Setting the Pace
By Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.
Managing your fiction's pace can be the difference between a good fiction and a great fiction. In my last column, you learned how to establish pace by creating a fiction's particular rhythm. The next step is to maintain that rhythm throughout the fiction while at the same time moving the plot forward.
"Like the proverbial stone dropped into a pond, it [the climactic moment] ripples outward." —Lenard-Cook
Hurry Up and Wait
The climactic moment of a fiction affects not only that moment but every moment that came before and all that will come after. Like the proverbial stone dropped into a pond, it ripples outward. Nothing is the same once the climax has occurred. It's the largest kairos in a fiction.
Word length, sentence length, and paragraph length contribute to (or detract from) how a reader experiences kairos. Look at these two examples. Which moves faster? Why?
He bounded to the car. Fiddling with the gearshift, he finally found reverse. Roaring out of the garage, the tires squealed as he quickly shifted into drive. He sped out of the cul de sac. When he got to the highway, weaving in and out of traffic as fast as he could, he recalled the telephone conversation he'd just had with Mary… He hopped into the car, jammed it into reverse and roared out of the garage, then squealed out of the cul de sac to the highway, narrowly avoiding a Mustang that changed lanes as he turned. I want a divorce, he heard Mary say again just as a horn sounded behind him. He flashed the driver a finger then cut back into the other lane again. Another horn blared.
"I tried to keep my sentences short, but instead of speeding the action, the short sentences inexplicably slow it down."
I tried, with some difficulty, to make every mistake I could in the first paragraph. (This was very difficult for me, and I learned something here: Don't write the bad paragraph first. It makes writing the good paragraph harder.) I used action words, shorter sentences, lots of movement, a flashback to what precipitated Joe's anger. All of this is what I should be doing, right? Yes, but (of course there's that but), instead of using active verbs, I chose participles (-ing constructions), which slow down the narrative. I tried to keep my sentences short, but instead of speeding the action, the short sentences inexplicably slow it down. Finally, suddenly, in the midst of the action, I leap out of it, leaving the reader between lanes but in a flashback, dangling.
In the second paragraph, I moved as fast as Joe. I didn't have time for a lot of periods and sentence breaks because Joe didn't either. Joe's mind is racing in kairos and so is my paragraph: zoom, zoom, zoom. Even Mary's words cut in and out. There's no "recalling." Joe "hears" Mary's words. See the difference?
"You've probably learned you should use longer words and longer sentences to slow the pace, but that's not necessarily true." —Lenard-Cook
The same applies when we want to slow the pace down. You've probably learned you should use longer words and longer sentences to slow the pace, but that's not necessarily true. Here are two more examples:
He looked at the clock but it was a mere five minutes later. Where was she? Maybe she wasn't coming. It would be just like her to stand him up. Or no: forget. She'd forgotten to show up for the most important moment of their lives. Again.
Tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, he looked again at the clock on the dashboard only to find that just a few minutes had elapsed since he last looked at it. Was it possible that Mary wasn't going to come, that she would stand him up, or worse, forget? Wouldn't it be just like her to not show up, just at this moment, the most important of their lives?
I again had a hard time writing the bad paragraph. It's the second one. (I learned something from my earlier lesson.) Here's the key: Because, for Joe, time is moving slowly, in the first paragraph I keep the reader in the moment with him. In the two bad examples above, the reader is repeatedly pulled out of the moment.
"The drama occurs in kairos while your chronos keeps on ticking." —Lenard-Cook
Here's a brief review of the many things we covered in these three columns about the mind of your story:
Establish your rhythm. The drama occurs in kairos while your chronos keeps on ticking. Drama occurs in scene. Keep the reader in the moment.
Next month, we'll discuss tense. Stay tuned.
About Lisa Lenard-Cook Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, 2003) won the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel and was a 2004 selection of both NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series and the Durango-La Plata Reads countywide reading program. Her latest novel, Coyote Morning (UNM Press, 2004), has been compared to work of Carol Shields and Sue Miller. Visit Lisa's website, www.lisalenardcook.com, for information about her books and more writing inspiration.