19: Pacing Yourself: Creating a Sense of Action in Words

Pacing

“Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.” ― Neil Gaiman

Pacing, the speed of your story or a scene, is a direct result of the sentence and paragraph structure I talked about in my last post.

If you think of an action movie, the pace has less to do with the acting, and more to do with how the scenes are edited (and supported by the music.)

Consider Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece (and very much the master of suspense for movies). Would you have the same level of anxiety in the shower scene if those quick, quick, sharp edits were slower? The same level of trepidation as the woman searched the house for Norman’s mother, went down into the basement, saw the figure in the rocking chair, reached out and—

I’ll stop there. Even if you haven’t seen the movie (I highly recommend it), you probably know the end. But if you don’t, I won’t ruin it.

On the other side of editing is Dances With Wolves.

The long, sweeping edits for much of the beginning encompass the pastoral life of the plains. As the story progresses, as the terribleness increases, the edits become shorter and tighter, causing the viewer feel trapped and anxious.

Writing is no different. Short, quick sentences and paragraphs, interspersed with longer ones, denote excitement or surprise—which includes joy and happiness as well as fear and anxiety.

Pacing is something I never really thought about outright until I read the opening of my science fiction story out loud to a writer’s group.

The opening chapter of the story drops the reader right into action.

Now, you’d think with my minor in Film Studies, I would  naturally transfer my film editing knowledge into my writing. You know…quick edits::short sentences for action.

Nope.

Needing a break from Coming Home, I read a section of the opening chapter from my science fiction story at a writer’s group—from the opening through a fight scene towards the middle.

The overall consensus?

“Your sentences are too long.”

What?!

Well, wait. Let me rewind here a bit.

I did know about the whole action=short edits=short sentences. And I thought I’d written short sentences! I thought I’d created action-oriented pacing!

The group said the opening scene did a great job of introducing the story and the anxiousness of the two characters. The mystery and deeply-disturbing, unanswered questions. The trouble was the fight sequence that erupted only a page later. I wrote it the same way I wrote most everything: Long sentences and long(er) paragraphs.

It took me a week to rewrite the section, with a lot of hard work on my part, to create (much, much) shorter sentences. When I reread the section the following week, the entire group proclaimed it a success!

Whew!

And funnily enough, that exercise led to improving at least two scenes in Coming Home that were oriented around anxiety and action—a scene where Lana, to her great dismay, discovers a broken hose flooding her basement and a fight scene between two of the male characters.

To illustrate this, here’s the action part of the sci-fi story, edited back to having long sentences and paragraphs. Notice the pace. There isn’t a real sense of action or anxiousness.

(Understand this book is still in the very early stages, but this bit works fine for what I want to illustrate.)

Now, here is the scene again, edited using the feedback from the group; I’ve also worked on it a bit more since then. Notice how different the pacing is for the fight scene.

If you’re interested, here is the opening sequence (with contained edited out to shorten it for use here), paired with the fight scene.

Yes, in the first version, with the long sentences and paragraphs, you get an idea of action. However, it’s not in a way that really creates any kind of gripping excitement.

Interestingly, reworking that scene helped me with a specific one in Coming Home.

While the narration of that book is mostly longer sentences as it’s about the protagonist’s emotional struggles, there is a scene where Lana finds her basement flooded. What ensues is her panic, which isn’t conveyed well through long, descriptive sentences. It’s an “action” emotion.  Your heart rate shoots up and you feel anxious. Perhaps desperate. I edited the scene in Coming Home so it had shorter sentences, and Lana’s alarm about the situation came through much better.

Some people are more visual than others. Some people are more kinesthetic—they filter the world through how they feel, physically and/or emotionally, and make choices based on that. Some people are a combination of both (you’ll know this when someone says something like, “I need to see how I feel.”)

And some people are more auditorily based. Still others are a combination of all three, depending on the situation.

For example, when I learn a new board game, I do better if I play through once as I read the directions. Often, when I need to make a decision, I must see how I feel. Meaning, I need to reach the last possible moment of choice, observe my surroundings, notice how I’m feeling emotionally and physically—and then make my decision.

So how does this affect your writing? With pacing?

The words you choose, the way you combine them, the way you format and present them visually are what will create your reader’s experience.

To illustrate this, here is the fight scene again, this time again with longer sentences and paragraphs, as well as much blander words.

Now, here it is again, back to the more action-oriented and more descriptive version. (Again, remember that this story is hardly in its final stages!)

The way the scene flows, the way you feel, emotionally and physically, comes from the visual presentation. The flow also comes from how I describe the actions. If I were to take the blander version and edit the sentences and paragraphs into shorter ones, the scene would still lack the level of excitement I want to portray.

Feel me?

Next post: Building a Home for Your Plot: Story Structure

EXERCISES

1) Download a metronome app and set it to a fast pace. Listen to it through earbuds or headphones. After a moment or two, pay really close attention to the speed of your breathing; it will likely be quick and shallow. Notice your thoughts. They, too, will likely be quick (the pace of your thoughts follows your breathing rate; that’s why someone in the throes of a panic or anxiety attack is told to take long, deep breaths.).

Slow down the metronome pace and, again, pay attention to your breathing rate and the speed of your thoughts. Are they slower?

2) Try the same thing with high-octane music and slower music, such as classical or “meditation”/”New Age” music.

Now, sit down and write out two different scenes (action and more languid) using the app or music to assist you. Recreate the sensations of the metronome pace in sentence and paragraph length. Then go through and find words that further the emotion you want to create in your reader.

3) Rent two disparately-paced movies, such as The Fast and the Furious or Aliens and Dances With Wolves. (Or Alien and Aliens to notice how the same atmosphere of trepidation is created through very different editing.)

As you watch, pay close attention to how the editing makes you feel and how it affects your breath rate and the pacing of your thoughts. Also, notice how your entire body feels—tense or relaxed—as well as how you feel emotionally. Find words, sentence and paragraph structure to duplicate those same physical reactions.

4) Do the same kind of compare and contrast with two very differently-paced books or passages from books, again paying attention to your breathing and thought pacing as well as how the author’s words make you feel physically and emotionally.

 

18: Structural Integrity: Sentences and Paragraphs
20: Once Upon a Time: Your Opening Sentence

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