Pacing. What is it?
Pacing is a tool that controls the speed and rhythm at which a story is told and the readers are pulled through the events.
Okay, fair enough. But what is that tool?
It refers to how fast or slow events in a piece unfold and how much time elapses in a scene or story. Pacing can also be used to show characters aging and the effects of time on story events.
Pacing differs with the specific needs of a story. A far-reaching epic will often be told at a leisurely pace, though it will speed up from time to time during the most intense events. A short story or adventure novel might quickly jump into action and deliver drama.
This still doesn’t tell me what pacing is, just its attributes. It’s skipping the part where you say “Aphrodite is the goddess of love,” but noting that she has a nice butt and tends to sleep around.
Pacing is part structural choices and part word choices, and uses a variety of devices to control how fast the story unfolds. When driving a manual transmission car, you choose the most effective gear needed for driving uphill, maneuvering city streets, or cruising down a freeway. Similarly, when pacing your story, you need to choose the devices that move each scene along at the right speed.
For a moment I got excited…but the passage still didn’t define pacing.
Explanations like this drive me nuts; they’re bandaids of meaning, trying to patch up a hole where “dunno what it was, guv, but it went that way” would more properly go. It’s easy to note that pacing exists. It’s hard to put a finger on it, or to use it properly.
So what is pacing?
Pacing is the art of selectively matching the length, structure, and content of every unit of a story to its overall content. Matching the length, structure, and content of every unit of a story to its overall content allows the writer to convey the desired experience of the story to the reader without having to inform the reader of what experience the writer desires the reader to have.
(“This is a fun book!!! You should read it!!!”)
Pacing is a lens that only writers, editors, and some critics can see. Even better, most of the time, writers can’t see pacing in their own work either–unless it’s broken and they have to fix it. The average reader cannot see pacing at all–they can only feel it as the story rushes past, or crawls along their skin, making delicate, wincing bites.
Let’s say you’re telling a joke:
“Wanda hang out with me right now?”
This is a simple joke. If it took five laborious minutes to tell it, it wouldn’t be worth your time. Short words, short sentences, short joke.
…I was sorry to see Gentleman John Kilian approach the chalk line with a gin-and-gin in his hand. John is a short dapper Englishman with a quick mind and a wicked talent for summatory puns. He’s not on this side of the lake much, and a lot of folks dropped what they were doing to listen.
“I commanded a submarine in Her Majesty’s Navy during the last World War,” he began, tugging at his goatee, “and I propose to tell you of a secret mission I was ordered to undertake. The famous spy Harry Lime, the celebrated Third Man, had developed a sudden and severe case of astigmatism—and many of his espionage activities forbade dependence on spectacles. At that time only one visionary in all the world was working on the development of a practical contact lens: a specialist at Walter Reed Hospital. I was ordered to convey Lime there in utmost secrecy and dispatch, then wait ’round and fetch him home again.”
“Is this gonna be a Limey story?” Long-Drink McGonnigle asked, and Callahan took a seltzer bottle to him.
John ignored it magnificently. “He was an excellent actor, of course, but before long I began to suspect that there was nothing atall wrong with his vision. I searched his quarters, and found correspondence indicating that he had a girlfriend who lived some twenty miles from the hospital. So I called him into my cabin. ‘I can’t prove a thing against you,’ I said, ‘but I’m ordering you–‘” For effect, he paused and elegantly sipped gin.
I hated to do it. I’m a liar: I loved doing it. In any case I had seen the punchline coming long since, and so I delivered it before he could. “’–to go directly from the sub, Lime, to the Reed oculist.’”*
Every element of this joke says: wait for it…
Word choices: sorry, gentleman, approach, chalk line, gin-and-gin, hand, short dapper Englishman, quick mind, wicked talent, summatory puns, this side of the lake, dropped what they were doing to listen.
The word choices here are longer than those of the the previous joke. Even the shorter ones are carefully arranged together for a slow, dry comedic effect. Even the drink is essentially a martini so dry that it has nothing but gin in it.
Sentences: The sentences are medium to long, except in the interruptions, where they are much shorter.
Paragraphs: The paragraphs are medium to long, except in the interruptions, once again, where they are much shorter.
Entire section: The author is so confident that you can’t guess the pun at the end that he interrupts the joke twice in order to dare you to work it out–like a mystery–before the punchline.
The word choices, sentences, paragraph, and indeed the entire section are written in order that each element matches the content–in order to manipulate the reader. A fair chance at “solving” the pun is offered, but the author acknowledges that it’s a tease and probably the reader won’t solve it in time.
Is one joke’s pacing better than the other? No.
Both are appropriate for their content–and are designed to effectively manipulate their respective audiences (for example, the first one definitely takes the attention span of a five-year-old into account).
You study pacing just like I did above: type it in, break it down. Over and over again. The connection between the content and pacing of a particular passage might not be obvious at first; it’s probably better to read the whole work, then double back and start studying (although I do do some cold pacing study every week on SF/F/H long-term professionals, and that’s good, too).
Getting to the point where you can “see” pacing is a weird process. It comes in fits and starts…and I doubt there’s any end to how much depth you can get out of it. Right now I’m working a lot on the pacing of the openings and closings of various levels of storytelling, and it’s really interesting. But even if all you do is type in the opening of your favorite book and take a quick look at it, you’re bound to find something wonderful and strangely appropriate.
What is it?
Where writers get really clever. And often don’t even know it.
*Spider Robinson, “Have You Heard The One…?” from The Callahan Chronicals.