thought it was a great film, but the one complaint I had was that it felt too rushed. I wanted a little pause after the characters escaped the Death Star, I wanted to learn more about Leia and Han, and the universe in general, but things just kept flying at hyperspace speeds. As a viewer I didn’t feel I had time to become fully immersed into the world, to get to know the characters or reflect on the repercussions of the events that had already transpired.

Having a varying pace in a story creates a sense of perceived depth through variation. The slower sections provide footholds and dividers, allowing the reader to mentally partition off areas of the book. Taking Tolkien as example again, the Council of Elrond can be seen as the division point in the first book of the trilogy. Everything before is of one tone, while what comes after is a bit different. The council also provides a moment to take stock and breathe, before diving into the adventure again. Such an oscillating pattern creates hills and valleys to the landscape of the story that can be looked back on as distance, generating the idea of time passed, miles traveled.

A story running too fast, screams by in a blur. Events are hard to recall, and the sense of depth that helps provide a story with weight and believability, just isn’t there. At the same time you don’t want a story that drags. Too much straight description will weigh your story so much it will drag it to the bottom and drown it. Description should facilitate the story not dominate it. You don’t want the reader feeling blind, or deaf and you want them to know where they are and when they are. And if there is something really interesting and unusual, then yes, take the time to describe it, but nothing is needed beyond this. Extra descriptions added to create a greater sense of place, or color, or mood, usually just drag a scene.

I recently set a scene in a coffee shop. I actually went to one and sat down and for hours described what the place looked like and what was happening. I later used this as background for the scene. I had way more than I needed, and as a result I used more than was necessary. A lot of it was great stuff that I was disappointed to cut, but the pacing was being crippled by the added descriptions. The story went from an exciting thriller to an essay on coffee shops and the people who visit them.

You should also remember that while the event-pace should vary, the literary-pace should remain consistent. Literary-pace here meaning “style.” Clearly there is a very different pace between a Dickens novel and one by Hemingway, but it is more style than event-pacing. More things might happen in a Dickens novel than in a Hemingway book, but the speed might feel faster in the Hemingway due to the style. If you are writing in a thick descriptive prose, stay that way. If you are writing light, don’t slip into long-winded, flowery wording. Stay focused and cut those clever sentences when they clash with your style.    

This leads us to a more detailed look at pacing.

Zooming in it needs to be noted that there is a speed to the words themselves. Depending on how a sentence is constructed, it has a sound, a rhythm. When added to others, words become notes, sentences bars, and paragraphs, melodies. All together it creates a music. And just as music the tempo can be varied to create tension, action, or calm.

1. The man entered the convenience store and walking to the back, took a gallon of milk out of the fridge, and then ran away with it.

2. The man entered the store. He grabbed a gallon of milk from the fridge. He ran.

3. The man entered, grabbed a gallon of milk from the fridge, and ran.

The idea in all three of these are the same. The pacings are different. Why? Obviously more words are used in the first. More importantly, it is a long compound sentence. Number 2 is what writers are often told is a good solution to creating an action pace: short sentences. This creates a staccato sound, a harsh rasping sound that jerks the reader, but I found this is nowhere near as fast as the comma series sentence shown in number 3. For where a period halts the reader, the comma causes them to only slow down a step. It just feels faster.

In scenes where you want to depict fast action, rip through it with commas, and less conjunctions. Condense the ideas and leave out the descriptions. Include only what is necessary and let nothing else get in the way.

Getting back to that promised explanation of why it is hard to do character development in action scenes—this is why. In the middle of a fight, or a chase, if you pause to provide a moment where the character is reflecting on their life, or interpreting the world around them, not only will it kill the excitement of the scene, it will appear false. No one notices what’s playing on the jukebox when in a bar fight. All mental concentration is constricted with laser focus on specific details and the mind has no time to reflect or ponder or muse. This is in effect the same as one sees in a movie or tv show when the editing is tight, fast, and jerky. Sure it is hard to follow, sure it’s even annoying, but it does impart a visceral sense of threat, confusion, and action. Nothing at all might be happening on the screen—a guy might be sitting on a park bench feeding pigeons, but the editing and camera movement alone will put you on the edge of your seat and start your heart pounding merely by the suggestion of intensity. The same is done with words. Short. Fast. Abrupt. Ideas flying, racing, pummeling relentlessly. It is the sound of a drum roll, the sharp rapid strings in the background of a horror film. The reader has no conscious idea why the scene is so exciting—but it is.

But don’t write like this all the time. Short simple sentences are annoying in large doses. In fact, when dealing with rhythms and sounds, you’ll want to vary the lengths and speeds in general, but use more compound sentences in quiet moments and shorter sentences in action scenes. Learning to “hear” the music the words make is a skill that needs to be acquired through experience. Reading your own stuff aloud helps. Hearing someone else read your words to you, works even better. Then you can hear when you are “running hot” or “dragging.”

This hot and cold aspect relates to the balance between dialog/description/reflection. Using any one too  much will cause the story to run hot or cold. In reading your own work, you should be able to see when you have been using a lot of description, or too much reflection or dialog. The pace of the story stagnates at one speed.

Often times when I write dialog I will forgo any description because I am focusing on the conversation. Later I go back and add in the descriptions and gestures, and tags. I’ll note when I have written pages of dialog and realize, the story is running “dialog hot” and needs to be cooled down with some description. I’ll search for the idea pause in the dialog and insert something—anything. I was recently writing a scene of two people talking on a bus. Not much happens at night on a non-stop bus. I had already described the traffic outside and what everyone else was doing and the interior of the vehicle. Still I needed a description break. I arbitrarily made a woman get up and go the bathroom at the back of the bus passing the characters and causing them to pause in their conversation as she went by. This event had no purpose in the story except to help ground the reader in the environment and break up the flood of heavy dialog. That said you also don’t want to break into a smoothly flowing dialog with annoying breaks that kill the tension, or excitement, so you need to know when to insert and when to let it run hot.

That’s the bell. Next week: Dialog. No running in the halls.


  1. Thanks for this great post Michael! I recently caught myself writing dialog, and noticed that it was just a huge chunk with nothing but talking. I then wrote a few descriptions at the end of what the characters were doing, what the environment was like, and how they were interacting with it as they spoke. When I sprinkled these into the dialog I noticed it would either seem to really improve the writing and make it more interesting, or break the flow of what they were saying. I did some sentence massaging and felt that the scene was way better and more interesting afterwards. Then I wondered how many other scenes I’ve written that are just massive dumps of dialog. You make some great comments and have given us some awesome tips here. Thanks for all your great writing posts! They're one more thing adding to my tool belt when I sit down to pound out a story, and I’m really enjoying them.

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