You may remember I mentioned last week having trouble with a story because it was one-paced.  Pace is one of those terrible things to try and do well, because there are several components to it. It’s a bit like patting your forehead and rubbing your belly, or like my efforts at operating an excavator. Yes, it DOES look easy when someone skilled does it. Ridiculously easy in fact. Appearances can be deceptive: I mean you might look at me and say ‘ugly and dim-witted…’ oh. Well, moving rapidly on.  A lot of writing is like my excavator ditch-digging efforts, where because there are four ideally co-ordinated actions and I find one on its own a bit of a challenge, the trench tends not do what I want it to do.

Naturally this is the silly ditch or trench’s fault, just as it is the reader’s fault when he gets bored and decides that it’s the right time to clip his toenails or pluck his ear-hairs, rather than bothering to read your book.

A surprising number of authors believe the latter.

I’m not one of them and I don’t feel that way about my trenching skills either. The trench requires that I raise the boom at the same time as I pull the arm in (opposite directions on separate hands), and curl the bucket (a lateral movement of the joystick lever that controls the boom). If I’m using bucket-tilt at the same time, that too has to change as you draw the bucket toward yourself. That’s a thumb control on the Arm joystick. The more you practice, the better you get, or so they tell me. Some people just are better at judging the speed and movement than others, I suspect. Oh and because the Arm control also swivels the entire cab, the messes an unwary movement can cause are quite special. Trust me on this!

Pace is remarkably similar.  Yes, it also ends up in uncontrolled arbitrary holes in the landscape… Uh, No that’s not quite what I meant, although readers throwing you book violently at unsuspecting walls and floors can do some damage.  This happens when you have a scene of three pages of teen angst and introspection in the middle of a knife-fight… (Please, I beg you, don’t. Only someone who has never been in a physical fight or action scene could imagine that you spend time thinking about whether you should have responded differently to Lily’s offer of Chamomile tea and candied oranges off mismatched bone-china plates.) No, the problem rather is that most writers see pace solely as a function of story content. That’s like trying to dig with just the boom control. Pace remains fairly constant even though the character has moved from a genteel high-tea, to a knife fight with Jack the Ripper.

Pace is actually best done with content, physical changes to the writing style (faster things happen, the shorter sentences become, and the word-choice changes too. Sesquipedalian diction (especially if the reader has to stop either look it up, puzzle it out, or miss the meaning entirely.) has no place. Verb choice becomes more active.

Emotion and suspense too need to be built – before the action. They make the action’s pace… have to work harder. If they care, the reader wants to know.  They want to know NOW. You’re balancing that against the need to use that emotional content, with pissing them off.

None of this works without the content. And the content doesn’t really work without them.

The other aspect of pace is that not only do you need to learn how to step in up for action scenes, but… to slow it down. Not too much, and not too often.  A short story can move at one pace or just get faster (I can’t think of any that get slower, which suggests that’s not a great recipe) A longer book needs those ups and downs. The contrast is vital. It makes the fast scenes appear faster, and gives the reader a brief relieved breathing space.

And… The more you practice, the better you get, or so they tell me. Some people just are better at judging what is working.

But it’s knowing what the ‘controls’ are and can do.

And practice, practice, practice.


  1. Ain’t that the truth!

    My rule of thumb for pacing (and I find it’s easier to set the pace during edits than draft, since I know what’s happening in the scene now, is that I need to experience the scene as a reader approximately as fast (or slowly, within reason) as the characters do. Of course I don’t want to read about every bug bite and toilet break along the way if “it took three gruelling days to cross Long Bayoux and the mosquitoes tormented them mercilessly,” but it shouldn’t take three days to read a climactic battle, either, even if its four-hour action is highly detailed over several chapters.

  2. The form of the prose has to match the mood of the story. Simple thing to say, but developing the craft to make how you say something enhance what is being said takes practice. It also takes careful reading of masters of the craft, because the ones who do it well make the bones of the story all but invisible. You know that the exciting bits make your heart beat faster, but you don’t notice how the beats of the sentences accelerate towards a crescendo.

    I usually write to music, and I change my Pandora station to match the mood of what I am writing. That helps.

    And an example that comes to mind of a story that slows in pace towards the end (and does it well, to a very creepy effect) is Ray Bradbury’s “The Fruit In The Bottom Of The Bowl”.

    1. Dark Fantasy and horror might be two places where slowing the pace to increase tension might work well, IF done properly. I’m not sure it would work in a novel compared with a short story or novella, though.

      1. Steven King considers it an essential tool. (Back when he wrote about writing, instead of projecting his neuroses. But I guess if it worked for Lovecraft…)

  3. It’s a Gundam!

    I’m wondering the old bucket suspended from a crane thing that was old when I was young was any easier to learn to operate. These I have a little bit better idea how difficult it would be to design a good back hoe if one were starting from scratch. And mecha are a bit more absurd than they were five or ten years ago.

    1. They were much easier to operate a couple of decades ago.
      Each arm joint had its own individual lever activating the associated hydraulic linkage, arranged from gross to fine on your right hand side.
      Drive controls were levers on the left side of the steering column (top lever: forward for forward, neutral in the middle, back for back; bottom lever: forward for first, neutral in the middle, back for second.) Rotation was on your left hand side, and you had to reach slightly back to engage it (but I don’t remember the layout) .
      It still took practice to be smooth, but you could break the process down to discrete motions.
      And while you might accidentally move the arm wrong, you wouldn’t suddenly find yourself spinning or driving.

      Whoever decided unifying controls was a good idea, was a right bastard who never used the bloody equipment himself.

      1. They should learn from the industrial robot makers, who used inverse kinematics to make SCARA and articulated robots much easier to use (e.g. instead of joint control, you can move the robot in XYZ and it moves all the joints as needed). Robot controllers typically also have cool features like going in reverse, restarting without a hiccup after an E-STOP, and coordinate transforms.

        BTW, the original Adept robot controller used a slow (40MHz or so) 68040 processor to run up to 6 servo axes, running an usual interpreted language (all I/O was treated as a file). Now they’re part of Omron.

        1. For trenching around gas lines, water mains, etc. in uncertain terrain and with nonstandardized existence, I feel it’s beneficial for the machine operator to have full control over how the machine operates.

          Robots are great for standardized, repetitious work.
          Digging a trench that doesn’t damage infrastructure,
          and doesn’t collapse, is skilled labor.

          1. Actually, I’m talking about setting up the robot, manually moving it with a pendent. And you can switch into joint mode if it’s needed, or world XYZ mode, or tool mode (which is awesome when you have multiple tools (end effectors) mounted on the end of the robot arm).

            The earth moving equivalent would be to have a joint mode, yes, but also to be able to use one or more modes that merge the motions of the joints in an intelligent manner, all under the operator’s control.

  4. Exciting action sequences get more detailed as well. The reader wants to experience in full (i.e. wallow in) the exciting bits, not have the story breeze by the big fight in a couple sentences.

    1. Suddenly trying not to die may cause a person to perceive more details in a certain radius of attention. But not everything, except maybe when a person surfaces into a calm moment.

      1. Personal experience. At the time, I saw the knife and the window frame in perfect detail, and the light on the blade. I can steel feel the texture of the flashlight handle in my right hand. The rest? Aw heck no, not until after Mr. Knife had left and I knew he was not going to come back.

    2. depends on the style of the writer, i can enjoy one where everything is detailed, or one where you only get the main character in the scene’s perception and don’t see everything.

  5. I will say that I quite enjoy the mid fight flashbacks in Shonen Jump Manga. But those may count as a very different medium.

  6. So if I want to objectively evaluate my pacing, using the Readability Statistics function in MS Word should help. Faster pacing should equal fewer sentences per paragraph, fewer words per sentence, and fewer characters per word on average; with a lower grade level, and lower percentage of passive sentences, and a higher Flesch Reading Ease score.

  7. This happens when you have a scene of three pages of teen angst and introspection in the middle of a knife-fight…

    One of the reasons being able to record television has kept it watchable longer than the current crop of show-creators probably deserve.

    You need to address your relationship with your father NOW- -?!
    Fast forward. Fast Forward.
    Yep. They’re back to showing the bomb timer now.
    Click “play.”

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