The Elements of the Prose I: Pace

December 18, 2017

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Today's post is focused on storytellers, however, some devoted readers might also find this interesting. I wanted to talk about the first of three really important parts of the narration process that most of the times we ignore. Writers need to have each of these in mind at every stage of their story. Readers normally don't notice, at least not consciously, but they do feel these elements, and if correctly developed, they can massively affect the reader's experience. These elements are the pace, the tone, and the tension. Today in particular, I will talk about pace. However, I will cover the other two in future posts, even though they still are closely related. You will notice soon enough.


What is Pace?


In the writer context, it is definitely not the walking pace, but they are deeply related in concept. In writing, we refer to pace as the speed at which things are told. I know this might sound very confusing and non-related, but it will make more sense with an example. Meanwhile, think of Pace as how much the story propels within a given margin of words: the more that is told about the story (the more it moves forwards), the faster the pace is. 


The pace will not depend on the reader. It's more about how action, in the "real-world context" of the story you are telling develops, whether it is fast-paced (filled with action and tension), or slow-paced (more quiet and relaxed).



Pace in as a Mood Setter 


Jane and Austin were at their dining room, having breakfast, as usual. Some eggs, bread, and bacon, along with some orange juice. The radio was tuned in with the local news. Austin was reading the newspaper, completely unaware of what was happening around him, while Jane was actually trying to catch a bit of the weather forecast. It was a fresh, spring morning, and some birds were singing in the backyard.


"Are you working late today, Austin?" inquired Jane, without taking her eyes out of her cup of warm coffee.


"Perhaps" sighed Austin, barely interested in chatting.


Ok, ok, I know it was boring, but please bear with me: this is an example. Let's break this down. What is happening in this small scene with Jane and Austin? What is an important event here, that the reader needs to stop and pay attention to? The answer: nothing. Yep, it's nothing. Whether Austin is working late or not is irrelevant given the fact he wasn't even paying attention to Jane. Maybe he knew he was working until late, but he just said perhaps. And why do you say nothing here is important? And what does all this has to do with the pace? Simple! This small fragment is used to set a mood on the reader, not to transmit any information to them. Notice how much effort is put into details: what they are having for breakfast, what's on the radio, the soothing lullaby of the birds outside. Truth is: who cares?! You don't buy a book to read about a couple having breakfast —not unless it is followed by some deep conflict with a mother-in-law. Well, maybe not like that, but you get the idea. A story needs to be engaging for the reader, but it cannot be engaging in every single paragraph, because it would become way too intense. That's why you need a calmed scene in between, to soothe things a little bit. That's where Pace comes handy.


Pace in Action


However, this is not completely useless: there might be particular settings or storylines in which this type of situations not only helps to set the mood for the reader, but also for your characters. Perhaps, the indifferent way in which they both are talking hints on something happening in the background (maybe something your readers haven't seen or noticed yet) that might actually make a lot of sense with a bit more information. Maybe Jane didn't even give importance to the question because she doesn't care about the answer. Or she may know something about her husband's affairs, and she's just curious on whether he will be nervous by the question, or if he will just give no importance to it. Whatever the cause may be, as for know, with the information on hand, what we just read is irrelevant.


Now, let's try to stop thinking of possibilities, and just focus on the difference between the previous example and the following one, pace-wise:


"I cannot believe you forgot our anniversary! Like, seriously?" Jane raged, with her ears turning redder and redder with every word. "You have become such an jerk, Austin Marshall King. And I am just making a fool of myself, thinking you still love me" she roared, and she ramparted out of the dining room, with Austin being unable to say a single word.


This one is completely different, right? And it might be taking place two minutes after the previous one! So, what's different, pace-wise. A lot. Firstly, notice how there are a lot less details in the second fragment. "But you even mentioned how Jane ears turned red. That's details!!!". Hey, no need for the exclamation marks. Calm down... The fact that Jane's ears turn red is actually important: it shows her feelings, how angry she is at the fact Austin forgot that important date. The words 'raged', 'roared', and ramparted, also add up to that idea. There is very little detail given, and it all shows Jane's feelings. At any moment, the writer says she is angry, not directly: they used background details to tell you so! The fact she called Austin by his full name is also a sign. Nothing is mentioned about the newspaper, or the radio, or the birds singing Beyoncé's Single Ladies or whatever. Because it doesn't matter in this scene. The pace needs to propel fast, so such details that do not provide relevant information need to be omitted in order to maintain the tension (we'll go deeper on that when we talk about tension).


Pace Through your Story


The pace changes throughout your story, all the time. A pace is slow when the writer gives a lot of details. This makes the reader feel the events are happening slower than usual. A pace is fast when you give very little details, which makes the reader feel things are happening one right after the other. This is what sets the mood for your reader, and also makes them feel engaged. Your readers would feel annoyed if you started writing how Michael Jones from the weather forecast predicted it'd be three degrees colder next Saturday right in between of Jane's yelling. Right? Who cares about the weather?! This woman might be having a mental breakdown, or the marriage might be on the brink of rupture, not an appropriate place for you to describe meaningless things. And if you have been paying attention, you probably noticed another important detail: pace can be used to affect your readers' reaction to your story: how they feel your story!


It is really important to understand the pace of your story, when to slow down a bit, and when to propel forward. You need to have both slow and fast pace in your story in order for it to be delivered consistently to your reader, but you need to know when and how to use it. Those questions, when and where, will be answered by your own story, what is going on at every moment, and how you want your readers to feel at each scene or sequence of actions. However, despite of the plot, you need to create a balance, somehow. Your story cannot be a continuous chill, relaxed conversation between characters, but definitely not an endless rollercoaster. Way too much excitement can also make your readers feel your story is stressing rather than a escape.


Final Thoughts


Pace is a very important element to keep in mind, and it is only the first out the three main elements of the prose. I will discuss Tone and Tension in future posts, hence there is a lot of information about each of those, too. Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are on this topic. Share, and show some love with a like. See you on the next one!

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