Thou Shalt Not Flatline: Managing Pacing In Fiction

New Car Smell Our good friend Scionic — aka Rick Carroll, keeper of the Idiot’s Guide to Idiocy — said, and this is pretty accurate and probably not at all paraphrased, “I’m writing horror pornography with lots of boobs and blood, and I need to know how to properly pace my story amidst all the fanged vaginas and vampire anuses. Help me, Obi Wan Wendig!”

Lest I be a bad blog host and buddy, I don’t want Scionic to feel like he doesn’t have complete control over the fanged vaginas and vampire anuses, so here I am, offering up a little chat about pacing in fiction.

I shan’t lie: the topic eludes me still. I understand pacing more intuitively than I do… er, what’s the opposite of intuitively? Fuck it, let’s go with “extuitively.” Meaning, it’s a hard topic for me to frame in a meaningful, concise and logical way. It’s like running speed — my initial response is, run faster when you need to be faster, slow down when you need to be slow. But that’s at least half-retarded, and is advice on par with “Do not stick hot poker in eyeball.”

This question being a challenge to me means it’s a good one to undertake. I’ve been noodling it for days. Let’s be clear. Half the reason I write this blog is because I don’t understand this whole crazy writing process myself, and sometimes I just need to slap it on the wall and frame it so I get a good look at it. Far as the pacing issue is concerned, I still don’t have firm answers, but I have the start of some answers. Maybe they’ll help. Maybe they won’t. If they don’t help, just lie to me. Make me feel good. Don’t let me think I just wasted precious brain-hours.

Them’s hours I could’ve used to think about sexy vagina fangs. Chomp chomp!

What? Shut up. Here goes.

Route in Winter First: What The Fuck Is Pacing?

At it’s simplest level, pacing is the movement of your story. A story moves ineluctably forward. Even when it’s moving backward, as it does through flashbacks, it’s ostensibly moving the overall narrative down the road.

At a more complex level, pacing is about the music of your fiction. That sounds counter-intuitive, perhaps. This is your turn to say, “But I’m not writing music, asshole,” and I’d say, “Yes, I am an asshole, but metaphorically you’re writing music. Asshole.” And we’d call each other “asshole” over and over again, and then we’d tumble into a sissy-slap-fight, and someone would end up with torn underwear and a stung ego, and it’d take weeks for us to start talking to each other again.

Whew. I’m glad we got that out of the way.

Point is, every aspect of language has a rhythm. A word has rhythm. So do the words put together in a sentence, the sentences that comprise a paragraph, and the paragraphs that build to a page, a chapter, a whole book. Language is lyrical. Learning its ebb-and-flow is critical to writing. When we read a book, we read it in our heads almost as if we’re speaking it. The more lyrical it sounds, the more appealing it is within the echo chamber of the head, and thus, is easier and more pleasant to read overall. (Then again, maybe you communicate in telepathic images. Or clicks and burbles. Maybe I’m the crazy one. You burbling bastard.)

So, you want to know pacing? You should become passingly familiar with the idea of rhythm in language. Listen to language spoken. Then look at it written down. Grow comfortable with this.

It Plays Music Backward Second: Now, Get Out Your Favorite Album

I think as a culture, we’re going to soon lose the art of the album. Musically, I love albums. I mean, I dig the fuck out of mixtapes, too but —

I’m digressing.

Seriously, this is your homework: go, find your favorite album (of music; don’t be a smartass and get out a photo album where you and your mutant family go and spend a day rescuing Jersey Shore medical waste from one another’s swim shorts). If this album is anything by Peter Frampton, Kevin Federline, or the Crazy Frog, please leap into a pool of biting, frothing wombats. Let them eat your extremities. Your ears must go above all else, for they are cursed, like a vile patch of earth where a good man was killed.

Anyway. Found the album? Good.

Put it in. Listen to it.

Notice something.

That something is this: each song is different. A-duh, you say. I know. It’s an obvious sentiment. But it’s no less important. Our monkey brains respond to changing sounds, even down to the rise and fall of a heartbeat, or the cooing of our Mother Baboon as she picks mites from our ear canals. The music on your favorite album varies. One song is fast. Another, slow. A song may change in the middle of itself. We respond to that dynamic flow.

Chart it. Doesn’t even matter how — get out a piece of graph paper or a dirty napkin covered in the blood of our foes or whatever, and in your own crazy way, chart the changes. You’ll see the peaks and valleys, the sine curve, the lifeline, the topography. Were you to rate each song 1, 2, or 3 (slow, medium, and zippy), you’d see a mix, you’d note how the tempo shifts, how the rhythm mutates. If each song was the same, the album loses its value to your ear. Worse, imagine if each tune were the equivalent of one of those elementary hearing tests. You’d just hear eeeeeeeeeeeee. Perhaps that has hypnotic value, but outside that? It’s null. Just a dull tone.

Fiction should never be a dull tone.

Fiction is about the variety of tempo. The longer the work, the greater mix of tempo you will have. The shorter the work, the less variety you should probably utilize — i.e., a song versus an album. A song can’t stand too many changeups. An album can, and probably should. Short fiction is song. Novel is album. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a meaty punch to the back of the head.

(For the record, Rick is writing horror erotica about vaginal teeth and blood-leeching rectums. For me, if I want a dark and sexy mood, I go for Mezzanine by Massive Attack.)

Broken Fortunes Third: Notice The Shape Of The Words On A Page

You can measure pacing without even reading the page.

I said it already: words become sentences become paragraphs become pages become glacial epochs become black obsidian monoliths that uplift the species. Or something.

Point is, take a page out of your own work, or somebody else’s, and examine the shape of it.

Short, punchy sentences? Are the paragraphs hard little nubs like tickled nipples? Then the tempo is faster, faster, faster. Lasers, cheetahs, Ferraris.

Long, languid sentences strung together in hard bricks of word blocks? The tempo is slower, slower, slooooower. Honey, mud, hillbillies.

Look at this.

Versus this.

See the difference?  The first (Joe Lansdale!) is a faster, punchier read than what you get out of the second (the abysmal, gut-punching prose of Jane Austen!).

Heck, you want faster? Sharper? Punchier? Go check out the aptly-named Sharp Teeth on Amazon, and click inside the book so you can read the first couple pages. Go on. I’ll wait. It’s a novel via a poem, which means you get super-short, super-punchy reading.

I could metaphor this shit up all day. Think of each word as an obstacle: with more words the longer it will take to make the way through the obstacle course. Or, think of each word as a segment of rope. More rope, more time it takes to climb. Consider each period as a another white dash in the middle of the highway — the closer they are, the faster you’re driving. (In fact, think of punctuation in general as speedbumps. Every piece of punctuation on the page is a speedbump, slowing the page down — sometimes for good, sometimes not so good.)

And so on, and so forth.

Strive to have the page take the shape equal to the pacing you desire. (Which isn’t helpful if you don’t know what pacing you need; more on that in a moment.)

If you’re uncertain how the shape of the page should look in general, go with the good-old-fashioned middle ground. A mix of short-and-punchy and long-and-blocky. (See the first example above, the Joe Lansdale.) Too long, and you threaten to lose a reader (wall of text). Too short, you might alienate traditional readers (unless you’re really good at it).

Fourth: Find Your Sherpa

I don’t know that any genre takes any particular shape, or emulates any particular tempo. Maybe it does. As I said, I’m finding my way through this topic even as I write it still.

Yes, it’s likely that suspense thrillers are quicker to the punch, and as such demand faster pacing. And, many stories will certainly amp up the pacing as they go — because, for the most part, escalation is the name of the game. But especially with longer form works, you can’t constantly build speed. You have to take breaks, breaths, pauses. You have to take turns slowly and straightaways swiftly. Even the tightest thriller has moments of reflection, and great horror can be almost plodding and methodical in its pacing. So, I can’t tell you that pacing is perfectly dictated by genre.

And yet — good news!

Others have paved the way! They are your sherpas. Let them guide you up the mountain.

Find an author whose work yours will (ideally) closely resemble. You needn’t a perfect match. Hell, get a sampling. Pick three to five. Yay for arbitrary numbers.

Read their writing. You don’t need to mimic it, but get a feel for it. For Christ’s sake, read it aloud. (This is advice I will hammer into your head again and again until your nose is pouring blood. You must you must you must read your work aloud. Also, we must we must we must increase our bust. Wait, what?) This isn’t all that different from hearing a song and then humming it. You know the sound. You know the shape. Attempt to emulate. Roughly orbit the shape of it. Find the pace. Find the rhythm. Work the pace. Work the rhythm. Work that ass. Work it. Yeah. Daddy likes it when you work it. That’s right. Lick your lips. Smell your fingers. Eat those pancakes, girl. Mmmm. Work those pancakes. Work those pancakes. Syrup time! Ohhh, sweet syrup babies.

We all just shared a special moment. I’d ask you not mention it to anybody else.

In Conclusion: Shit, I Dunno?

Shorter, punchier: accelerate.

Longer, blockier: slow down.

You should not always be accelerating.

Nor should you always be slowing down.

(You should, however, Always Be Closing.)

Your goal is a mix. You need to change it up. You’re the DJ of your story. Faster, slower. Peak. Valley. Sine. Cosine. Pancake. Syrup. Mmmmm.

We’ll discuss advanced techniques some other time. That is, unless you have any you care to share? Speak up, class. We’re all learning some shit here today. Don’t be shy. I won’t bite. Sure, those fanged vaginas that Rick is writing about will, but that’s not my fault. Blame him. He’s the weirdo, here. I’m totally normal.