Those teaching the craft of writing fiction encounter an immediate difficulty. Instructors in most disciplines are free to employ terminologies that are widely accepted in their fields. Teachers of the craft of writing may employ a term such as point of view only to discover that this designation is used in at least four ways.
The Puget Sound Writers Guild has established for its members a terminology to be used in the teaching of the craft of writing. This is not done with the illusion that we are establishing a terminology that will be accepted, in time, by all of those offering instruction in the craft of writing fiction. The Guild does it in the belief that a class in writing commercial fiction must have a common language for discussing the craft.
Pacing is one of the most important tools the author has in writing fiction. What is pacing? As in running a race, it is making the determination to go at a slower or faster speed or to vary speeds. To be more specific, when moving from point A to point B in the plot line, the writer decides to use fewer or more words for a situation, requiring that the reader spend a greater or lesser amount of time to be informed about the situation. The writer can slow down a piece of action by describing it using more words or speed it up by using fewer words. To a lesser extent, using compound sentences or simple sentences with compound predicates will slow a piece of writing while employing simple sentences and simple sentences with a few sentence additives will hurry the passage along.
Why should a writer want to reduce a full page of material to a half page? The author may want to speed the reader along when she has material that is necessary to the novel but not particularly dramatic in context. The writer may have a series of individual incidents occur within seconds of one another. By using an absolute minimum of words, the writer conveys the idea of split second action to the reader. How do we achieve such economy? By using words that are both vivid and short.
Why should the writer want to slow down a passage in a work of fiction by perhaps expanding a half page to a full page? She wants to slow – for specific reasons – the speed at which the reader can absorb the content of the scene. One of the author’s motivations may be to enhance a mood, particularly a mood of serenity, romance, contemplation, etc. A second motivation may be to prolong suspense with ever-increasing tension. How do we do this? By increasing the wordage that relates to a given piece of action. This is perhaps the most satisfactory and dramatic reason of all for becoming a master of pacing. Used skillfully, the author can blow up the balloon to the point where the reader cringes, knowing it must explode sooner or later.
Let’s consider further the first use of pace – to speed up a piece of writing. The author reduces the number of words he uses in a given bit of writing. He holds down the modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and other modifying elements) to a limited number, achieving exactitude in what he wants to say through a wider command of nouns and verbs. To achieve even faster slam-bang description, he reduces the sentences in short, intensive passages to little more than subjects and verbs, sentence fragments, or single words.
Example: Turning, he fired. The revolver bucked. Grunting, Smith cried out, clutched his middle, and dropped.
You can bring on the action even quicker than that.
Ex: Turning, Brewster fired. Sarah screamed. Searing pain ripped his shoulder. Blackness overwhelmed him.
Think of all the tools a writer has for reducing wordage. For example, rather than writing he/she thinks sentences, use interior monologue.
Ex: Seeing Molly walking down the street, Jones slid out of his car. He thought she was one of the best-looking girls he had ever seen.
Now let’s alter that by using interior monologue.
Ex. Seeing Molly walking down the street, Jones slid out of his car. God, what a living doll.
Using interior monologue, which is to say the exact thought in the character’s mind, we reduce wordage and make the writing more vivid. And no, we do not punctuate as if this were dialogue. He didn’t say, “God, what a living doll.” He thought, God, what a living doll. And that is an exact thought, not spoken word.
Use all the techniques at your command to rid your work of excessive wordage. To speed up, use simple sentences. To slow action, use compound sentences if you want soft and considered effects. If you want harder, brighter writing but with numerous words, use sentences with lots of sentence modifiers.
Vocabulary is always a consideration for authors, but especially so in pacing. But be warned. Never employ vocabulary that sends the reader to the dictionary constantly. The writer who does won’t have said reader for long. But the author should have a vocabulary that instantly makes available all the options with which the average reader might be acquainted.
Note these two sentences:
Easing open the door until it gently touched the wall, he stepped over the sill and into the room.
Slamming the door against the wall, he charged into the room.
Here we have sentences that are similar in describing the opening of a door, but vocabulary makes all the difference in the world in the reader’s perception of the action–gentle motion versus violence. Remember the nature of synonyms available to us in our language–some softer, some harsher. The writer alters the reader’s perception with the words he chooses. Readers sense these differences in word choice even when reading silently. Note the difference in each pair of words below, softer for the first word in each case: wall–fence; sighed–wheezed; smiled–grinned; glow–shine; quiet–still; murmur–mutter.
Whether we write of a funeral or a wedding, many of the details are the same. We have crowds, ministers and rabbis, temples and churches. But the language we choose to describe these occasions is different.
Notice this passage: Night lay across the land like a rich sable cloak, the heavy air trapped beneath its folds dank and fetid, while heaven’s tears dripped with dull monotony from the sere leaves of the forest oaks. Opposed to: The night was dark, the air moist and malodorous, the rain dripping from the trees.
Both sentences say the same thing. We have slowed the first description to give it a pace that may be desired.
We feel confident that there is a two hundred or more page book to be written on pacing, but the writer would be dissatisfied with it because the illustrations he or she could give even in two hundred pages are still finite, and the variation that actually is achieved in novels is theoretically infinite in its variety. What we can hope to know as authors is why we choose the pace we do and what are the basic tools we have for pacing. The application of these tools to the execution of pacing lies in the art of writing. One can talk about art, but, alas, one can never instruct how to create art. That comes from the talent and modeling of the writer.
Finally, what we can say with dreadful assurance here is that the failure to pace well, to not be able to create scintillating language that manipulates the reader through the story line is fatal. Model what others have written. Strive for improvement as you move from manuscript to manuscript. Watch the reaction of your readers or listeners. Working through these steps will produce artful pacing, and through these things will come success.
Pacing is one of the most important tools you have in writing fiction. What is pacing? As in running a race, it is making the determination to go at a slower or faster speed or to vary the speed. A bit more specifically, when moving from point A to point B in your plot line or entering a bank and departing the bank later, it is your decision to use fewer or more words, therefore taking the reader a greater or lesser time to cover the same piece of action. One can slow a piece of action by using more words in rendering the scene for the reader and speed up the scene by using fewer words in rendering it to the reader. To a lesser extent, using compound sentences or simple sentences with compound predicates will slow a piece of writing while simple sentences and simple sentences with a moderate number of sentence additives will speed up a passage.
Why should you want to slow down a passage in a work of fiction, perhaps expanding a half page of writing to one of full-page length? Or why should you want to take a full page of material and reduce it to two-thirds of a page in length? For one reason – you might want to speed the reader along when you have material that is necessary to the novel but not particularly dramatic. Another reason is when you have a series of individual incidents occur within seconds of one another. By writing “super-fast,” you convey that idea of split-second action to the reader. How do we write “super-fast?” By both reducing the number of words in the passage and trying to make them more vivid.
And you may have distinct occasions when you want to slow the action of the novel. One reason is to enhance a mood, particularly a mood of serenity, romance, contemplation, etc. The other reason for slowing the progress from point A to point B is to produce suspense. How do we do this? By increasing the number of words that relate to a given piece of action. This is perhaps the most satisfactory and dramatic reason of all for becoming a master of pacing. Used skillfully, one can blow up the balloon to the point where the reader cringes, knowing it must explode sooner or later.
How does the writer speed up the action, regardless of the purpose? As we said above, by reducing the number of words he uses in the sentences. He tries to hold down the modifiers to a limited number, achieving exactitude in what he wants to say through a wide command of nouns and verbs. To achieve even faster slam-bang description, he reduces the sentences in short, intensive passages to little more than subjects and verbs with almost nothing else.
This is a place where, without much difference in the total number of words, you have chosen common nouns and verbs to convey a gentle action or a forceful action. Remember, too, the characteristics of soft words in the language. We can certainly hear their softness when we read them aloud, and they come across to the reader even when he reads them to himself. Note how much softer the word wall is than fence; sighed, wheezed; smiled, grinned; glow, shine; quiet, still; murmur, mutter.