Thursday, August 21, 2014

Alumni Voices with Shelly Jones: PACING

Pacing = an author’s manipulation of time.
Writers manipulate time to enhance the reading experience.
A story has three different time elements which are interrelated: Real Time, Plot Time, and Reader Time.
  • Real Time is the actual period of time encompassed by the story and the chronological sequence of events during that defined time. 
  • Plot Time compresses, expands, and rearranges Real Time to allow better dramatization.
  • Reader Time manipulates Plot Time to accelerate or decelerate the velocity of reading. Velocity of reading includes the actual speed at which the reader moves down the page, as well as the reader’s subjective feeling of momentum. 
Real Time Versus Plot Time
A story may span three generations. It’s not possible to relate all the events of three generations within the confines of a story. Therefore, in Plot Time the writer must shrink Real Time by skipping needless information, highlighting only moments crucial to the story. Conversely, a novel could focus on a single day. In this example, the author stretches time with more scenes, increased description, introspection and digression.

In Real Time, an event happens for a specified amount of time—the protagonist’s school day lasts eight hours while her birthday party only lasts two hours. Plot Time, on the other hand, discriminates events by their importance. In Plot Time, the entire school day can be dispatched with the phrase “After school…,” whereas the birthday party fills a chapter.

Another manipulation of Real Time involves changing the chronological sequence of events, because a linear presentation is often not the most intriguing way to tell the story. The writer may begin at that sinking-of-the-Titanic moment then regress in time to explain how such an event occurred. Commonly, writers travel back and forth in time, providing flashbacks or backstory when past information is required, or letting the reader glimpse future events through foreshadowing or flashforwards.
Plot Time Versus Reader Time
Some stories are leisurely in their telling, while others are fast-paced. But all stories, whether quiet or action-packed, must provide variation in Reader Time. Good writing has a rhythm, fast and slow, ebb and flow. Though, if the feeling of forward movement slows down too long or too often, the reader will become bored.

What are the techniques for changing reading velocity?
  • Scenes accelerate reading velocity while narrative summary slows it, therefore narrative summary must be kept to a minimum. Scenes show events through action and dialogue. Narrative summary tells necessary information that cannot be optimally conveyed through dialogue and action, i.e. not events, or events that would be monotonous in their telling. Setting descriptions and internal musings of characters are usually best related through narrative summary.
  • White Space = Faster Pace
  • Anything that increases white space on the page speeds the reading velocity. Blocks of narrative summary slow forward momentum while dialogue speeds it up. Similarly, short sentences and short paragraphs accelerate the pace.
  • Action accelerates. “Babette climbs hand over hand across the jungle gym,” gives the reader a feel of momentum, as opposed to “Babette is a pretty girl with thick, curly hair.”
  • Active verbs accelerate. “Babette climbs hand over hand across the jungle gym,” feels faster than “Babette is climbing hand over hand across the jungle gym.”
  • Filter words bog down the pace. “Jules grabbed Babette’s ankle and pulled her off the jungle gym,” moves faster than “Babette felt Jules grab her ankle and watched him pull her off the jungle gym.”
  • Adverbs slow the pace. “Jules quickly grabbed Babette’s ankle and mightily pulled her off the jungle gym.”
  • Qualifying words slow the pace. “Jules actually grabbed Babette’s ankle and then pulled her off the jungle gym just like that.”
  • Flashbacks stop forward momentum.
  • Lastly, writers can use word choice to manipulate reading velocity. Short, staccato words (containing short vowels and consonants b, d, k, p. q, t, hard c, and hard g) beg to be read quickly. Long, soft words (containing long vowels and consonants f,  h,  j, l,  m,  n, r, s,  w,  v, x, y, z) slow the reader down.
This discussion of pacing doesn’t venture into picture books which have additional tactics including illustrations, rhyming, and page turns. However, I found picture books useful to understand the concepts of Real Time, Plot Time, and Reader Time.

Consider Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Reading clues about time in both the words and illustrations, it’s likely that Max was misbehaving for an hour or two, when his mother sent him to bed without supper. The parents likely ate their supper and then Max’s mom brought him food which was still hot. This Real Time scenario would look something like this:

However, only four pages of the book are devoted to Max’s elaborate mischief-making, while twenty-eight pages are devoted to his time with the Wild Things. But Max’s perception of the time spent in his room, and the part of the book that most interests the child reader requires Sendak to stretch time. Sendak does this first by increasing the space devoted to the Wild Things event. But he also lengthens time with phrases like “a forest grew and grew—and grew,” and “he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year.” Plot Time looks different than Real Time:
 Finally, Sendak alternates action and short snippets of dialogue with moments of gentle language and quiet reflection—accelerating and decelerating Reader Time:

Shelley Jones is a January, 2014 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. She lives and writes in Johnston, Iowa.


  1. Shelley, this is a wonderful way to think of the construct of time in fiction. I will use this post and your concepts in the class I'm teaching this term, with all credit to you of course.

    1. Swati, Thanks so much for the compliment. It means a lot coming from you. I meant to reply much sooner, but Hamline cancelled the alums gmail accounts and I don't use gmail at home so I was dragging my feet getting a gmail account set up.