Pace: Why the writer should never think about it

I realise how it sounds. I’ve said it before and seen the reaction, but I stand by it. If you are concerned about pace, if critiquers have redflagged it as an issue in your work, it won’t help you to think about it.

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The problem is the word tends to be conceived as a consideration of speed. If you look at the traditional advice that tends to crop up it all deals with getting things moving more quickly and they tend as a matter of course to approach it from a mechanical point of view:

Shorter words will lead to shorter sentences, shorter sentences will lead to shorter scenes, shorter scenes will lead to shorter chapters and shorter chapters will lead them to the end quicker.

And I wouldn’t necessarily say they are wrong. The shorter the journey the faster you reach your destination. The question is, does it make the destination any more interesting?

Pace for me is always a matter not of speed but of engagement. When I read stuff that I remember as very ‘pacey’, it doesn’t technically read any different from any other bit, its just I was excited by what was happening and eager to get to a resolution. A writer thinking about pace is putting their attention in the wrong place.

Pace lies in the hands of the reader. Their emotions, their engagement, their need to know what happens next.  Understanding pace means understanding how your reader will engage with your story. If you aren’t raising questions, and getting them hungry to know how they will resolve, it doesn’t matter how short your scenes are, their attention will wander.

Perhaps a better way of putting it is to divide it into scene pacing versus story pacing.

Scene pacing is what generally plagues most writers and fills blog posts on the subject, and it focuses almost exclusively on the mechanics, the block elements employed. Advice such as trim unnecessary words, isn’t bad advice, though what’s unnecessary is hotly debated, its just good advice for all writing and all paces. The notion that the reader will somehow accept wandering and pointless prose, filled with excess words which add nothing to the tone, character, or story, as long as its broken up by staccato sequences, is a dangerous one. All writing should be consistently interesting and flow well.

I try to leave out the bits readers skip ~ Elmore Leonard

Story pacing on the other hand is essentially a plot issue, only one that never seems to get addressed as such. And this is to my mind to its detriment. I have seem many a formula -lover cite a book or blog or you-tube series on creating the perfect structure but I’ve yet to encounter one who conceives the underlying principle which is to sustain and increase engagement in what is unfolding.

The pace varies within a novel, depending on the emotion the author wants the readers to experience at any given time – Marilyn R Henderson

How you set up the main plot, when to weave in subplots, how long you hold out on resolution for each, how often you feed the main story, how can you both resolve and yet maintain it as a thread of tension, are some of the questions we should be asking. Not ‘how quickly am I moving from action set piece to action set piece’.

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The one time you will see content rather than mechanics dealt with they will inevitably raise the idea that action is what creates pace and by this they generally mean, fights, chases, explosions. The true Hollywood definition of action. While description or talking and reminiscing are generally considered a good way to slow things down. And the easiest way to refute this is with a nice cosy Agatha Christie. We spend the entire book hungry to get to the denouement, that bit where a wee man with big moustaches stands and talks at us, telling us everything we’ve already seen.

As with Show and Tell, pace is an effect, one which has unlimited tools at its disposal. We run into serious problems when we start to assign narrative elements rigid roles within our stories. Description as shown in Stephen Kings The Replicators, can be also be action and build delicious amounts of tension. Action itself, in that true Hollywood sense, is often rather stagnant. It is the decisions that precipitated it and the consequences it results in that we are truly interested in and an overemphasis on drawing out the action means that you are drawing out a series of movements that stand between us and what we want to know. And if we don’t think through those decisions and consequences, if this isn’t where our attention as writers is focused, the attention of our readers will wander. I tend to think of that old Kit Kat advert with the two gun fighters, rise shoot duck, rise shoot duck, rise shoot duck.. until they just give up and have a kitkat and we understand fully why, because we are as bored as they are.

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Or consider Harry Potter. I can remember exactly how I was feeling as I read the end third of The Prisoner of Azkaban. The bouncing that bed seen, it had never seen before.. yet Rowling never skimmed on detail (ever) and most of what we were given was in essence backstory. What we are seeing is several discrete sub plots start to tie up, answers to puzzling developments being given, a kind of nexus of story strands, answer tumbling after answer.

“I don’t know how I did it”, he said slowly. “I think the only reason I never lost my mind is that I knew I was innocent. That wasn’t a happy thought, so the Dementors couldn’t suck it out of me.. so it kept me sane and knowing who I was.”

If we are to consider any notion of speed when it comes to pace it should be the rate at which we raise and answer questions. And if I were forced to be all technical and anal about it I’d divide it down like this.

Slow: setting up the main questions… Who is Sirius Black? Why is he after Harry?

Medium:  we start to see those questions being answered, raising more questions,  threatening consequences..  demerits for pissing off a tree..

Fast pace:  we risk those consequences – decide to chase the Dog, save the ginger..

Fastest pace: the ultimate consequence, when it all comes together (doesn’t have to be under the whomping willow, although I’m not averse to making this the official Denouement spot….)

The important point is that it is a cumulative effect.  Each one depends on what we do in the others, if we fail to set up the story and the subplots correctly the consequences will be as dull as reading the dictionary, because they will be out of context and we won’t have developed any emotional investment. No pace is an opportunity for indulging in the unnecessary.  If you haven’t set things up correctly, developed strategically, then you won’t have created that most vital tension, that between the reader and the story, their need to know and its need to withhold.

Maybe I should divide it up like this

Slow: mmm intriguing..

Medium: feed yourselves, cats are supposed to be smart..

Fast: TELLL ME NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

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