The Lead-footed Writer

In movies when an event is crucial to survival (such as disarming a bomb) the clock keeps ticking away on until the last minute as the hero tries to figure out which wire to cut. He wipes the sweat off his eyes so he can see. He may drop the wire cutters and have to retrieve them. Or, he pulls a Swiss Army knife out of his pocket to use instead. By the time this scene is over, the hero manages to sever the right wire at the last second. However, if I timed the scene, I would realize that more than one minute of actual time had passed.

A book which tells events, rather than showing them in detail, covers events much more rapidly so the pace of the story is technically faster. But, it also feels more distant for the readers as if they are not really involved. Showing minute details of events in clear focus slows down the story. In fact, it slows it down so much that this treatment needs to be reserved for the more dramatic and important occurrences, such as disarming a bomb.

The way I string together words and the type of words I use also contribute to the “pace” of writing. Longer sentences with a plethora of subordinate clauses provide an intellectual sound. The reader takes more time to ponder the ideas presented, which gives the impression of complexity. This also forces the reader to slog through the work. Short sentences with direct verbs may be the antidote; however, few readers can stomach an entire work of short choppy bursts. When dependent clauses are avoided, flow is sacrificed. The trick to dealing with pace is knowing when the writing can be improved by putting on the brakes—to let the reader savor the experience of reading—or speeding up the pace for drama. Inserting a four word sentence between two long ones creates an interesting contrast.

I can create separate scenes that place the reader in the middle of the actions to describe each part of an event as it happens. Or, I can write exposition, which are passages that explain events by telling the story. Sometimes, I find a brief explanation of the good-bye letter from a loved one who has left to seek fame and fortune followed by the discovery of missing money from a bank account is not going to work a exposition. Both events need to be separate scenes with all the tearful and incriminating details. At other times the plot is stretching out too much. I collapse scenes into a few paragraphs, and then the story flows better.  How do I know when to do each of these? I don’t. It is a matter worked out by trial and error.  

When I drive a car, alternating rapidly between the gas and brake jerks the car uncomfortably. However, a sudden change in the pace of writing does not have the same effect as a lead-footed driver. So, the best advice on the pace of writing is to not keep it the same.

This entry was posted in Creativity, Literary devices, Showing versus telling, Story structure, Style and voice, Writing trends and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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