The idea for this post comes from Kat, the mind behind “Midnight is for Writing“. See, rather than wait for inspiration to strike, sometimes I’ll prompt people into prompting me. Lazy? Maybe. Inspired? Maybe. Probably neither? Almost definitely. So, it’s been recommended that I write about pace.
Google says that Pace is a transit provider in Chicago. If I look instead at the dictionary, there are a few meanings. One of which is “With the permission of; with deference to. Used to express polite or ironically polite disagreement.” We’ll be using a different definition.
Pace is movement. Tempo. The rate at which events occur, and the speed… at which they occur. It’s how fast your story moves, and how fast your writing moves. The two are obviously related, and some might say they can definitely enhance the other, but it’s more accurate to say that they transform each other. I’m not advocating that you go against type, and attempt to have a purple-prosed exploration of literary staples in the midst of a chase scene. It could obviously work, but it would require both skill and confidence.
It’s best to think of the speed of your writing in relation to individual scenes. Sometimes the actions are quick, and you want your writing to complement the actions. Short snappy sentences. Snippets of dialogue. Flash. Blur. A close cut, or wavering focus. Close in, right in your character’s face. Unfinished sentences. Adverbs, gone. Multisyllabic words, gone. Frantic, shortness of breath, rapid movement.
Some things normally need to happen quickly. A reversal of fortune, or a surprise. Those same things could still occur with a slower pace, but they change. They become about tension and unease, they focus on the inevitability of what’s coming, and try to push the worry of the character through to the reader. Focus doesn’t need to change with a slower pace, though. The norm for a slower pace is to either pull back the focus as though it’s a wide-zoom, where it’s about where the character is and what they’re doing – or to get so close that we spend a bit of time inside the character’s head.
This is where I change the focus of the post. It would have been nice to focus on Pace, but that’s unalterably linked with focus, and viewpoint. That bit about the wide-zoom, it doesn’t have to be like that. We can still get close to the character like we might in a fast paced action scene, but use slower wording, and really belabour the point. The tone of a scene can change based on that, and instead of feeling the character’s heart race, we get their stress and anxiety. Lose the character focus and detach ourselves from their emotion, and their actions become a dispassionate struggle. It’s no longer the character at the fore, but the oppressive world we’ve thrown them into, and the inherent futility of their struggle.
There’s no one right way.
Do you remember the writing lessons you’ve been given by so many, especially showing instead of telling? Sometimes that can change the tempo you’ve worked so hard to set, and this is especially the case when you try to fill in the plot through exposition. The more you think about the way the outcomes of a scene could be reached, the more you’ll find possibilities emerge that add to what you’re doing. All of writing is like that. It’s much more important to be conscious of what you’re writing, than trying to make it pop and sizzle. You need those highs to be the peaks of tension, excitement and drama – not a constant level throughout. That goes for the overall story, as well as the scene.
It’s important for your scenes and stories to have downtime, though good pacing is about more than spacing the excitement with reams of cruft. You don’t need to artificially insert boring bits into your work either, but you need to give the reader a chance to catch their breath, and process what you’ve just put them (and the characters) through!
I’m also going to disclaimer all this – yes, here at the end, after I’ve already injected the idea into your brain. I love the slow build, the ooze of atmosphere, and the feeling that tension brings to a story. Putting a piece on the board and saying it’s inevitably going to be drawn into conflict with the other pawns, the staccato text that makes a struggle real, I love those moments. I put the blame for that on the way I write, mostly undirected, but with the collision course foreshadowed – and then, the sudden emergence of the great unknown.
You may find that what appeals to you most, is keeping everything snappy, shooting first, and all that. If you’re having trouble with the approach to a scene, if it feels forced or orchestrated and you’re sure you’ve got the events down right – attack it with a different pace or focal distance.