IAM Writing Tips…Pace Yourself

Guest Feature

Today Tony is with us to talk about the magic of pacing…

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Pacing in books is a bit of an odd thing. You’re reading at the same speed as you normally do, but suddenly the story is whipping by in a blur and you can’t stop reading.

How do writers do it?

It’s magic tricks actually, an illusion – and some simple illusions at that. Magicians aren’t supposed to tell you how it’s done, but what are we here for if not to share? And it’s not like you can’t Google this and get the answers anyway. 🙂

At first, I didn’t hear his movements in the trees behind me. The forest was beautiful this time of year, the naked trees clothed in ermine snow, nature reduced to a frozen slumber. As I breathed out, the condensation steamed up my glasses and the world turned momentarily foggy and blurred. My feet in the heavy boots crunched and squeaked through the unbroken snow, toes starting to freeze.

I twisted on the spot when the branch cracked behind me, scanning the frigid world as the hairs on the back of my neck rose and stretched.

That wasn’t a deer, I thought.

Nothing moved, but I knew he was watching me. Every shadow was suddenly malevolent and dangerous.

I heard the breathing first: Short, ragged gasps. Like a man running, from my left somewhere.

Coming closer.

Trying not to show how freaked out I was, I turned away slowly and walked on. Faster now, though. Focusing ahead and behind, trying to hear how he moved as I moved. The way he stopped when I stopped.

It didn’t matter how much I hurried my pace. He always kept up with me. Mewling to myself, I turned my head, still seeing nothing, but hearing him breathing beside me, ever closer.

My nerve snapped and I gave up the pretence, taking to my heels and starting to run, pummelling the snow so the white clods flew from my heels, trying not to slip on the now treacherous ground, pouring my strength through my lungs and into my aching legs, the air cold-burning my throat as it cascaded into me, breath streaming back like a silent scream.

I urged my dying legs to push me faster, faster, until my lungs burned with the agony of it, the cold taste of steel in my throat like a blade pushed into my larynx.

It wasn’t until I felt the hand on my arm that I stopped, dragged off my feet by the powerful backwards tug. I spun, lashing with an arm, hand forming into a fist. He batted it away easily, the side of my hand smacking into nothing.

My brain struggled to catch up with what I wasn’t seeing, not having time to react as the all-too-visible knife flashed towards my heart, the last thing I ever saw.

 I heard his voice around the exhalation of his breath when he spoke, the last words I ever heard.

“So. The invisibility cloak works then.”

I’ll break it down into how it usually works.

  Approach.

 At first, I didn’t hear his movements in the trees behind me. The forest was beautiful this time of year, the naked trees clothed in ermine snow, nature reduced to a frozen slumber.

As I breathed out, the condensation steamed up my glasses and the world turned momentarily foggy and blurred. My feet in the heavy boots crunched and squeaked through the unbroken snow, toes starting to freeze.

The approach is the setup for what comes later. Take as much time as you want over this part – in some ways, the slower the better. A good example is a section of “The Shining” by Stephen King, where Danny knows something is going on in one of the haunted hotel rooms and investigates. King doesn’t put Danny in the bathroom where he wants him – he starts off with Danny outside the closed hotel room door and spends three pages on the approach.

Anticipation. 

I twisted on the spot when the branch cracked behind me, scanning the frigid world as the hairs on the back of my neck rose and stretched.

That wasn’t a deer, I thought.

Nothing moved, but I knew he was watching me. Every shadow was suddenly malevolent and dangerous.

I heard the breathing first: Short, ragged gasps. Like a man running. From my left somewhere.

Coming closer.

Trying not to show how freaked out I was, I turned away slowly and walked on. Faster now, though. Focusing ahead and behind, trying to hear how he moved as I moved. The way he stopped when I stopped.

If you show an explosion, you get a bang for a second or two and nothing else. Show a countdown clock ticking down, and the tension can be kept as long as you like – countless movies have been made with nothing else driving the story but a countdown timer, after all. Anticipation is what keeps you reading and watching.

Also, notice what I’m doing here. The sentences and paragraphs are shorter – one of them only two words long – and the descriptions of the world around the character gone apart from describing the shadows. You read those 103 words faster than you read the 68 in the first segment. You didn’t have a choice.

Another way of speeding up the pace is a favourite of Dean Koontz. Have short, snappy dialogue without attributes that pull you down the page:

“Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“That breathing.”

“Creepy.”

“Just a little.”

Also, try changing your tense – past tense shifted to present works really well. Your character is reacting, not just remembering. Just remember to change it back when you’ve finished.

Trying not to show how freaked out I am, I turn away slowly and walk on. Faster now, though. Focusing ahead and behind, trying to hear how he moves as I move. The way he stops when I stop.

My weapon of choice is more of a tumbling style though – run the sentences into one so they blur:

I heard the breathing next: Short, ragged gasps, like a man running, from my left somewhere.

Coming closer.

Trying not to show how freaked out I was, I turned away slowly and walked on. Faster now, though, focusing ahead and behind, trying to hear how he moved as I moved, the way he stopped when I stopped.

And you can combine them of course – tumbling sentences in present tense, whatever works the best.

 Reveal and Aftermath

My nerve snapped and I gave up the pretence, taking to my heels and starting to run, pummelling the snow so the white clods flew from my heels, trying not to slip on the now treacherous ground, pouring my strength through my lungs and into my aching legs, the air cold-burning my throat as it cascaded into me, breath streaming back like a silent scream.

I urged my dying legs to push me faster, faster, until my lungs burned with the agony of it, the cold taste of steel in my throat like a blade pushed into my larynx.

It wasn’t until I felt the hand on my arm that I stopped, dragged off my feet by the powerful backwards tug. I spun, lashing with an arm, hand forming into a fist. He batted it away easily, the side of my hand smacking into nothing.

My brain struggled to catch up with what I wasn’t seeing, not having time to react as the all-too-visible knife flashed towards my heart, the last thing I ever saw.

 I heard his voice around the exhalation of his breath when he spoke, the last words I ever heard. “So. The invisibility cloak works then.”

In terms of pacing, the running paragraph (My nerve snapped…) is one sentence of 66 words. There’s more internal world than external as well – no more looking at how wonderful the trees are; as readers we only care now if the ground will give up its traction, how cold that breath is.

Look how short it is. I spent 173 words getting this character freaked out enough to run for their life – I give them 66 words to describe it. The imagery has changed as well – from soft ermine snow at the start to the taste of steel now.

Your reveal can be a red-herring of course – this could be a deer following our character. Or it could be foreshadowing for a reveal later in the book and we never know at this point what it is.

In some ways, the reveal is the quickest part of the whole process. In the 407 words of this story, the reveal is 76 words and two paragraphs (It wasn’t until I felt the hand…), and one of those runs straight into the aftermath.

To go back to the example of “The Shining” – Once Danny is in the bathroom where a ghost waits for him, King only spends half-a-page describing it before going into the aftermath.

And don’t forget that aftermath by the way; give your readers some closure – or leave them hanging if this is the end of a chapter.

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2 thoughts on “IAM Writing Tips…Pace Yourself

  1. Really enjoyed this article…funny how you can naturally employ all these techniques without realising. I never analysed it before, but I use many of these techniques in my writing already. Especially enjoyed the story!

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