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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

    Svrtnsse submitted a new blog post:

    Pace Your Prose — Three Thoughts on Timing
    by Nils Ödlund

    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.
    Ned Marcus and Kasper Hviid like this.
  2. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Troubadour

    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

    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).

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