Some notes on pacing

I was having my creative writing students do an exercise on pacing, and I realized that for some the term & the concept might be unfamiliar, so I gave them a couple of examples. Here’s what I wrote.

“Pacing” refers to the speed at which events are narrated, and the felt speed at which they occur–how we experience the speed of the events.

Here are the opening paragraphs of “No One Writes to the Colonel” (Harper & Row, 1968), a  60-page story by Gabriel García Márquez:

The colonel took the top off the coffee can and saw that there was only one little spoonful left. He removed the pot from the fire, poured half the water onto the earthen floor, and scraped the inside of the can with a knife until the last scrapings of the ground coffee, mixed with rust, fell into the pot.

While he was waiting for it to boil, sitting next to the stone fireplace with an attitude of confident and innocent expectation, the colonel experienced the feeling that fungus and poisonous lilies were taking root in his gut. It was October. A difficult morning to get through, even for a man like himself, who had survived so many mornings like this one. For nearly sixty years—since the end of the last civil war—the colonel had done nothing else but wait. October was one of the few things which arrived.

Here are the opening paragraphs of In Evil Hour (Bard/Avon, 1979), a 183-page novel also by Gabriel García Márquez:

Father Ángel sat up with a solemn effort. He rubbed his eyelids with the bones of his hands, pushed aside the embroidered mosquito netting, and remained sitting on the bare mattress, pensive for an instant, the time indispensable for him to realize that he was alive and to remember the date and its corresponding day on the calendar of saints. Tuesday, October fourth, he thought; and in a low voice he said: “St. Francis of Assisi.”

He got dressed without washing and without praying. He was large, ruddy, with the peaceful figure of a domesticated ox, with thick, sad gestures. After attending to the buttoning of his cassock, with the languid attention and the movements with which a harp is tuned, he took down the bar and opened the door to the courtyard. The spikenards in the rain brought back the words of a song to him.

“‘The sea will grow larger with my tears,’” he sighed.

Consider the similarities between the two paragraphs: they are nearly identical in length (150 and 157 words, respectively), they describe very similar events (an old man alone in the early morning, engaged in a morning ritual or routine), and they both even take place in October. The style is recognizably the same author’s: that characteristic mix of concrete detail (“ground coffee, mixed with rust,” “rubbed his eyelids with the bones of his hands”) with abstraction (“confident and innocent expectation,” “the time indispensable for him to realize that he was alive”) and vivid metaphor (“the feeling that fungus and poisonous lilies were taking root in his gut,” “the peaceful figure of a domesticated ox”); the same use of relatively long, complex sentences, interspersed with short simple ones (compare the first two sentences of each passage).

Both passages also exhibit the control that characterizes an accomplished storyteller: they do not rush; they take their time (the time appropriate to their story) to render those seemingly inconsequential details which nevertheless have two essential functions: 1) they bring the reader into the world of the story as into a dream, experiencing it in imagination with all the senses, not just with the intellect; and 2) they build up the texture of meanings that will, over the course of the story, reveal a deeper significance, through repetition and association with key events and abstract themes. The colonel’s act of waiting for his morning coffee, for example, will come to serve as a metaphor for the monumental act of waiting he has performed for most of his adult life.

And yet, despite their similarities, they have at least one noticeable difference as well: the pacing is different. Although neither story rushes, one moves decidedly more quickly. In the first two paragraphs of “No One Writes to the Colonel,” the essential problem of the story has already been identified: the colonel is waiting for something that has not arrived for sixty years. Although we don’t yet know what he’s waiting for, we already have some investment, some curiosity: What is it? Will it arrive? Who is this man who has waited so patiently, obstinately, even obsessively for so long? The timing of this release of information gives the story a sense of forward movement that is more compelling, more driving, than that of the novel.

Compare In Evil Hour. Here we are given a great deal of information about the character: he is a priest, somewhat lax in the performance of his daily rituals, yet nevertheless devout (he has the calendar of saints memorized, at least); he lives simply; he is or was physically powerful (the ox metaphor); he seems to be a slow-moving man, suggesting perhaps sadness, kindness (the reference to Assisi is significant here), age, or some combination of all three. We know, in fact, from another detail that he is sad: the bit of song he quotes at the end of the passage. But despite all this information and more, we know very little of the larger situation, the conflict(s) which will drive the story forward. We don’t even know if this is the main character. For now, as is often the case in novels, we must remain content to soak in the details of this scene and character, enjoying them for their own sake, patient and confident that their significance will ultimately be revealed.

I might mention, by the way, that this patience and confidence—the author’s reward for the care and control with which the scene is constructed—is part of what the reader brings to the exchange. Writing is not a one-way process, and neither is reading. Good readers need and deserve good writers, but just as much, good writers need and deserve good readers. They need readers who are patient, who are willing to let the story work its magic, and who are sensitive to the subtle textures, nuances, tones of which the story is made up. Although the focus of this class is writing, it is also a class in how to read.

It’s also worth noting that in the opening of “No One Writes to the Colonel,” something actually happens—a little bit of plot. Obviously actions occur in both stories—making the coffee, getting dressed. But these are part of the neutral or equilibrium state of the character. In “No One Writes to the Colonel,” a small event takes place that, however briefly or subtly, throws the character out of that equilibrium, if only for a moment: “the colonel experienced the feeling that fungus and poisonous lilies were taking root in his gut.” We cannot know yet whether this feeling will amount to anything beyond a momentary discomfort, though its placement at the very opening of the story suggests it has some significance. But the mere fact that it occurs, temporarily disrupting the colonel’s morning routine, gives the passage a sense of forward movement unlike the placid scene that opens In Evil Hour. It is not until the end of that passage, with the quoted song, that we get any hint of a possible emotional problem for the character, and we still don’t know yet whether this sadness is something that is relevant to him today, or simply an old memory that the rain has evoked.

In short, although “No One Writes to the Colonel” is long for a short story, it is one-third the length of In Evil Hour, and already in the first two paragraphs we can see how carefully the pacing is controlled for each.

For another example, have a look at the first three paragraphs of Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” (from Jesus’ Son, Harper Collins 1992):

A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping. . . A Cherokee filled with bourbon. . . A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student. . .

And a family from Marshalltown who headonned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri. . .

. . . I rose up sopping wet from sleeping under the pouring rain, and something less than conscious, thanks to the first three of the people I’ve already named—the salesman and the Indian and the student—all of whom had given me drugs. At the head of the entrance ramp I waited without hope of a ride. What was the point, even, of rolling up my sleeping bag when I was too wet to be let into anybody’s car? I draped it around me like a cape. The downpour raked the asphalt and gurgled in the ruts. My thoughts zoomed pitifully. The travelling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.

Now compare these paragraphs from the opening of Johnson’s novel Already Dead (Harper Collins, 1997):

Van Ness felt a gladness and wonder as he drove past the small isolated towns along U.S. 101 in Northern California, a certain interest, a yearning, because he sensed they were places a person could disappear into. They felt like little naps you might never wake up from—you might throw a tire and hike to a gas station and stumble unexpectedly onto the rest of your life, the people who would finally mean something to you, a woman, an immortal friend, a saving fellowship in the religion of some obscure church. But such a thing as a small town detour into deep and permanent changes, at the time, anyway, that he was travelling down the coast from Seattle into Mendocino County, wasn’t even to be dreamt of in Van Ness’s world.

The side trip he took off 101 into Humboldt County only proved it. He deserted his route at Redway, went five miles west to Briceland and from there a half dozen miles to the Mattole River and past an invisible town (he saw only a one-room school in the corner of a field) called Ettersburg, and then switched back and forth along mountainous terrain another few miles to a dirt road that cut through the King Range National Forest.

Bucking slowly in his Volvo down the steep zigzag track among dusty redwoods, Van Ness glimpsed the sky above the sea but not the sea. He stopped for two minutes at an elbow of the road overlooking the decline and ate a pack of cheese-flavored crackers and whisked the crumbs from his long mustache—handlebars arcing down into a monstrous Fu Manchu and serving, along with thick rimless spectacles, almost to obliterate any personality from his face. The crackers were the last of his food. He tossed the wrapper onto the floorboard and drove on.

Again, the two passages are by the same author, though the style varies more than in the previous two samples. They describe a similar situation (a man travelling), and are roughly the same length (a little over 200 words). Yet the pacing is different.

Part of the difference is due to style: “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” does not bother with complete sentences, but simply starts throwing nouns at us: a salesman, a Cherokee, a VW. This has a compelling effect, making us feel we are in the middle of something already underway that we have to scramble to catch up with. Also, like “No One Writes to the Colonel,” the story lets us know immediately what the essential problem or conflict will be: the death of the man mentioned in the second paragraph. Finally, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” creates a powerful sense of immediacy in the long descriptive paragraph that introduces us to the main character and his situation. The details are minute, precise, sensory: the sopping sleeping bag, his veins feeling “scraped,” the drug-heightened sensitivity that makes him feel he “knew every rain drop by its name.”

By comparison, the opening to Already Dead has a much more leisurely pace. The perspective is more distant: we get the character’s inner state, but rather than using vivid physical detail and metaphor, as in “Car Crash,” Johnson uses more conventional abstract nouns: “gladness and wonder.” Rather than propelling us directly into the current situation, the novel pauses for most of the opening paragraph to describe something that is not real, but rather in the character’s imagination—but note that it is every bit as detailed and precise as the descriptions of what is actually happening. But again, it is more abstract and removed than the description of the character’s inner life in “Car Crash.” Here we’re told about “the people who would finally mean something to you” or “a saving fellowship in the religion of some obscure church.” Something begins to happen in the second paragraph, as the character takes a “side trip,” but the story moves at a pace that does not require us to know yet whether this “side trip” will be a side trip for the story or, in fact, the main event. Finally, notice how the perspective in Already Dead slowly zooms in: from a general description of the drive south, to a somewhat more detailed but still summarized description, to an immediate, moment-by-moment description, so that by the third paragraph we are in the car with him bouncing down the dirt road. Here we get small, immediate actions like eating the cheese crackers, and our first look at the character himself. At the same time, that pause to describe him slows the pace again, pulls us back from the immediacy of his experience, and gives us a more detached perspective. Then Johnson pulls a classic move: through a quick piece of summarized information (“the crackers were the last of his food”) followed by a—literally—throw-away gesture, he establishes something about the character: he is careless, or carefree, or desperate enough not to be bothered by the fact that his food has run out. Is this a trivial matter, to be remedied by a quick stop at the next convenience store or farmhouse, or is it a sign that he’s at the end of his rope? We don’t know, but the story (again, literally) drives on, and drives us on with it. We get forward movement, but at a much different pace from that in “Car Crash.”

Both of these pairs of examples demonstrate how the same writer will subtly but powerfully control the temporal movement of the story, and how that movement changes depending on the length of the story in question. It’s worth thinking about as you write and/or revise. Not all writers know when they set out whether a story will be short or long, though sometimes they do, and at others they think they know but the story ends up being quite different from what they expected. But at some point in the revision process they will know, and then they will adjust the pacing accordingly, so that a short story moves quickly while a long story, novella, or novel moves more slowly–but always with the control and attention to detail that mark an accomplished writer of fiction.

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