Don’t forget, Unusual Events: A “Short” Story Collection is out now!
This post was originally written and posted December 15th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.
If there was ever a topic that I felt needed to be discussed with young writers—crud, or at the very least referenced in a basic high school English education—that sadly seems to be completely overlooked or ignored, it would have to be pacing. A measuring stick of the writer’s toolbox, pacing is a lot like the sextant—an ancient, invaluable tool in many scenarios, but completely ignored by most because they’ve never been taught what it is or how to use it. Worse, there’s no modern equivalent of it such as a GPS to replace it, which means that many simply stumble through their works, never once picking up this ancient ruler and measuring their story with it.
Alright, you’re probably getting the idea. Pacing is important. But what is this “pacing” of which I speak? As I’ve pointed out, it’s something that isn’t really understood or taught to a lot of people. While most young writers have certainly heard the term, the actual application of it often doesn’t come with it. Most more experienced authors will mention the term from time to time—usually with a quick mention of how important it is—but unless you’re attending a panel or workshop on it, hardly anyone ever actually spends time explaining what pacing is, or better yet how to use it.
So then, let’s start with the basics: what is pacing?
If I were to put it in my own words, pacing is the measure of timing that flows through your story. It is the rate at which things happen, the length and depth of scenes and sentences, and even the rhythm by which the events in the story flow.
Okay, now what do I mean by that? I suppose the best way to break this down is to go back to the tool analogy, though instead of a sextant, this time let’s consider a ruler. Pacing is, as a tool, a lot like a ruler. If you were to envision your writing as a something with a measurable length, lying this ruler alongside it would give you a good idea of the “length” of certain elements of your story and help you gauge whether or not those elements were the proper length for readers.
Because contrary to what a lot of young writers think, there’s more to writing than simply getting the right words down on the page. You can write a wonderful, otherwise well-written story full of heart, character, and adventure, and yet create something that fails to deliver to the reader at all because of improper pacing. There’s more to writing than simply getting all the right words out. You need to have the right length and timing to go with everything.
So, what are the steps to integrating this into your writing? How do you make use of this tool?
Well, it’s actually a little tricky. Because when speaking of length and timing, there’s a couple applications to the writing process. The first of these that we’re going to discuss is scene length and timing—effectively, both how long an unbroken scene is for a reader, and the timing of breaking it into manageable portions. Most of you have probably heard of or experienced a story where a battle drags on, usually in an action film, and you get exhausted. The popular phrase for it is “action fatigue,” for when a film’s action sequences are just “too intense” or “too much” and leave the viewer feeling burned out.
Well, as it happens, action fatigue isn’t a problem only confined to films. Books have it too. And games. Because action fatigue is really popular slang for “poor pacing.” Stretch out a fight scene beyond a viewer’s/reader’s capacity to follow without pause and bam. You’ve burned them out.
I’ve seen a lot of instance of this, both in film and in writing. Scenes that stretch out forever, last battles that just go for pages and pages and pages and pages and pages—and begin to feel like reading that last sentence. It doesn’t matter how well-written or how awesome that battle is, the constant page after page of action wear the reader out. And even if they can’t put their finger on why, the reader realizes this. The longer it goes on, the worse the reader feels.
Alright, I’m talking a lot about how this happens, but I’m not talking much about how to properly use pacing to make sure this doesn’t happen. So, let’s do that. Remember how I said that pacing was like a ruler? Well, this ruler is marked with little tabs like “waning interest” and “stop action here.” Your task is to hold this ruler up to the scenes and chapters in your book and measure your reader’s interest. Has a fight gone on too long? Was this emotional conversation too short to convey the full impact to the reader? Your job, as an author, is to find the proper “length” for each scene, aiming at a sweet spot where the reader will understand and feel the impact of what’s happened, but not passing past that to the point where the reader gets tired and wants to move on.
Is this tricky? Of course. Very much so. Readers come in all sizes, shapes, and patience levels. Your job is to find the middle-zone—that point where most people mentally “nod” to themselves and think “I’ve got this,” and then move from that to another scene.
“But wait,” you ask. “What if I have a really long scene? Like a final battle? How can I break that up? How can I pace that so that people don’t get tired?”
This is a good question. Especially as I’ve read a number of stories in my time that suffer from this exact problem. The answer can actually be found in a film. Ever seen Transformers 4?
Transformers 4 is a great example of what bad pacing does. For all its flaws, the film really does have a lot of great action, especially near the end. The problem was, however, that there was no pacing. The moment one fight ends, or cuts, we go right to another. The action simply comes … and comes … and keeps coming, with explosions, death, destruction, and never a dull moment.
The phrasing of that last sentence was intention. A dull moment. Because now let us look at a rival film that was a well-deserved success: Guardians of the Galaxy.
Guardians of the Galaxy has an equally impressive final battle, stretching across almost as much celluloid, but no one walked out of the theater declaring that the action was “too much” in the way that movie-goers did with Transformers 4. Because the people behind Guardians understood pacing. Right to its core. And they understood something that I mentioned above in my definition: rhythm.
Guardians was executed with a flawless rhythm. Not only were the action sequences just long enough to demonstrate exactly what the audience wanted to feel, but the moment that the story had reached that moment, the story would cut to something else. For example (major spoilers to follow), take the oft-maligned scene with Groot’s magic lights.
A lot of self-ascribed critics slammed this scene for being “pointless” and “deus ex machina” with Groot’s powers, demonstrating their own lack of understanding of the point of that scene. This scene comes on the heels of a massive action battle. The viewers have just spent the last five or so minutes watching hundreds of ships collide in a mid-air war with ships exploding everywhere and all kinds of tension being laid on the viewer for the characters to get on board the villain’s huge dreadnought. The scene builds, builds, builds, with rising and falling tension and then—the characters make it on board the ship!
Now, if someone wasn’t paying attention to pacing at this point, they would have simply had the action continue on. The characters would rush out to complete their objective, the action would continue … and the audience would still be riding that high wave of tension with no sense of relief. There’d be no rhythm, just an unending rising action.
However, this is Marvel, and they have some talented people who recognized that despite the fact that the battle was going on, their audience needed a break. And so they wrote in a short “breather” scene. The characters exit the ship, and the lights are out. As they pause, Groot releases a bunch of floating light-things that light the area, and everyone takes a calming breath. Drax indulges the moment with a little character development, giving the scene weight—but a different weight from the heavy, intense action moments earlier. The audience switches gears, letting their brain “rest” a little as they take in the calm. And just before things get too calm—going back again to the rhythm I mentioned—the heroes are interrupted by their foe, drawing the audience back to the action—only for Drax to subvert the scene with his giant chekov’s gun and drop a funny one-liner perfectly in line with his development, thus bringing the scene to a close. And then, from there, the characters give each other quick reminders as to their jobs, and back to the action we go.
All of Guardians of the Galaxy captures this sense of rhythm and proper pacing perfectly. I could go on about it, because it’s a writer’s treasure trove of good writing and writing tools used almost impossibly well and fine tuned to a level I’ve not seen in a long time, but for now let’s just look at it from that one perspective: Everything about that final battle and how it plays out is about pacing. There’s a rhythm, a sense of artistic timing to it that resonates with the audience’s attention span. A rhythm that persists through the entire movie, start to finish. Even if you despise the concept, the movie earns its credit for having possibly some of the best pacing in recent memory for film. And it’s a large part of the reason the film has done as well as it has.
Neither of those examples fail for interesting action. Transformers 4, for all its flaws, has some really fun fights. But you get tired of them. Your mind starts to wander. It gets repetitive, while Guardians stays fresh because the length of each scene is carefully measured, carefully constructed to achieve a purpose, and then, before the audience can get tired, something else happens that breaks up what they were experiencing and gives them a rest, a brief breather.
Your own writing needs to do the same, action sequence or not. Look at your scenes, gauge how long they are. Are they overstaying their welcome? Do they need to be shortened? Broken up? Is your action sequence dragging on? Could it use something halfway through—comic relief, scene change, musical number(?)—to keep the audience from growing tired or to shake things up? You’ll need to step back and look at the pacing of your work (or better yet, think about it as you write it) and look for a workable rhythm, something that your readers can equate and follow along with. Lay the pacing ruler alongside your chapters and look for the moment where the action or events have gone on for too long, past that marker of audience attention, and do something different that flows with the rhythm. Don’t make the Transformers mistake of simply assuming that jumping to another scene of the same type is pacing. Think of your book like a marathon race—some periods will be spent sprinting, and others jogging. Switching from one side of the road to the other but still sprinting isstill sprinting.
And yes, before you ask, this is something that’s going to take practice. I still work at it. In fact, most authors do. Pacing can be tricky, because no two readers are the same. You’re going to have to trust your instincts and work at knowing exactly when it’s time to break scene, what your rhythm will be. And that rhythm will change and vary depending on what kind of scene you’re creating.
Now, that covers one of the two big things about pacing. But I really don’t feel like making this a two-parter (especially considering Christmas is just ten days away) so we’re going to look at the other half of this equation now. What I said above about sprinting and jogging? Well, pacing applies to more than just the overarching composition of scenes in your story. It also applies to the individual scenes in a way that’s reminiscent of the marathon example.
Have you ever read a comic book? If so, have you ever encountered a fight scene where the characters are spouting off illogically large amounts of dialogue in each panel? I’m not talking about unnecessary exposition or ham-fisted storytelling. I’m just talking about scenes where a character or characters say far more than they would reasonably be able to in their given frame of time. A character dodges a punch, and during that single, backwards step, manages to drop several whole sentences.
This is improper pacing, though in writing form it looks a little different. Going back to that marathon analogy above, it stands to reason that there are times to jog and times to sprint. Well, it’s the same within our stories: there are times to “sprint” with our writing, and there are times to “jog.”
What I’m talking about here is the pacing of our paragraphs, not in the sense that we spend the first half of this blog covering, but in the sense of the timing of our sentences and phrases, in dialog or out of it. Go back to that comic book example. It makes no sense for a character to spout off that much dialogue in such a short amount of time.
Run with that thought, and think about the pacing of the words that make up your scenes, and your dialogue. Is a character going to have time to spout off a long, complicated explanation for something in the middle of an intense, insane moment? Are they going to have time to observe everything around them? Or should their dialogue be kept short and sweet, the descriptions laser-like in their focus?
Likewise, when writing a slow, “walk” of a scene, how can you pace the written words to keep the scene from feeling rushed? You space them out, take time on the details. For example, if a character is distracting themselves, you can have them spend time on idle things, actually distracting themselves. Sentences can be long, sometimes meandering. The “pace” of events needs to infuse the work. The length of the sentences you write, the details of paragraphs … Things such as these need to be something you consider. A scene in which a character is running for their life—a rapid action sequence in other words—will be greatly weakened if that same sense of urgency isn’t represented in the length and pacing of the sentences that make up the scene.
Let’s have an example that can swing both ways: A scene in which a character is hiding from someone hunting them. You can have a fast paced, incredibly quick and tense hiding sequence, where things happen quickly, simply by making the sentences short, quick, and choppy. Like this:
His breath was coming in short, quick gasps. He tried to hold his breath, cutting off the flow, but his chest felt tight. There wasn’t much space beneath the desk. Footsteps rang through the room; hard, rapid, and uncaring. He closed his eyes. Any moment now, the man would find him. He needed to move. Fast.
That’s quick, fast, and tense. Now let’s draw it out:
He could hear his breath as he wedged his body into the space under the desk, coming in short, abrupt gasps that felt reminiscent of his pounding heart. The space beneath the desk was cramped, almost to small for him to fit into even with his legs folded up against his body, but he had to make it work. He could hear the man’s footsteps moving into the room behind him, the faint thump of each step cold and deliberate. He covered his mouth, squeezing his eyes shut as he tried to steady his breathing. The man would hear him, he was sure of it.
This wasn’t going to work. He was going to need to move. And soon.
See? Both scenes have the same general summary: Someone is hiding from someone else. But with a few key word differences and the length of the sentences, plus descriptions, they both take on very different pacing. One is quick and urgent, while the other is slower, more methodical. Both are entirely valid, depending on the type of work you’re creating. Pay attention to the type of scene you’re writing and adjust what you write (and how) accordingly.
So in summary, pacing is something that every story needs. Whether it’s pacing out the events and rhythm of your story so that your audience doesn’t get burned out, suffer action fatigue, or pull less from a scene than they should, or pacing out your sentences and structure to strengthen the mood and emotion of a small section of your work, it’s a vital tool. Properly pacing a story can make the difference between it being a complete success or a marginal one, one that readers enjoy fully, or enjoy save for a few small bits. It’s something that takes practice, skill, and much time to understand, as well as put in practice … but the payoff is entirely worth it. If you can manage to dig this tool out of your toolbox and apply it, you’ll find the payoff to be beyond worth it.