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blog Pace Your Prose — Three Thoughts on Timing

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Black Dragon, Feb 1, 2020.

  1. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Svrtnsse submitted a new blog post:

    Pace Your Prose — Three Thoughts on Timing
    by Nils Ödlund

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    Have you ever come across a section of a book where it felt like everything happened at breakneck speed, and you could only just barely read fast enough to keep up? Or have you seen the opposite, where it's all nice and slow and mellow, and where you're able to really take your time and enjoy the beauty of the words?

    That's the kind of thing I'll be musing on today. Prose and pacing. Time and reading.

    Do note, this is not about how to pace your story, that's an entirely different topic.

    The Basics

    Most writers will at one point or another have heard that a full stop is a signal for the reader to breathe. The shorter the sentences are, the quicker the breathing becomes, like when you're excited. With longer sentences, the breaths grow longer, and deeper, and you calm down.

    And when you write really long sentences and don't include any commas or other forms of punctuation your reader might just run out of breath and begin to feel a little panicked.

    There's no ideal sentence length to strive for – rather the opposite. Any length is fine, as long as the sentence does its job. I'd say a bit of variety is good though, or the prose might come off as a bit stale. The only time you really need to worry about it is when the pace is important for the reading experience – like in a fast paced action scene or a lazy-Sunday-morning kind of scene.

    When the action is tight, you pick...
    Continue reading the Original Blog Post.
     
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  2. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Sage

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    Me, I never bought the idea that shorter sentences make the story faster! I mean, I read at pretty much the same speed. If anything, more frequent punctuation breaks mean that it will take longer to read. However, a raise in punctation does make the writing rhythm more staccato, whereas longer sentences are more flowy and mellow. Personally, I feel it make the most sense to use the music metaphor to make sense of pacing.

    Also (and I'm clueless what to make of that) the Very Long Sentence can seem quite fast-paced, like this example from Bealby; A Holiday by H. G. Wells:

    The duties to which Bealby was introduced struck him as perplexingly various, undesirably numerous, uninteresting and difficult to remember, and also he did not try to remember them very well because he wanted to do them as badly as possible and he thought that forgetting would be a good way of starting at that.​

    About the advice not to try to emulate Matrix bullet-time in the written medium, in my recent story The Hellward Creature (linked elsewhere) I actually attempted to go for a sort of bullet-time effect with the sentence "The moment froze in time." During really tense moments, time does slow down, or rather, your mind speeds up so that you can go through a long-winded inner dialogue in a few seconds, which I hoped to sorta replicate. (but I heartily agree with the overall point of not writing a novel which would rather have been a movie. Stick to your chosen medium.)
     
  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    The idea is that the shorter sentences makes it feel as if the events of the story are happening faster. It doesn't actually change your reading speed.
    You're right in that it can make the actual reading take longer. Too many short sentences gets choppy real fast, and it disrupts the overall flow, so it's a good idea to mix it up a little.

    In the long sentence you quote, I feel like the pacing in that comes from the cadence/rhythm of how it's structured - especially the double pairing of words in the list. The list sets a very clear rhythm for the sentence, and it's followed by the next part which starts out as if it's just a short addition, but which then goes on and on and on.
    So, yes, you can make long sentences with a quick pace too. :)

    How did it work out?
    Someone who does this a lot is Jim Butcher, in the Dresden Files books. The main character, Harry, takes a tremendous beating, and he's in a world of pain, and the killing blow is about to fall at any instant.
    At this time, there's usually some kind of introspective moment where Harry pulls up hitherto unknown forces from within himself. It's definitely a pause in the action, like a frozen moment, but it's also a moment where a lot of things happen in the mind of the character, and I think that's why it works (even if it gets a bit predictable after 17 books or whatever it is now).
     
  4. ButlerianHeretic

    ButlerianHeretic Minstrel

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    By contrast in Heart Of Darkness there are paragraphs that stretch for multiple pages. As the characters journey up the Congo river in a paddleboat for unending days ruled by the sweat and mosquitos of the jungle.
     
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  5. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    That sounds like it might be a bit of a chore to read, or does it work?
    (I haven't read it myself)
     
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Conrad could write like a SOB, not many can match him. Even if you don’t like his stories, his writing isimpressive.

    My writing has been trending toward shorter sentences, not on purpose and it seemed strange, until I realized it was mostly because I cut so much fluff. That said, Periods do work for some pacing situations and bring across a certain feel, but I think the fastest paced long sentences/paragraphs are based around commas and semi-colons. Hemingway wrote a 100+ word sentence describing a skier coming down a mountain. It’s at once flowing and fast, along with obviously being long. Periods would change the reading experience.

    For me, it seems the forgotten element of pacing is word choice and eliminating filler words.

    Another one I’ve never understood is the running out of breath on long sentences… Some agent spoke of that, and I told her she must be a smoker if she runs out of breath at 25 words, heh heh. Do people actually forget to breathe like when exercising? Peculiar to me.
     
  7. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    The book I'm currently reading has some issues with pacing.
    On their own, the sentences and paragraphs flow easily enough, but the story has a tendency to repeat its descriptions. Once something is described, the same thing is often described again a few paragraphs later, using slightly different words.

    Very much so. I'm not sure it's forgotten as such, but I may very well have forgotten to bring it up when I wrote the article. It's been a while, so I'll have to double-check that.

    I think this is a psychological thing, possibly related to how we read, but it's not something I've really read up on or thought about in more detail. It's always made intuitive sense to me, so until now I've not thought to question it. :p
     
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  8. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    I do recall, when sparring while going for black belt, I’d be told to remember to breathe… My response was:

    I’m trying! I’m just old and out of shape!
     
  9. ButlerianHeretic

    ButlerianHeretic Minstrel

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    IMO, it works. At least for me. It isn't everyone's cup of tea. I only noticed the paragrpah length because I read it as a teen and my mom called me to dinner and I said I'd come when I got to the end of the paragraph... And when she called again I wondered if I'd missed the end of the paragraph or what - nope, just a really long paragraph. If it hadn't been for that I probably wouldn't have noticed. It is a very dark, moody, gloomy story, and the way it is written feeds into that. I'd also suggest it as a literary example of how to portray a world gone somewhat mad for anyone trying to portray such a setting.
     
  10. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    We play a lot with pacing, depending on what's happening in the story. I'll naturally default to a bit florid in the narrative, but for action scenes I prefer short, succinct language to keep the reader in the moment. I'll sometimes turn the camera away for a second and slow things down, giving the reader a break, and then we're right back into it again in the next paragraph.

    I remember reading Conrad in high school. Personally, I'm one of those who doesn't like the cup of tea (I'm more for coffee ;) ), and always got the impression that he was wallowing in misery a bit. As a teen it was annoying. But that's just my opinion. I also can't stand Hemingway or Steinbeck.
     
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  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Coincidentally, I just posted a piece from a Graham Greene novel that is a fine example of pacing at the sentence level.
    What are you Reading Now?

    It's worth noting that pacing happens at multiple levels, from individual sentences to scenes to chapters and the full story. It's wretchedly difficult to do well and the best writers appear to come by it naturally. I curse such people, even as I admire their work.
     
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