by Dr. Vicki Hinze
For a moment, let's pretend that the words we write on the page are sounds. If all the sounds are the same, then we have monotone. Monotone puts us to sleep, bores us to tears, turns us off--and if it goes on for any length of time--ticks us off.
We can't get emotionally involved with monotone because every single word holds equal emphasis to every other single word. No sentence, paragraph, scene, or chapter bears more weight or is more intense than any other sentence, paragraph, scene, or chapter. The result is that the work is flat, dull, and boring. When writing it, we aren't actively engaged or enthused; we're writing on autopilot. That means when the reader reads, they're not going to be actively engaged or enthused, and they'll be reading it on autopilot. The reader can't get out of a book what the author doesn't put into the book. It's that simple. Autopilot translates to catching zzzs, snoozing.
Why? Because nothing is different. Nothing grabs us, insisting that we pay attention and get involved. Nothing commands us, dares us to look away, or challenges us to keep reading to see what happens.
Our book is a victim of lousy pacing.
Words on a page don't create audible sounds, but they do create rhythms, and those rhythms are active in the reader's mind. This is why the writer must learn to effectively manipulate the story's pacing--so that we writers invite and encourage and allow the reader to get emotionally involved in the story.
Every novel has a natural rhythm. A sweeping saga set in the South might be slow and easy. But there will be times during the course of the novel that the pacing must speed up and move like the wind. Otherwise, the reader is going to become anesthetized and doze through the book. We don't want that. So let's begin at the beginning and learn how to prevent it.
First, let's talk about what pacing is.
Pacing is the rhythm of the novel, of the chapters and scenes and paragraphs and sentences. It's also the rate at which the reader reads, the speed at which novel events occur and unfold. It's using specific word choices and sentence structure--scene, chapter, and novel structure--to tap the emotions of the reader so that the reader feels what the writer wants the reader to feel at any given time during the story.
In the movie, The American President, the female protagonist meets with a senator for dinner. It is her job to get his vote on a fuel fossil bill her employer wants passed. The senator comments that, if she's successful, she'll success herself right out of a job. She shoots back with a swift, "On election day, the voters think what I tell them to think. That's why I have a job."
In essence, that's the writer's perspective on pacing. You work the words, the scenes, the chapters, until the reader thinks and feels what you want them to think and feel about events occurring in the novel.
Now, just as a novel's rhythm can't be monotone, neither can a chapter, nor a scene, nor sentences within a scene. Take a look at the structure in one short paragraph:
Subject/predicate. Subject/predicate. Subject/predicate.
Reminds us a little of the drone of a jungle drum, doesn't it? No variance in the rhythm whatsoever. How long do you think it would take a reader to hear that drone before going on autopilot? Not long. But make a slight variation:
Subject/predicate. Predicate/subject. Subject/predicate.
Now, you've got a different rhythm going. The drone disappears. The reader might not consciously note the change of rhythm, but it won't subconsciously put him to sleep.
In manipulating the pacing, there are times when the writer wants to slow things down or to speed them up. But when do you do which?
Let's start with slowing down the pacing.
SLOW THE PACING:
Slow the pacing when you want to place emphasis on something. For example, in a book I just finished, the protagonist makes her Uncle Lou's spaghetti sauce whenever she's upset. When this is introduced, I slow the pacing down by showing her actually making the sauce and by adding details. Spices, the smell of the sweet basil, that she bakes the meatballs before putting them into the sauce.
The reader senses that the protagonist making this sauce is important due to the treatment (attention) given it. The hero senses it, too. He realizes that, contrary to his belief that she's calm and unaffected by events, she needs comfort. Her Uncle Lou's sauce is her comfort food. (Knowing this--that she needs comfort—relieves and comforts the hero, helping to alleviate some of his doubts about her.)
Later in the book, when the protagonist says she's going to the kitchen, the hero intuits that she's upset and asks, "To make Uncle Lou's sauce?" When she says yes, the hero and the reader knows this is significant--a bond of trust in the admission.
And later still in the book, in keeping with the Rule of Three, the heroine and hero make Uncle Lou's sauce for a child who has been traumatized and needs comfort.
The emphasis given the act of making the sauce initially cues the reader that this event is significant. The later scenes don't require that reinforcement, only the mention, because both the characters and the reader are aware and attuned to the significance. By layering in details, you lend emphasis and significance to a novel incident. You also slow the pacing ...
After a dramatic, active scene.
A reader can't sustain intense emotion indefinitely. No human being can. To feel intensely, we also have to not feel intensely. It's the old "you don't know you're on a hill unless you've trudged through the valley" phenomenon.
Likewise, if the writer keeps the suspense taut for too long at a time, then the reader gets worn out. Emotionally, her natural defense mechanisms engage and she shuts down. It's important for the writer to understand that when those defense mechanisms engage, they act like a safety shield, giving the reader a safe haven in which to recover. Hidden behind that shield, the reader no longer feels immediacy or intensity. She no longer feels anything.
Give your reader those moments of spiked intensity. But also give her a chance to catch her breath. We need hills and valleys, and you control which is which in your pacing.
When you want to expand the emotional impact.
A good example of a time when a writer wants to expand the emotional impact is in a romance novel during a love scene. Here, the writer wants to slow the pacing down, to be generous with descriptive writing.
Another example is in extremely intense situations.
Have you ever been in a car accident? The moment arrives when you know you're about to be hit. Time slows down. Seconds seem hours long. You wait, and wait, and wait, and finally . . . impact.
Now, the moments before the actual crash are no longer or shorter than any other moment, and yet they seem to go on forever. The reason why is because you are so intently focused on waiting for the impact.
Conversely, during these intense moments, you can't think. I mention this because I'm still getting contest entries to judge where the character is in the middle of a crisis and pauses to think back to some event that occurred years ago. Human beings, just don't do that. When in crisis, the crisis consumes our thoughts. That's what we focus on. Rarely does any human being think deep thoughts in the middle of a crisis.
But we do note specific, concrete details that seem larger than life. Let’s use the car accident to illustrate. We know we can't escape being hit. During the wait, we might slam on the brakes and note the tires squealing. We might note smoke churning from them. We might smell the tires burning rubber. But we don't think about someone else's accident that occurred ten years ago.
I want to remark that I disagree with the next "slow down the pacing when" concept, and I'll deviate to explain why. But in researching for this, I did come across this recommendation by several different experts, so I'm including it.
When you want to shift time, distance, or space.
Authors Robie Macauley and George Lanning say that writers function under "special laws of relativity" which allow them to make shifts in time and space. Writers can "condense, compress, or expand" time and space to best suit the needs of their stories. They can also use these special laws to determine what emphasis they place on specific scenes within the story, or specific incidents within the scenes.
It's said that if, in the story, a writer intends to:
1. Reveal dominant character traits
2. Heighten the dramatic impact of a scene
3. Introduce events that are pivotal (either in character or motivation)
then those scenes should be "shown" versus "told." What isn't essential to "show" the reader, the writer can incorporate into the novel in the form of lively narrative.
Narrative slows the pacing.
Now actively showing an event doesn't mean the writer should show every action in every active scene. To do so would be like using "real" conversation versus dialogue. Much of real conversation is inane and unessential to moving the plot forward, so writers edit it out. Same holds true for "every action" writing in active scenes. The writer must, through craft skills and instincts, select which actions and details are significant to the story--to establish tone, setting; plant symbolic articles--and to show them. Insignificant actions, edit out.
For every rule there is an exception, so I state no rules. But I do state this suggestion, which opposes the concept of slowing the pacing when shifting time, distance, or space: When you encounter mundane stretches of time or distance, use a transition to move past them quickly. If nothing important to the story happens during these times or travels, why show it?
Why give novel space to something that misleads the reader into thinking this information is important?
Result? The reader remembers the character driving from Point A to Point B. Nothing happened during that drive, but it must be significant or it wouldn't have been there. So the reader reads on, waiting for the significance to become apparent. But it never does. The reader thinks the writer forgot to tie up that loose thread. Or, s/he might not specifically pinpoint the reason, but feels a dissatisfaction with the book. This is why I disagree with slowing the pacing during shifts. Transition, and then move on.
There has to be a balance between narrative and active scenes in the novel.
Too much narrative and the pacing drags. Too little and the active scenes lose authority because an abundance of inconsequential details are included and the reader gets mired in them.
How much of each—narrative and active scenes—should go into the novel depends on the individual book. What balance might be right for a mystery won't be right for a saga, a romance, a thriller. Even within genre, the novel's natural rhythm and pacing must be respected. Some stories demand that they unfold at breakneck speed. Others require a slower disclosure.
The novel itself dictates.
Regardless, within the novel, it is the writer's job to vary the pacing, placing emphasis on that which is of consequence to the characters, the story, and the reader.
Flashbacks slow down the pacing. Actually, flashbacks bring the forward momentum of the novel to a dead halt. The reason why is, we transition from the present into the past, and the present then ceases to exist until we return to it.
Flashbacks carry danger. The writer runs the risks of:
-- The flashback lasting too long
-- The flashback breaking the forward momentum of the present plot for such a time that the reader can't reconnect to it
-- The flashback’s past story becoming more interesting to the reader than the present story.
Often writers include flashbacks that do nothing to enhance or reinforce the present story. Obviously, those flashbacks are useless and should be cut during editing. Any flashback allowed to remain in the novel should fit the present story like glove to hand, adding some insight, something significant.
What are some techniques for slowing down the pacing?
Use long, flowing sentences, soft-sounding verbs, descriptions that are steeped in sensory input and rich in texture and sound. This evokes an appropriate emotional response in the reader. One of quiet, calm, serenity—great for those resting times in sequels!
Layering details, one upon the other, places emphasis on what is being described and slows down the pacing.
Long blocks of narrative or description—even those engagingly written with positively sparkling prose—slow down the pacing. Personally, I advise against long blocks of narrative. They aren't visually appealing to the reader, and they stop the forward movement of the plot.
Instead, break that long block into small chunks of two or three sentences each. Then insert those chunks at points in the story when the reader needs the information contained in the chunk in order for what is happening in the novel at that time to make sense. By the time the reader notes the forward movement has stopped (at the insert of the two-or-three-sentence chunks), she's read them and the plot is moving forward again. Not so with long, uninterrupted blocks of narrative.
SPEED UP THE PACING
Dialogue speeds up the pacing. It gives the illusion of action, and that illusion moves the reader forward more quickly than does narrative.
Lean writing. The lack of embellishment (adjectives, adverbs) causes the reading speed to increase, which moves the story along at a good clip.
When writing dramatic or action-packed scenes. In dramatic situations, or intently active ones, the pacing must be brisk to help carry the right emotional impact. Here, long sentences or paragraphs won’t work. They’ll bog down the action, negate any compelling sensation from the drama you’re trying to build, and destroy compatibility between the tone conveyed and the one you intended to convey--all of which weaken the potency of the work.
What are some Techniques for speeding up the pacing?
Speed up the pacing by using short paragraphs. Spare sentences; no wasted words.
Use crisp, sharp verbs that sound hard. Think, short and punchy.
Use sentence fragments. The reader reads fragments faster. That imparts a sense of urgency the reader senses at gut-level, which evokes an emotional response—a quickening pulse, a worried gasp, a shiver.
Pacing can be manipulated and it should be--to best serve the story. If you looked at the story’s pacing on a graph, it would resemble an askew EKG. The rhythms wouldn’t be uniform. But there would be definite rhythms.
As a story progresses, the intensity should grow stronger. The obstacles become more difficult, the setbacks and consequences of the characters= failure to fulfill their novel goals are harder to overcome.
This constantly growing intensity is why so often you’ll see books published where the early chapters are longer and more dense, and later chapters are shorter and more dramatic.
As the characters/readers move through the novel, they pitch and roll. Take two steps forward, and one back. Climb a little higher, and then stumble again. And on each successive attempt, it’s harder to climb and they meet with more resistance—inside and out (internal and external conflicts). But they keep going and, at the moment when it seems they (which has become "we" because the author has succeeded in accomplishing reader identification by using our emotions and we now feel "we" are the characters) can’t succeed—we’re body-slammed—and then the unthinkable happens. We find the key to the forgotten door that was foreshadowed earlier in the novel. We use the key, and struggle . . . and struggle . . . and, finally, we taste success.
A writer relies on skill to develop the right pacing for each individual project. But also relies on instinct. On the author’s inner ear that tests the rhythm to make sure the flow has the right sound and intuitive feel.
At times, instinct and learned skills will be at odds. Go with your instincts.
There isn’t a writing rule that hasn’t been successfully broken. The trick is in knowing them, and knowing when to break them. Know when to shift and speed up or slow down your novel’s pacing.
© Copyright Vicki Hinze 2003. All Rights Reserved