Friday, April 8, 2011

Setting the Pace

When writing a story (especially a novel, but shorter stories as well), it is important to give attention to pacing. Pacing regulates the speed at which readers read. In this, writers have control over how people think. Tom Waggoner mentioned four types of pace in an article on Writer’s Digest (Feb 2008). Normal pace, fast pace, atmospheric pace, and suspenseful pace.

When you break down a story into its parts, there are four main categories, namely description, narration (action), dialogue and exposition (internal monologue). Utilising these four parts of a story, you can change the pace.

The normal pace is when things are going normally and there’s no specific pace you need your readers to read at. It can be used to provide breathing room in between fast paced scenes or even slow paced scenes. To achieve normal pace, all you have to do is try to even the amount of the four parts of a story. This divides the reader's attention and keeps the pace steady.

Fast pacing lets your readers run through the text. By focusing on only one part of the four, you can effectively speed up the pace, as there is only one thing to concentrate on. Keep in mind that a fast paced scene shouldn’t go on too long – it can exhaust the reader.

Atmospheric pace, according to Waggoner, is when you need to create a mood or foreshadow events. This can be achieved by a combination of description and exposition. Contrasting the environment with the character’s emotional state can create specific moods or atmospheres. This pace also effectively slows things down.

The suspenseful pace is when you need your readers to be on the edge of their seats. You use action that doesn’t just work toward a specific point, but also delays it. Along with that, you put in details, providing a step by step description. If you did this right, readers will want to read quickly – to find out what happens – but they will be slowed, increasing the suspense in the end.

Along with these four, I think there is at least another, which is a sort of focus pace. When something big is happening – say a bear coming at the hero – time will effectively slow down. This is a human reaction to fear. When we experience fear, the brain does not actually slow down anything, but records more information – probably an instinct that allows us to know what to do in later, similar situations. In any case, the point is that a slow pace can be different from both the normal and atmospheric pace. By slowing down time and showing all the details (action and description), we create an impact and tell the readers that this part is important. However, watch out for adding anything other than the current focus (eg. The bear). When a bear attacks you, you won’t be thinking of the time when a mongoose bit your leg. The mind goes into a tunnel vision.

Lastly, here are some hard and fast rules that seem to be generally accepted as true:

- Dialogue speeds up
- Narrative slows down
- Hard and sharp verbs and short sentences speeds up
- Flowing words and long sentences slows down

I hope this was at least a little bit informative. If you have anything to add to the use or methods of pacing, feel free to comment.

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