I’m working on a series on pacing. You can see other posts in the series here.
That damned cask of Amontillado. Does it even exist? Is it what Montressor toasted Fortunato with, at the very end of the story?
No matter. We only ask ourselves questions of pacing today. All your questions shall be answered. (Spoilers! Do Part 8’s exercise first for best results.)
- The story is 2371 words long, just shorter than a normal short story.
- The paragraphs vary, from one to 161 words.
- The paragraphs cluster together, with groups of long with long or medium, very short with short, a bunch of mediums together. A change from long to short tends to have a medium paragraph as a kind of buffer. Contrast this to a lot of other writers’ pacing at the time, with unrelieved stretches of long paragraphs.
- The longer paragraphs happen at the setup and in the climax.
- The opening starts with longer paragraphs summarizing the situation and the narrator’s outlook and determination, then gets shorter as we move into the present action. The ending has several long paragraphs as the narrator gives the friend every last chance to apologize, but he does not. Then the ending speeds up as the last options as exhausted. The final paragraph is medium long as the narrator contemplates his return to normalcy.
- The sentences in the long paragraphs have about 20 words each, or the long end of medium length, with lots of commas to make the structure “feel” weightier and longer than it is. There is a mix, however, of some shorter 10-wordish sentences, especially toward the ends of the longer paragraphs.
- The dialogue sentences are quite different than the narrative ones–showing the gap between the narrator’s thoughts and words as he sets up his trap.
- Of the two characters, the narrator has the longer dialogue sentences. Fortunato is generally one or two words. A drunk buffoon.
- Of the two characters, the narrator has the more complex sentences. “My friend, no; I will not impose upon your good nature. I perceive you have an engagement. Luchresi–” This bit of dialog has a comma, periods, a semicolon, and an em-dash. A good, at-a-glance judgment of how complex a sentence is, is in how much, and how varied, is its punctuation. (See what I did there?)
- Fortunato’s complex words: Amontillado (repeated from narrator), impossible, Luchresi (repeated from narrator), engagement (repeated from narrator), nevertheless, distinguish, extensive, brotherhood, masons, ignoramus, excellent, palazzo. The narrator’s are too numerous to mention.
The quality of the words, the length and structure of the dialogue, the length and structure of the sentences, the length and arrangement of the paragraphs all contribute to the content of the story. The story could not be told as well in another way–this story isn’t just well built or assembled at every level, but it’s well designed at every level, with the right materials used at every level as well.
For the most part, as readers, we aren’t aware of this level of writing. If we have any awareness of it, it’s noticing a particularly apt sentence here and there.
And yet we know when a story hits on all cylinders–as long as it’s a type of story that we’re able to enjoy.
Is this a technique used mainly by literary writers?
Hell no. Take a look at any given bestselling romance novel by a long-term pro. You’ll find exactly the same tricks being used.
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