Last week during my exposition exploration I touched briefly on pacing. Today I want to look at that in more detail. What is pace, why does it matter, and how does the writer control it?
Students of literature learn about theme, characterisation, narrative and so forth. They know how to analyse text. They can discuss flat-characters versus the rounded types with great aplomb. They can write thousands of words on symbolism. But ask them to compare the pacing of, say A Clockwork Orange with that of Middlemarch and they’ll likely give you a blank stare.
Even students of creative writing don’t always find narrative pacing and rhythm on their curriculum. Despite that, getting the pacing wrong can spoil an otherwise excellent story.
Think about the books or films that didn’t excite you. What words would you use to describe them? Not engaging. Dull. Boring… One of my mother’s greatest criticisms of a film she didn’t like was that it was “all talk.” That meant there wasn’t much action. And yet if you’ve seen Twelve Angry Men (1957) you’ll know that even a story that is confined to one setting and almost entirely “just talk” can be fascinating and exciting. Why? Because the pacing is excellent.
By the same token, a film that’s all action and little else – Van Helsing (2004), for instance – can be just as frustrating. The incessant crisis after crisis with little recuperative time in between leaves the viewer exhausted and disengaged. I know by the end of that movie I was rooting for Dracula to hang the irksome doc from a particularly ugly gargoyle. Even if he did look like Hugh Jackman.
Van Helsing. Not the gargoyle.
So what do we mean by pacing?
Pacing means controlling the cadence of how the story is told so the reader stays engaged throughout. It determines how quickly or how slowly the events unfold. It also means there’s a rhythm: there are intense scenes as well as quiet ones. There’s a build to the big moments and a relaxation afterwards. It’s a dance. More accurately, it’s a series of dances – sometimes a waltz, sometimes a foxtrot. Now and then it’s a tango. In other words, while you don’t want your entire novel to be languid, neither should you keep up a frenetic pace all the way through. The narrative needs to rise and fall like the bosom of a lovesick ingenue.
The type of novel you’re writing determines the overall sort of pace you should use. For instance, the thriller will tend to have far more action scenes than a romance. When people talk about a book being a “page turner”, they mean the pace is fast. Read Grisham or Clancy and take note of the length of their scenes and how the tension rises, falls slightly, and rises again even higher. Select one scene at random and try reading it aloud. If it’s a very intense scene you may well find yourself breathless by the time you’ve finished reading it.
But not every novel is a thriller. For that matter, no two thrillers are the same, or shouldn’t be. The pace of each story should be specific to that tale alone. Other types of novels, the literary, the romance, and so forth, aren’t in such a rush to reach the end. The pace here can be slower, more contemplative. That’s not to say there are no high intensity sequences, but there are fewer of them and in general they don’t instill the same sort of bone-cracking angst as those of the thriller. Think of it this way: the thriller can be described as a series of spikes (sharp rise, sharp fall), while most other types of novels are hills and valleys.
How to set the pace
You determine the pace of your story by the words you choose, by your sentence structure, and by the placement of your scenes. Let’s look at it in more detail, starting with the slower rhythm.
Why does switching to a slower pace matter?
Lots of reasons:
- You need to let the action cool after a big scene so the reader and your characters can catch their breath.
- Changing the tempo keeps the reader engaged.
- Easing off the action in order to slowly build it again makes for far greater tension in your big scene.
- Every novel, no matter how suspenseful, needs to develop the characters, establish the settings, tell us what’s at stake. You can’t do that in the middle of a battle sequence. You can remind us of it but not tell us new information. For instance, when Frodo is fighting Gollum in Mount Doom there’s no room for a description of the Shire, how Bilbo took the One Ring from Gollum, how Smeagol lost his identity and became Gollum, a creature utterly obsessed with his ‘precious’. All those details had to come first so by the time we reach that fight we know what’s at stake.
“Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle.“Precious, precious, precious!” Gollum cried. “My Precious! O my Precious!” And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail precious, and he was gone.” — JRR Tolkien, The Return of the King (1955)
So, what are the elements of the slower pace?
You can recognise the slower pace in a story because the writer becomes more languid. The prose here is rich with exposition, description, introspection. The sentences are generally much longer. The paragraphs appear as a block of text, a bit like this paragraph. These pieces make the reader slow down their reading because the writer is sharing more information. They’re explaining how the house looked, why the girl loves the boy, how mother used to serve madeleines for tea. Yes, think Proust, or Virginia Woolf. Even the structure of the sentences and word choices reveal more deliberation. The writer gives us full sentences, properly punctuated. The words may contain more syllables. This last isn’t a prerequisite, but it’s a mark of some writers’s style. Even those who are not known for ornate prose can surprise you with the words they use if you’re paying attention.
Here’s Douglas Adams in a passage from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979):
The improbability-proof control cabin of the Heart of Gold looked like a perfectly conventional spaceship except that it was perfectly clean because it was so new. Some of the control seats hadn’t had the plastic wrapping taken off yet. The cabin was mostly white, oblong, and about the size of a smallish restaurant. In fact it wasn’t perfectly oblong: the two long walls were raked round in a slight parallel curve, and all the angles and corners of the cabin were contoured in excitingly chunky shapes. The truth of the matter is that it would have been a great deal simpler and more practical to build the cabin as an ordinary three-dimensional oblong room, but then the designers would have got miserable. As it was the cabin looked excitingly purposeful, with large video screens ranged over the control and guidance system panels on the concave wall, and long banks of computers set into the convex wall. In one corner a robot sat humped, its gleaming brushed steel head hanging loosely between its gleaming brushed steel knees. It too was fairly new, but though it was beautifully constructed and polished it somehow looked as if the various parts of its more or less humanoid body didn’t quite fit properly. In fact they fitted perfectly well, but something in its bearing suggested that they might have fitted better.
See how this passage looks like a wall of text? The sentences are full, even elaborate. The sentence beginning, “It too was fairly new…” contains more than thirty words. Look at the detail. Adams uses descriptors like clean, new, white, large, long, gleaming, polished… There are numbers and colours which add heft to his description.
Why use a faster pace?
- To increase the tension.
- To reflect the emotion of the characters during stressful moments.
- To enable the reader to empathise with the characters’ plight.
What are the elements of a faster pace?
Text on the pace is jagged.
Thin on detail.
Reading the scene leaves… you… breathless.
As an example, let’s look at a more intense scene from The Hitchhiker’s Guide:
“But what about my house…?” he asked plaintively.
Ford looked across to Mr Prosser, and suddenly a wicked thought struck him.
“He wants to knock your house down?”
“Yes, he wants to build…”
“And he can’t because you’re lying in front of his bulldozer?”
“I’m sure we can come to some arrangement,” said Ford. “Excuse me!” he shouted.
Compared to the first paragraph, this segment is ragged at the edges. The sentences are short and several of them are incomplete. These are signs that the pace has sped up.
The rhythm of the paragraph
It’s not only the narrative that has a cadence to it, the paragraph does too. By occasionally adding a one or two word sentence in the middle of a series of longer sentences you create a new rhythm. Like this. Notice the way ‘like this’ stands out and gives the paragraph a bit more of a punch? Read back some of your work and see what sort of rhythm you can find. If all your paragraphs look pretty much the same, if your sentence structure never varies, maybe you’ll want to practice mixing it up a little. Yeah. Just like that.
The rhythm of the story
We’ve talked about the importance of the fast pace and the slow pace and how you need both to bring your narrative to life. However, there’s more to the story (no pun intended) than that.
It’s up to you to decide the sort of cadence that suits the narrative best. Although it’s generally believed that you need a slow build to a faster scene then a dropping off of the action, you don’t need to write the whole thing in 4/4 time. Maybe you want a foxtrot (slow-quick-quick) for part of it and a cha-cha (one-two-cha-cha-cha) for another part.
It’s fine to have two or three fast-paced scenes in a row; likewise with the slower ones. There are no right or wrong answers. Decisions about the rhythm of the story tend to happen at a subconscious level and you may find your instincts are spot on. However, if you feel that your story isn’t as engaging as you would like, or if your readers say it drags in places, look at the way you’ve handled your pacing to see if it can be improved.
We can’t leave a discussion on rhythm without examining beats, what they are and how they work, but that’s a topic that deserves a whole blog in itself. We’ll come back to it next week. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, please let me know. Thanks for reading.