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February 6, 2012

Working in the Word Mines – Pacing

by Michael Langlois

When you first begin experiencing stories, either in books, movies, or other media, you become aware of pacing only when it’s done incorrectly.  You might complain that a movie dragged in the middle, or that at the end of a book you had no idea who half the characters were.  And most of the time, you would have blamed these things on the content.  The middle of the movie was slow because the content was boring.  The characters were poorly written and not memorable.  And while some of that might be true, the real culprit is in the pacing.

You control pacing through both the information you deliver and how you deliver it.  When the content and the delivery style are matched, you can achieve both breathless exhilaration or deeply engrossing immersion as you need them.  These are the opposite ends of the pacing throttle, and you’ll need both regardless of what kind of story you’re writing.

Here’s how to control your pacing:

Book Level: Scene vs Sequel

Pacing at a book level is determined by the ratio of scenes to sequels in a book.  If you’re not familiar with the terms, a scene is where the action takes place, and a sequel is where the characters react to that event and decide what to do next.  For more detail, see Jim Butcher’s excellent explanations here and here.

Typically you’ll alternate scene-sequel for the length of the book.  At a macro level, scenes increase the pace of the book and sequels slow it down.  So for a thriller, you’ll have more and longer scenes, and fewer or shorter sequels.  For an epic fantasy, you’ll have fewer scenes, and more elaborate sequels, and for romance you’ll have very few scenes and lots of sequels.  The key here is how much of the book is either scene verbiage or sequel verbiage, not the actual number of each.

Scene/Sequel Level: Action vs Description

Within a scene or sequel, you’ll have both action and description.  This is where most pacing errors appear.  Action and description have opposite effects on pacing, so if you’re writing a fast moving scene and you load it up with description, you can easily introduce drag.  Yes, your outfit is very pretty.  No, I don’t care what kind of velvet it’s made of during a fist fight.

On the other hand, if you describe your busy market or haunted house with a couple of terse sentences, your audience will feel rushed through the place with no real feel for the atmosphere you’re trying to establish.

Be careful that you don’t try to apply book-level pacing here.  One mistake new writers tend to make is to decide that since they’re writing a fast-paced thriller, the entire book should be made of short sentences with limited description.  The book’s pacing and the scene’s pacing are very different things.  Lots of scenes will increase the pace of the book, but within a scene you’ll still need to establish setting and engage the reader’s senses.

For books heavy on sequels, don’t be afraid to cut the atmosphere and introspection during your scenes.  Don’t have the characters think about how that fiery confrontation is going to affect their relationship, just let them shout at each other in the heat of the moment, then think about it later.

Paragraph Level: Sentence Length

On an even smaller scale, you control the immediate, visceral sense of speed with sentence length and complexity.  Short sentences with as few words as possible between the subject and the verb will increase the pace, while adjectives and clauses will slow things down.  The rule about varying sentence length still stands, you will always need meter or rhythm to your sentences, so a fight scene should not consist of only three word sentences.  But taken as a whole, paragraphs describing a fist fight should have noticeably shorter sentences on average than a paragraph describing a sunset.

As you vary your sentences, keep in mind a sense of dynamic tension.  In a fight scene, longer sentences will help build a sense of anticipation, like the uphill sections of a roller coaster.  For long descriptions, the occasional punchy section will keep the audience from feeling restless.

Regardless, there must always be a variation in pacing at this level.  It’s the subtle changing of pace that makes an impression on a reader, not the absolute pace.  How boring would a roller coaster be if it were one long slope?  A few minutes at a constant speed, and it feels like nothing is happening.  The same is true for prose.

Pacing Tricks

Here are some specific tricks that you can use to bend the rules of pacing to get some interesting effects:

Slo-Mo: You know all that stuff I said about fight scenes having short, punchy sentences?  Well, there’s one instance where you should do exactly the opposite.  At the decisive moment of impact in the scene, such as the final, terrible blow of a fight, the detonation of the hidden explosives, or the death-throes of the monster, stretch out your sentence length and turn up the descriptive prose.  You can take a paragraph or more to describe those precious few seconds and create a slow-motion effect, where the audience can savor the moment.  Used sparingly, this can really heighten the impact of your action scenes.

Snapshot: During a fast-paced scene, especially a longer one, you may need to bring the reader in close and ramp up the immersion factor.  This is frequently done just before the climax of the scene to point out some important part of the plot.  For example, the final punch of a fist-fight might mention the glint of light off of a wedding ring, or while a character is fleeing a burning building she might notice a photograph curling in the flames.  The goal is to make the descriptive elements as short and vivid as possible, without stretching out the sentence length.

Travelogue: When you have a lot of description to do, try breaking up the prose with dialogue that adds personal context to the things you’re describing.  Lots of text describing buildings can get tedious fast, but a few sentences from a character about how when they were kids, they used to play right next to that slaughterhouse before they knew what it was, will pick things right up.

In the end, pacing is about contrast.  The difference between a book that feels fast and a book that feels rushed is in the careful application of your slower, more immersive prose.  In the same vein, the difference between rich and boring is in how skillfully you manage your action.  Just keep things varied, and use the right technique for the right job.  Once you understand the basics, it’ll be easy to spot when you’re going against the grain.

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