Pace Your Prose — Three Thoughts on Timing

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 up the pace.

Keep it short.

Keep it snappy.

When things are calm, you can pause and show off the scenery, and perhaps you add in a few extra words here and there – for no other reason than to just mellow out and let the imagination roam free.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s have a look at other things that can affect the pacing of your prose.

The Less Obvious Things

Fast and Slow Words

To begin with, words can be fast or slow – similar to how some words are positively or negatively charged. Often, but not always, this is because they imply a speed.

One example is the world crawl – to move one one’s hands and knees. It’s a description of a kind of movement, and while speed isn’t necessarily part of the definition, it’s still implied. To move at a crawl is to move slowly, and usually with effort.

This has implications for how time is perceived in your prose. Consider the following examples:

  • The minutes crawled by.

  • The minutes drifted by.

  • The minutes flew by.

The first two are slow, and the third is fast. Also note the difference in effort between the first and second one. When something drifts, it’s carried by something else and doesn’t resist. When something crawls, it’s forcing itself forward.

What are some other, less obvious, slow and fast words?

Cinematic Effects

Often when writing a description, it can help to visualize your scene as if viewed through the lens of a camera, or played out on a movie screen. It’s advice I myself give regularly, but it’s not always good advice.

Film and books are very different mediums. Some things you can do in a book do not translate well into moving pictures, and the other way around.

A great example of this is the bullet-time effect from The Matrix. It looks really cool in the movies, but does it work in writing?

Imagine you’re reading an exciting battle-scene. It’s the final showdown between the hero and their nemesis. The hero jumps and swings their sword, ready to deal the final blow, and…

Now imagine that the next paragraph is a detailed description of how, for just an instant, the hero hangs suspended in mid-air, as if frozen in time, with their sword held high and their hair streaming behind them like flames from a ball of fire. It then goes on to describe the antagonist, eyes wide with fear, their dagger slipping from fingers slick with nervous sweat, watching helplessly as their impending doom approaches.

I’m sure there are ways to make something like that work, but it needs to be done with intention. If the scene is meant to be fast paced and exciting, be very careful of adding in anything that can slow the pace down, even if it looks absolutely awesome in your head and you already have all the right words for it.

In a movie, a scene like that goes by very quickly. It’s only there long enough for the viewer to register that it happened, and then the action moves on. In text, the longer and cooler the description is, the longer it takes to read.

Be mindful of this. Something that looks cool in a movie might not read cool in a book.

What are some other examples of things that work great in movies, but not in books, or the other way around? How about internal monologue?

When to go Fast, and When to go Slow

In theory, this is easy. You go fast when things are happening quickly, and you go slow when things are allowed to take their time. In practice, it’s trickier than it might seem.

When things are happening fast, there may be a lot to keep track of. It can be difficult to decide what to include, and what to leave out. If you leave out too much, your reader won’t understand what’s going on. If you include too much, it will slow down the pace of the action.

The opposite is true for slow scenes where nothing much is happening. You can describe what a location looks like, and maybe something about clouds drifting by far above, but pretty soon, you’ll run out of interesting things to show the reader while your character rests on a hillside in the afternoon sun.

What I’m getting at here is that deciding what to include in your scene affects the pace.

If your heroes are hunkered down behind a fallen tree, with a horde of raging orcs bearing down on them, it might not be the best time for them to get into an insightful and informative discussion about orc battle tactics throughout history. A snappy joke or two will be all our heroes have time for before the orcs are upon them.

Too much irrelevant information, and the reader will either forget about the orcs, or begin to wonder why they haven’t shown up already.

On the other hand, when the heroes are resting on the hillside after the battle, they may very well reminisce about their time back at the military academy and what the professor told them about orc tactics – and how wrong they were.

Final Words

Pacing the prose will come easy to some writers, while others will find it difficult. It’s far from an exact science, and if you’re having a hard time with it, my best advice is to read more. Don’t worry too much about tips and advice (including mine). Read authors you enjoy, and with time, a little of their way with words will rub off on you.

Speaking of which…

What author do you feel does a good job of pacing their prose well? Or, are you like me, who really only notices when the prose is badly paced?

How about fast and slow words? Is that even a thing, or is it just something I made up to try and sound clever?

Books and movies. In films, intense action is the cool, flashy part, but in books, the best bits come in the pauses between the actions. Do you agree? Why, or why not?

Finally, one of my pet peeves is when writers use while, or as, in a fast paced scene to make it seem like two things are happening simultaneously. To me, it slows pace down to a crawl. How about you?

Thank you for reading. I hope I’ve given you something to think about.

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10 months ago

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.

A. E. Lowan
10 months ago

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.

10 months ago

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

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 months ago

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!

10 months ago

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.

10 months ago

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.

Kasper Hviid
2 years ago

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.)

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