Thursday, May 24, 2012

Pacing

You may have heard about the importance of pacing, but practical, explicit how-to tips are hard to come by. Until this post of Elissa Cruz's!  A sample: "The funny thing about pacing is that different parts of your story require different speeds in order to get something that feels like a steady pace throughout the the entire novel."

Pacing is an element that differs a lot between short stories and novels. When I made the transition to longer works, it was one of the hardest things for me to learn. In a short story, I found pacing relatively easy: I would bring readers into the story by drawing them into a scene, and then as quickly as possible, I would start working to get them out. I would tell only what was necessary to get to that ending. For me, writing a short story was like being in a building on fire: the rule is, keep moving toward the exit.

Stories are compact, focused. They can be just a few words long. While there certainly are longer stories with a more leisurely pace (see, e.g., "The Dead" by James Joyce), a short story is often concentrated word power, beautiful in its brevity.

I still tend to treat my novels as if I have to pay the printer by the word. My drafts tend to increase in length during revision (before a final trim), and my critiquers and editors usually ask me to add more than subtract. And this isn't a goal I impose on myself artificially: it's an ingrained preference, a natural love of minimalism. I was going to say I'm easily bored, but then I can read the same sentence 50 times while trying to pare it down to its best self, so I'm not sure that's true.

Of course, it isn't the case that shorter works are all faster-paced than longer works. A novelist can also use the "building on fire" approach, or can set up all sorts of mini-goals to move the reader along. I'm convinced that one reason The DaVinci Code became so popular was its pacing. In every scene, a new goal or question was set up. The characters raced all over Europe. People died. It wasn't just that there was a lot of action; there was a lot of action all the time.

Fast pacing isn't necessarily better than slow pacing, either. I think our current market has a preference for fast pacing, but there are slower-paced classic novels that have lasted for centuries. Sometimes we want to turn pages as quickly as possible, in a feverish rush to find out what happens next. And other times we want to ease into a story and have it transport us in every comforting detail. Sometimes we want an amusement-park ride to whip us around in the air, and sometimes we want a Sunday stroll.

4 comments:

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    1. Thank you! And thanks to Elissa for the inspiration. :)

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  2. Also a minimalist writer, I prefer stories that move along, but no so fast that I feel like a pinball. At times I wish a writer would slow down a bit so I can breathe again. As you mentioned, "Sometimes we want an amusement-park ride to whip us around in the air, and sometimes we want a Sunday stroll."

    I appreciate a novel that strikes that balance. Thanks for the link.

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    1. My pacing preferences tend to depend on my mood. Every once in a while, I like something very slow-moving, like comfort food. And sometimes I want an action-packed page-turner. Most times, I'm in the middle.

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