Drawing Breath: On Effective Pacing

(Appeared on Writer Unboxed, August 26, 2013)

Ah, pacing: you slippery minx.

Like voice, we often understand it when we feel its adept execution.  And like voice, it can be daunting to quantify. We know how we feel when we’re reading a “page-turner”—breathless, anticipatory, immersed and invested. And we know when a book feels like an uphill slog through peanut butter.

Most novels fall between those two poles, though, and rightly so. The best books give us a varied experience of pace. They create continual shifts in our perception of time as we read, expanding and contracting based on what’s unfolding on the page.

So, it can be helpful to start with the notion that a novel’s rhythm isn’t a one-size-fits-all-scenes proposition. Some scenes demand a slowing of the pace, a settling in and luxuriating over minute details. Some demand a quick, surface treatment that moves us along with very little feeling of traction.

The late, exceedingly great writing instructor, Gary Provost, offered the following advice for effective pacing:

“SLOW = FAST. FAST = SLOW.”

That means that events that in real life seem to unfold more slowly—driving from one part of town to another, for example, or sitting at the kitchen table and contemplating life over a cup of tea—should be dispensed with quickly and with as much economy as possible. 

This also holds true—especially so--for those passages that are meant to inform the reader. These include moments of exposition in which a character’s background is relayed, for example, or the circumstances in which two characters met. Any bit of backstory or “data” we believe is essential for a reader to have but which doesn’t pertain directly to the story’s central conflicts or unfold in the story’s narrative present.

This technique—a quick brushstroke rather than an expansive mural—can be dazzling in its effectiveness. For example, in Nabokov’s LOLITA, the narrator sums up a portion of his childhood in this way: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…”

“Picnic, lightning.” Two words that give us a world. Chills!

In your case, of course, you might need three words--or five or twenty. But challenge yourself to zip through any moment of transition, any moment in which your narrator is relaying past events or offering a summary of another character or a previous occurrence, and any moment in which little appears to challenge your characters or create external conflict.

If you had to summarize two pages of back story in two words, what would they be? And is it possible those two words really say more, somehow, than those two pages?

Conversely, our feeling of time should slow in moments of greater intensity—whether that intensity has a physical or an emotional basis (or, as will often be the case, both).

In other words, if it seems to happen quickly in life—such as a moment of violence, or if it creates a high level of emotion in us—such as a romantic encounter (uh, a good one, anyway), take your time, linger over the minute details, drill down, so to speak, and bring the narrative lens closer and closer.

The more intense a moment, the more we should feel as though we’ve slowed down, the more our attention should be drawn to that idiosyncratic and unusual detail, something that only the scene’s viewpoint character would observe in that moment.

It can be effective, too, to “move the lens” a bit, as my amigo Don Maass teaches, to pull the focus off the expected elements and images and focus a few degrees off to the side, to capture something less expected.

For example, in a recent workshop, a student wrote not about the body of a victim of violence, but about the shoe of that victim, which lay in the grass, as I recall, and which in its singular and damaged state, did more to suggest violence and create tension than an actual description of a body would have done. She lingered over the details of that shoe, and in doing so, created a forceful feeling of dread in the reader.

With a romantic scene, too, it can be so potent to shift the focus from the expected tropes to the startling and minutely observed. Instead of heaving bodies, can we see the constellation of freckles in the crook of a beloved’s arm? Or the chipped green nail polish on a hand that scrunches and releases brown paisley sheets? Can we move the sensory focus somewhere unexpected to make the moment more deeply tangible and more true?

It amazes me how often my clients and students linger over moments that offer no friction, no drama, and nothing of great physical import and then rush through the really juicy moments in which I want to luxuriate!

So, think of pacing as the lungs of your story, which expand and contract as more oxygen is needed to breathe life into your scenes. Where your scenes merit it, don’t be afraid to take a deep, deep, breath and let it out ever so slowly. Your reader will breathe and live along with you, which is, after all, the power of a good read.

-- Lorin