Craft Chat: Pacing
In this month’s Craft Chat, the editorial team discusses a component of submissions that we often find makes or breaks a piece: Pacing. So I wanted to ask, what are we talking about when we talk about pacing?
Cole Meyer: What do we talk about when we talk about pacing? (Is that cliche?) One of most common reasons for me, personally, to turn down a story is because of its pacing—either it’s too slow, or too fast, or it’s uneven: it starts fast/slow and then switches speeds unnecessarily. But I think it might be helpful to identify a) What good pacing looks like (or reads like or sounds like), and b) what messes with a story’s pacing.
I like to steal advice from Steve Almond (who admits it was partially stolen from Jim Shepard): Slow down where it hurts, and are we learning new information? A slow story isn’t a bad story. Let me say that again: there’s nothing wrong with a slow story! As long as we aren’t spiraling around the same idea, the same emotion, for 10, 15, 20 pages, your reader won’t even notice that it’s a slow story, because they’re learning new information. And on the other hand, a story can cover a lot of ground quickly (and successfully), but when it reaches that pivotal moment, what Almond calls the “dangerous moments of a story”, that’s where we need to slow down. “Think of it in mechanical terms,” he says: “if a narrative can’t move forward, it must turn inward.”
Melissa Hinshaw: The subject of pacing has come up a lot in our editor comments lately, so I’m glad we’re talking about it here. I’d define pacing as how much time a story spends on each of its parts or scenes. Good pacing looks like when you don’t have to double back or rush forward at all as a reader, I think, to get more information or give yourself space to have that “aha” moment. A well-paced story gives you exactly the content you need to see or feel something and exactly enough space to see or feel it. Any by proxy understand it.
When you sit down to write your first draft you put a lot of energy (detail, explanation, clarity, etc) into some scenes and not as much into others. For most of us, that energy balance doesn’t line up perfectly with the effect we imagine or hope the story will have on the reader. Pacing titrates the energy appropriately to the arc of your story. I agree it’s mechanical: a story must be engineered like a roller coaster. You need enough engine at some points to create the build up, and you need to let go at points and let everything fall and sink in. It’s easy for me to get lost in the metaphor here, but both the engine and the rollercoaster and the rails are all elements of writing. Lush details we slow down and sit in; a well-chosen word to move us through something quickly; flat exposition lets us just hum along and learn new info without too much friction. Everything contributes to pacing, including word choice, sentence length, which character we’re looking at or reading through the eyes of… even (or especially) paragraph length. What are things that slow down pieces for either of you? Or speed them along?
Also, we must talk about interruptions to pacing, and how to keep an eye out for those. Those are probably the things we see most like, “Ah, this story would have been great, except these four pages in the middle, what are they doing here?”
Brandon Williams: Man, can I just say yup to everything here? I almost never think of pacing on its own (which maybe is a flaw of mine), but rather of scenes or moments and then how effectively they chain together with the rest of the scenes or moments in a story. If we’ve got a slow story and then suddenly we’re spanning two months in a page, that’s a problem; if we’ve got a piece that’s humming along but has one random interlude to explain tanning leather gloves (I’m still scarred by Phillip Roth, apparently, although he doesn’t actually fit this discussion at all; it’s just all those pages of gloves I can’t get out of my mind) for a bunch, then suddenly I’ve forgotten how fast I was moving. Rhythm, in all the different facets Melissa brought up, is what we’re looking for, some level of natural rhythm that we as readers can recognize. As much as anything else, it teaches us when and where to focus most deeply, where to settle back and read leisurely and when to pay attention to every detail being thrown at us.
Paragraph length, and also presentation of dialogue, is pretty important here too, right? Like, the staccato nature of dialogue, or the wandering soliloquy explanatory dialogue, both completely rebuild what we’re expecting of pacing even on a visual level. And dialogue has that weird effect of moving so fast on the page but of slowing down the timeline, which is another thing to hold onto. Which brings up the idea of how fast one reads a piece versus how fast time is passing in the story itself, so that pacing needs to be a consideration both of reader and what they can gain from a story and also of the events of the story and how they’re moving.
MH: Yes! I wanted to say that dialogue pretty much usually helps move things along, but sometimes we get that super slow, saying-nothing dialogue that goes on and on and just brings the piece to a standstill. A few short lines of meaningful/rich dialogue can be a much needed power-boost between paragraphs. Dialogue bursts make much better transition points than page breaks—just switch to a new scene right after the dialogue ends.
CM: These are all really great points! I think it would be helpful for us to identify some stories that we would deem as “excellently paced”. Some of my favorites: “Gravel” by Alice Munro—like most Munro stories, this is a slow-burn, but the pace is perfect. We get in and out of scene without sacrificing any of its relentless momentum. Another great: “The Half-Skinned Steer” by E. Annie Proulx. This is a good example of a story that shouldn’t work, I think. The first three paragraphs summarize sixty years of a man’s life, and much of the rest of the story follows the protagonist on a solitary road trip. But it never loses its steam, either. Last, for a quick paced story, since I feel I’m trying to justify my assertion that slow and steady works well, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” by George Saunders, which I know I’ve mentioned before: This story spans one month of time, in journal entries from the narrator. The truncated prose in the voice of the narrator certainly helps with the pacing in this instance, I think. Perhaps importantly, too, this story is the longest of the three I mentioned—“Gravel” is the shortest at around 5,500 words, while “Steer” is 6,500 words, and “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” is nearly 9,000. Yet, I think of it as the faster story!