Category Archives: pacing techniques

Pacing

by
Sandy Tritt

Pacing is a tool writers have to control the speed in which a story reads. Lush, descriptive segments slow the pace, giving readers a breather. Rapid-fire dialogue speeds the pace, leaving the reader breathless. It is up to the writer to decide when the pace needs quickened and when it should be put in slow gear.

Perhaps the easiest way to judge is to ask questions as you read. Do you start drifting? You need action. Is the conversation or action moving too quickly? You need narrative to even out the pacing. Beware, though, not to use repetition to slow your pace. Instead, find new things to say or new things to focus on. For example, during a highly emotional scene that is moving too quickly, allow the character to study a picture on the wall or watch children playing nearby. Or allow him to remember a conversation from the past. Or focus on one of his other senses, such as the smells or sounds in the background. This can add depth and an emotional layer, as well as slowing the pace.

We can also slow the pace of a chapter or even the entire manuscript by adding more description, more exposition (background information) and more internal dialogue (character thoughts).

Let’s look at an example:

 

Ray walked the mile from the hospital to Bob’s Sunoco. He found Gary in the bay, changing the oil on a pale blue Cadillac. He kicked his brother’s feet until Gary rolled from beneath the car. “We gotta talk.”

            “I get off at three.”

            “Now.”

            “What’s up?”

            “Let’s walk.”  

            Gary followed Ray outside and toward town. “What did the doctor say about Mom?”

            “He put her in the hospital.”

            “Why?”

            “He got the tests back.”

            “And?”

            “What did the doctor say?” Gary repeated.

            “She’s got cancer.”

            Gary stopped walking. “Cancer?”

             “Something about a mass in her brain.”

             “Does she need surgery? Does she have to take chemo? Or radiation?”

            “He says there ain’t nothing they can do. He says it’s too late.”      
 
            “Too late? Too late for what?”

            “Dr. Brown says . . .” Ray rubbed his head. “He says it’s too late. He says she ain’t coming home.”

            “What’re we gonna do?” he said.

            “About what?”

            Gary took a new pack of Marlboros from his pocket and tapped it against his palm. “The boys.”

            “I guess we gotta pick them up from school and fix them something to eat.”

            “I don’t mean now,” Gary said, opening the cigarettes. “Until they’re grown. Who’ll take care of them?”

            “Mom will.”

            “You okay?”

            Ray scratched the five-day-old stubble on his chin. “They made a mistake. We just gotta find Dad and get this all straightened out. Dad will know what to do.”

            Gary lit a cigarette and slowly exhaled.

 

This is an important scene, filled with kinetic emotion. Yet, it passes so quickly we don’t feel the full impact of it. This is where we need to slow the pacing down. To do this, we add two things: internal dialogue and description. In our rewrite, I will put the internal dialogue in red and the added descriptive passages in purple. See how slowing the pace adds power to the words:           

            Ray walked the mile from the hospital to Bob’s Sunoco. He found Gary in the bay, changing the oil on a pale blue Cadillac. He kicked his brother’s feet until Gary rolled from beneath the car. “We gotta talk.”

            “I get off at three.”

            “Now.”

            Gary stood and wiped his hands on an oily rag. “What’s up?”

            “Let’s walk.” Ray feared his brain was going to explode. Too much was going on, too many things were changing. He’d read the front page of the newspaper over and over while waiting in the doctor’s office. The Apollo 7 astronauts were heading home after eleven days in space. President Johnson was negotiating for the release of fourteen North Vietnamese POW’s. And Jackie Kennedy, the dead President’s wife, was marrying a Greek billionaire the very next day. He didn’t even know if it was legal for the President’s widow to marry a foreigner.

            Gary followed Ray outside and toward town. “What did the doctor say about Mom?”

            “He put her in the hospital.”

            Colorful leaves swirled around their ankles, the drier ones crunching under their heavy steps. Gary kicked them out of his way. “Why?”

            “He got the tests back.”

            “And?”

            A young mother, her sweater flapping in the wind, pushed a baby carriage over the uneven sidewalk with one hand and pulled a stubborn toddler with the other. Ray stepped into the street to let her pass.

            “What did the doctor say?” Gary repeated.

            “She’s got cancer.”

            Gary stopped walking. “Cancer?”

            Ray slowed down until Gary caught up. “Something about a mass in her brain.”

            Gary was quiet for a long time, then spoke softly. “Does she need surgery? Does she have to take chemo? Or radiation?”

            “He says there ain’t nothing they can do. He says it’s too late.” Ray remembered that part very well. He’d argued with Dr. Brown, insisting there had to be something. She had three young boys who needed her.

            “Too late? Too late for what?”

            “Dr. Brown says . . .” Ray rubbed his head. “He says it’s too late. He says she ain’t coming home.”

            They walked slower, silently, past the library and into the park. Pre-schoolers played on the swings and slide, laughing and shouting.

Gary leaned against an oak tree, his dirty gray jumpsuit blending into the trunk.“What’re we gonna do?” he said.

            “About what?”

            Gary took a new pack of Marlboros from his pocket and tapped it against his palm. “The boys.”

            “I guess we gotta pick them up from school and fix them something to eat.”

            “I don’t mean now,” Gary said, opening the cigarettes. “Until they’re grown. Who’ll take care of them?”

            “Mom will.”

            “You okay?”

            Ray scratched the five-day-old stubble on his chin. “They made a mistake. We just gotta find Dad and get this all straightened out. Dad will know what to do.”

            Gary lit a cigarette and slowly exhaled.

            Ray watched the smoke disappear into the October-blue sky. A foreigner. Two hundred million people in the United States and the President’s widow was going to marry a foreigner. No wonder the world was so damned screwed up.

 

 Likewise, to speed the pace, omit everything except for the direct action or dialogue. Ignore descriptions, ignore reactions, ignore anything other than the bare necessities. This is necessary when the action is more important than character reflection. Let’s look at the following example, in which Gary and Ray are trying to repair a barn roof destroyed in a storm when the storm comes around again. Gary slips on the wet roof and is now on the steep slope of the roof, his weight partially held by a fragile drainpipe below. Ray is able to extend one hand, which Gary has grabbed onto. David is trying to reposition the ladder so Gary can climb down. Here’s how NOT to do it: 

            “Can you reach the ladder with your foot?” Ray asked. He wondered how long it would be until the drainpipe gave way.

            “If I move it,” Gary said, “I won’t have anything to hold onto.”

             “Just me.” Ray’s arm ached from holding Gary’s weight. He hoped David had seen what was going on and would try to move the ladder. Someone had to do something. Otherwise, Gary would fall.

            “I don’t trust you that much,” Gary said.

            “Looks like you ain’t got much choice.” The rain still fell. Ray looked at the sky. Dark clouds hovered even lower. The rain was there to stay.

            The ladder vibrated again.

            “Shit,” Ray whispered. “I wish they’d stop shaking that thing.” It made him nervous. Surely David knew that shaking the ladder also shook the gutter. And any little movement added pressure to it. It could snap at any time.

            “I wish they’d stack up some hay underneath me.”

            “Hell, as much rain as we’ve got today, you’d just land in the mud. Ain’t gonna get much softer than that.” The mud had to be deep. But still, he knew it was a long fall and Gary would most likely break some bones or worse. He remembered when he’d broken his leg in tenth grade. It was so difficult trying to get around the school on crutches and it seemed that his leg itched all the time. He’d stuck an unbent clothes hanger under the cast to scratch his leg.

            “You trying to tell me to jump?”

            “Nah. You’d probably pull me down with you.” Ray knew Gary wouldn’t really do that. But he also knew Gary was still angry with him for spending the money on the drum set.

            “I’d damn sure try.”

            “Let me have your foot,” David’s voice said.

            “No,” Gary answered.

            The roof shimmered in the rain. If the situation had been different, it would even have been beautiful.

            “I’m right underneath you,” David said. “If you lift your left foot, I’ll put it on the rung.”

            “Shit,” Gary said. “I’m trusting Ray to hold me and you to guide me. I might as well jump.”

            “Or apologize for being such an ass all the time.”

            Ray smiled. David had a point. All the boys had taken Ray’s side of the argument. Except maybe for Joey, who hadn’t said anything. But then, Joey never did talk much.

            “I’ll jump first.”

 

It’s difficult to be too worried about Gary with all the internal dialogue muddying the situation. Let’s look at how cutting all the internal dialogue and description adds immediacy and excitement to this scene: 

            “Can you reach the ladder with your foot?”

            “If I move it,” Gary said, “I won’t have anything to hold onto.”

             “Just me.” Ray’s arm ached from holding Gary’s weight.

            “I don’t trust you that much,” Gary said.

            “Looks like you ain’t got much choice.”

            The ladder vibrated again.

            “Shit,” Ray whispered. “I wish they’d stop shaking that thing.”

            “I wish they’d stack up some hay underneath me.”

            “Hell, as much rain as we’ve got today, you’d just land in the mud. Ain’t gonna get much softer than that.”

            “You trying to tell me to jump?”

            “Nah. You’d probably pull me down with you.”

            “I’d damn sure try.”

            “Let me have your foot,” David’s voice said.

            “No,” Gary answered.

            “I’m right underneath you,” David said. “If you lift your left foot, I’ll put it on the rung.”

            “Shit,” Gary said. “I’m trusting Ray to hold me and you to guide me. I might as well jump.”

            “Or apologize for being such an ass all the time.”

            “I’ll jump first.”

 

Reading our prose aloud is perhaps the best way to judge the pace. Listen as you read and consider if the action is happening too fast or not fast enough. And remember, there is never one right answer. The pace of your story is just one more element that contributes to your unique writing style. Experiment, study, write. But in the end, use your own judgment.