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.