Be a Better Writer--PACING

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by glorybee » Sat Mar 07, 2015 9:50 am

Les Miserables is considered by many people to be one of the greatest novels of all time. However, in its English translation, it has over 1,500 pages, and many lengthy descriptive passages are dedicated to such subjects as the sewer systems of Paris and the lives of cloistered nuns. Such a novel would probably never be published today; our world is so much faster-paced than that of Victor Hugo’s Paris in 1862.

However, even though contemporary writing is paced much differently than such classics as Les Miserables or Pride and Prejudice, it is important for skilled writers to be able to pace their writing appropriately.

Most of what I’ll suggest here will apply to fiction, but I hope you’ll find ways to apply the suggestions to nonfiction as well.

I’ll start with an easy way to gauge the pacing of something you’ve written—take a quick visual scan. The more white space, the quicker the pacing (because white space usually indicates that there’s a lot of dialogue and shorter paragraphs). If your story is of a genre that requires action (adventure, humor, sci-fi or fantasy, for example) and you have huge blocks of print, you might want to take a look at the bulleted list below of ways to pick up the pace. On the other hand, if you’ve got lots and lots of white space and your genre is one that requires more description or introspection (romance or history, for example), you might want to take a look at the list for ways to slow down the pace.

Tips for Picking Up the Pace:

• Avoid big blocks of speech (unless it’s important that a particular character be long-winded). If you were to transcribe typical conversations, especially casual conversations among people who know each other well, you’d find lots of short utterances and fragments. Very few people speak in entire paragraphs.
• Give your characters more things to do. Long conversations, internal monologues, and passages of description should be broken up by actions. However, give your characters meaningful actions—those actions should either assist in characterization or advance the plot. Don’t have your characters tie their shoes or adjust a picture on the wall just for the sake of action.
• Flip the advice I just gave you—if there are long passages of action, break them up with dialogue. The same advice about meaningfulness applies; don’t have your characters talk merely for the sake of talking. Dialogue, like action, should assist in characterization or advance the plot.
• Take a look at both sentence structure and paragraph structure. Recently I was tutoring a young woman for whom English was her second language, and she asked me, “How many sentences are in a paragraph?” She was surprised when I told her that a paragraph could have only one sentence—maybe you are, too. What’s more, sentences can have only one word, if you wish. Shorter sentences and paragraphs will quicken the pace of your writing; consider using some intentional sentence fragments.
• Do quick changes of scenes—think slide show.
• Be willing to do some surgery on your piece. Take a look at it for things that can be deleted, and snip, snip, snip. This might be a good time to review the lesson on tight writing. The tighter the writing, the quicker the pace.

Tips for Slowing Down the Pace:

• Increase the lengths of sentences and paragraphs.
• Linger for a while on a scene, taking the time to describe a few details. If you’re doing this, be sure to appeal to all the senses, not just the sense of sight. Include senses like temperature perception, motion, and hunger or thirst or other bodily sensations. These descriptions don’t need to be in long paragraphs of purple prose; they can occur as your characters are doing things.
• Give your character some time to dwell on her circumstances.
• Oh, go ahead—add some adjectives and adverbs. You know you’ve been wanting to.

Here’s an example of a Writing Challenge entry with quick pacing:

Missy’s Got it Covered

And here’s one with a much slower pace:

Forgiveness


HOMEWORK:

I’m going to give you two very short stories—one with quick pacing, one slower. Your challenge: take one (or both) of the paragraphs, and rewrite it the other way.


1. The gal at the ticket counter was checking her phone for messages when Dee walked up, wanting to buy a ticket. “Where to, ma’am?” she said.

“Duluth. I’m going to Duluth, Minnesota.”

“Round trip?”

“No.” Dee cleared her throat, then said it a second time, louder. “No, I want a one-way ticket, please.”

Who buys a one-way ticket to Minnesota? thought the ticket agent. Poor lady. Homely, too.

She didn’t see that Dee was bouncing on the balls of her feet, or the pulse that beat rapidly in her throat. She didn’t see the bundle of letters in Dee’s purse.

2. Jane goes to the beach after the gaudy display of sunset has faded. She prefers the deepening sky, the long shadows of scrubby vegetation, the breath of waves on the shore. A blanket is in her bag, and a few ripe plums. She looks out on the water for a long time, mostly not thinking at all. There is a sort of bliss to her oblivion. After a while, she gathers the blanket around her shoulders and rests her head on the sand. She’s awakened later by a susurration near her face: thousands of tiny sea turtles, flailing toward home.

After you’ve done that (or attempted it), post your new paragraph here, if you wish. A few questions:

1. Why do you think the pacing worked (or did not work) for each of the micro-stories?
2. How did the change in pacing also change the mood or tone of the story you edited?
3. Do you have anything to add to this lesson from your own experience? Feel free to link to one story of your own for which the pacing was an important element.

Alternate homework:

Write a passage of your own (no more than 200 words, please) with pacing that fits the content. Post it here for comments.


As always, I welcome your suggestions for future classes.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by glorybee » Mon Mar 09, 2015 12:31 pm

Just giving this lesson a little bump, wondering if there will be any takers for the homework--or even just commenters.

Bump, bump, bump.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by Cinnamon Bear » Mon Mar 09, 2015 5:10 pm

Dear Jan,

I read every word of your lesson and found it very valuable and interesting. So I don't want you to think that you wrote in vain.

It is just that the homework is so hard. :cry:

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Re: Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by HISsparrow » Mon Mar 09, 2015 8:33 pm

I read your lesson, too. I was working on the homework Saturday, but this weekend has been pretty crazy.

This lesson was pretty difficult for me. I have attempted to re-write the first scenario, though I'm not sure how successful I was or if it satisfied what you had asked.

The original definitely had shorter sentences and was light on description, which made it a little quicker. However, it got to the end and added the bit from the clerk about not noticing the letters and such, which slowed it down in my opinion. It did raise some questions, but not in a manner that was very exciting for the content, I think.

My attempt has slightly longer sentences and paragraphs. I also added a little more description, so there isn't quite as much white space. However, I think the mood is still a bit suspenseful. Below is my attempt. :?

Dee glanced from side to side before she slipped up to the dingy ticket counter and tapped her fingers on top in time with her fidgety feet. The clerk glanced up at Dee’s fingers through dark bangs and slowly placed the cell phone down.

“Where you headed?” she said with one eyebrow raised.

“I need a ticket to Duluth, Minnesota.” Dee slid a glance behind her; was that man watching her?

“It’ll be a round trip, right?” the clerk said as she reached for the ticket.

Like the staccato movements of a squirrel, she jerked her head back and forth once. “No, I just need a one-way ticket.”

The clerk frowned but said, “That’ll be $148.39.”

Dee gave her the money and said, “Keep the change.” She turned and took a few steps away from the counter. She could feel her own pulse racing and wondered if the clerk had seen it jumping at her neck. At least she had come this far. She had the letters; she would make it the rest of the way.

She scanned the room for any eyes that lingered too long where they shouldn’t. That man was trying too hard not to be noticed. It was time for her to move.

Thank you very much for you lessons and feedback!

Ashley

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Re: Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by glorybee » Tue Mar 10, 2015 8:58 am

Ashley, you did a great job in slowing down the piece, and in creating a mood of suspense. Thanks so much for being brave and jumping in with your re-write!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by Shann » Thu Mar 12, 2015 11:11 am

This is a brilliant lesson. I hadn't had a chance to check it out before today, but love God's timing. This week, I read and commented on all the challenges in levels 1 and 2. I commented a few times about pacing the story (not realizing that was your lesson), and suggested to everyone in those levels to check out this thread. I hope some of them will pop in because your advice is spot on.

Here's my attempt at a rewrite:
After the gaudy colors faded from the sunset, Jane decided to stroll down to the beach. Before leaving, she glanced at the thermometer and decided to fetch her hoodie, a blanket, and a plum just in case God called her to linger at the beach.

The crashing of the waves soothed the beast deep in her belly that was battling some unknown enemy. She paused a few feet from the water, and lifted her eyes upward. The deepening sky, the long shadows of scrubby vegetation, the breath of waves on the shore soothed her frazzled nerves.

She felt the Holy Spirit stir inside of her heart. "Is that you God, or am I just longing to feel your presence?" Her voice echoed in her ears.

Staring at the waves, she tried not to think of anything. She spread the blanket on the sand and snuggled her hoodie. Tears filled her eyes. Please God, show me a sign that you are here.

Closing her eyes, she rested her head on the sand. Later a scratching sound woke her. She opened her eyes to see thousands of tiny sea turtles, flailing toward home. She couldn't help, but smile.

A voice in the wind whispered to her. I'm here and always have been. I care about those baby turtles and you mean even more to me. I'll help them find their way home, and I'm here to help you find your way too.

I did it kind of fast and changed it probably more than I should have. I focused on using soothing verbs (I put them in purple) that would change the pace as well as adding dialog and white space. I think I found them the opposite of how you meant them so probably messed it up. Now that I've reread them, I think I was changing the atmosphere more than the pacing. I'll try again a bit later.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by glorybee » Thu Mar 12, 2015 1:15 pm

Shann, I agree with your self-assessment. The original was slow-paced and languid, and your longer version is, also, in part because of the verbs you've chosen. It's a lovely piece of writing--with a nice, slow pace.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by Shann » Thu Mar 12, 2015 8:40 pm

As soon as the sun left the sky, Jane dashed to the beach. Her heart thunder as the waves crashed in. Shivering, she grabbed her blanket and hooded out of her bag and gobbled down a plum. She hurled the pit into the ocean, looked up and screamed, "Why God? Why?"

She barely hesitated for an answer before flopping to the ground. The sand muffled her screams. "Help me! "

A voice pestered her. Just do it. Walk into the water. No one will ever care.

Trying to swat the sounds away, the sight of the shadows startled her. She spun around; her eyes darting everywhere.

Suddenly, she realized she was no longer alone. Her heart thudded so loud, she was sure it echoed against the waves.

How was that? Any better? Again, I focused on using different verbs and quick thoughts and dialog.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by glorybee » Thu Mar 12, 2015 9:32 pm

Well done, Shann, and thanks for mentioning something that I didn't--word choice.

It's interesting that both you and Ashley substantially changed the storyline of the homework stories. I chose them specifically for that reason--I felt that the stories themselves kind of demanded the pacing they already had, and I anticipated that people would say something along that line. I appreciate you and Ashley thinking outside the given story to one in which the pacing worked for you.

Watch out for misplaced modifiers. You have one in this sentence:

Trying to swat the sounds away, the sight of the shadows startled her.

You begin it with a subject-less clause, so the next noun becomes the subject of the sentence. In this case, the next noun is "the sight," making it sound as if "the sight" was trying to swat the sounds away. Your sentence has almost the same structure as this one:

Hoping to catch a glimpse of her idol, the girl pushed her way to the front of the crowd.

Both begin with the same sort of clause, but in the second one, the noun following the comma is the true subject of the sentence, and the one that's modified by the introductory clause.

Does that make sense?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by HISsparrow » Fri Mar 13, 2015 6:25 pm

Jan, I think that may be one of the reasons the homework was so difficult. Like you said, the story demanded its pace so it was a stretch to rewrite it. However, I think it helped me a lot to grow. Even if a piece has a pace that it wants, you've given some really good tips that I can use to rein it in a bit. :wink:

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Re: Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by Allison » Fri Mar 13, 2015 9:35 pm

Jane goes to the beach after the gaudy display of sunset has faded. She prefers the deepening sky, the long shadows of scrubby vegetation, the breath of waves on the shore. A blanket is in her bag, and a few ripe plums. She looks out on the water for a long time, mostly not thinking at all. There is a sort of bliss to her oblivion. After a while, she gathers the blanket around her shoulders and rests her head on the sand. She’s awakened later by a susurration near her face: thousands of tiny sea turtles, flailing toward home.

Jane runs down the beach, looking behind her every few seconds. The sun has just set, and she hopes to take advantage of the cover of darkness. The long shadows give the beach an almost eerie look.

A blanket is in her bag, and she grabbed a few plums as she ran out. She might night them soon.

Jane finally dares to slow down a bit. She finds a secluded alcove and covers herself with the blanket, hoping she can't be seen.

Suddenly she's awakened by a rustling by her face. She looks and sees thousands of tiny sea turtles flail toward home.

She feels like those turtles, struggling to gain ground, but feeling like home is so far away. <i>At least,</i> she thinks, <i>they know where home is.</i>


I kind of rediscovered this entry of mine the other day, and I feel the pace plays a pretty important role. To be honest, I really didn't think about pace, specifically. But as I was writing, I knew I wanted to keep it moving, and I think the pace came naturally. It almost has a beat to it, even though it's more prose than poetry.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by glorybee » Sat Mar 14, 2015 8:28 am

Allison wrote: I kind of rediscovered this entry of mine the other day, and I feel the pace plays a pretty important role. To be honest, I really didn't think about pace, specifically. But as I was writing, I knew I wanted to keep it moving, and I think the pace came naturally. It almost has a beat to it, even though it's more prose than poetry.

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Agreed, Allison! It's very lyrical, and the pacing really works. Thanks for sharing this lovely piece.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by TracePezzali » Sat Mar 14, 2015 10:43 pm

Hi Jan

The WC examples you gave were both so fantastic in their different ways, both were intriguing and full of images and depth.

Your two samples were effective examples of pace, and I've found the different versions fascinating as motives and internal dialogue really change the intent and mood of the originals.

The slower pace stories seem more meditative and personal, and entering the internal and specific is indulgent and yummy. The scene is detailed when slow paced, and more enters the picture in your mind. I think suspense is created effectively, in the wanting to know more.

I can understand why humor and suspense works most effectively with fast pace. Your mind is swept away with wanting to know what happens next, and the images and dialogue flash past in a series of bold images.

I need clarification on your suggestion to use intentional sentence fragments. I've used this as a tool in poetry, but in prose I think it can indicate bad writing, so I've been conscious of filling out the fragments for better grammatical accuracy. Editors also hone in on them as they can make subject and object unclear.

So, can you give examples of when fragments are not bad syntax?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by glorybee » Sat Mar 14, 2015 11:07 pm

Sentence fragments can be used in so many ways!

Here's a story I wrote as "Addie Pleasance." You can read the whole thing here,but I'll highlight a few fragments and explain why I chose them there.

Here's an early paragraph:

Lisa is a writer, and her nomad feet have led her to the settings for all of her novels. A beauty parlor for the circus sideshow, with a profane beautician of uncanny compassion. A factory where a dozen workers spend their days making mousetraps. A house that a woman has filled with thousands of jars of mincemeat.

The last three sentences are fragments (they're missing verb phrases), but I used fragments because they're part of a list (of settings for Lisa's novels). I could have put a colon after "...all of her novels" and then used commas to separate the listed items, but that would make for a very long sentence. Listing the settings as separate sentences (fragments), helped the reader to more abruptly switch settings for each one mentioned.

A few paragraphs later:

After pulling on jeans and a tee, Lisa starts to walk. It’s early—not yet hot—and she follows the salt in the air, the loudening of the ocean. A battered boardwalk takes her to a wonderland of rust, faded paint, splintered wood. An abandoned amusement park. A faded sign reads “Ferdy’s Funland.”

I've got "An abandoned amusement park" as a sentence fragment to sort of reflect Lisa's realization that that's what she's found.

Toward the end:

Lisa is surprised that the photographer is talking to God like that, with questions she herself was asking. She peers around the corner of the crumbling arcade building to see that the man has turned around, is looking at her. Is talking to her.

I used the last fragment in that paragraph to indicate Lisa's progression of thought--a sudden realization. A fragment emphasizes the oh! aspect.

In the final paragraph:

Crazily, Lisa thinks again about how nice it would be to have a kitten. A home. She steps away from the arcade and takes the photographer’s hand.

It's the same sort of thing here--the phrase "a home" is one of Lisa's thoughts, but not a direct quote of her thoughts, so to speak. But keeping it as a fragment makes it more indicative of the quality of thoughts--we don't think in complete sentences.

There are lots and lots of other ways that creative writers can use sentence fragments to make their writing more effective. You asked me if I could share examples where fragments are not bad syntax, and I'm not sure if I've done that--I suppose they're still incorrect. However, they work in the piece--an example of breaking the rules when it suits the writing.

I hope I didn't muddy the waters for you, and I welcome follow-up questions.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--PACING

Post by TracePezzali » Thu Mar 19, 2015 8:34 am

That was really helpful, and nice to know there is an element of freedom - breaking rules not from ignorance but for deliberate effect. I've been really focussed on getting my grammar correct, which is good for me to do, but recognising I can sway on that when the piece benefits from it is a comfort. If I can back up my reason with an editor / publisher all is good!

In one of your examples (I don't know how to show the quote, sorry) you gave a list, without the final description having 'and' as a bridge. Is this a rule broken for effect, or not a rule at all?

Goodness, I didn't know there was so much I didn't know, teehee :lol:
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