14. Pacing

Dedication in The devil's Highway

Dedication in The Devil’s Highway

     Pacing in stories is essential, because it determines the speed at which the novel is read. There are certain passages you want your audience to read more quickly or slowly, depending on the level of tension you are trying to build. Here’s three tips to help deal with pacing:

  

1.     Shorter Paragraphs Make The Reader Read Faster

     Writing shorter, more concise paragraphs creates suspense and tension in the reader. This is often during action scenes where many things are happening very fast. It’s shorter sentences and right to the point, usually without dialogue (although not always).
     Here’s an example from The Devil’s Highway, which conveys good tension:

 

     “Far back, far east from all the action, Edgar Adrian Martinez lay, still alive, still breathing. It was incredible that he’d lasted that long.
     He’d been lying in the heat for days. The rescuers did what they could for him, but he was in bad shape. They called in the coordinates on him and waited for the dust-off to get there. He never responded to questions, they tried to pour water between his split lips.
     It must have been his sixteen-year-old body that kept him alive.
     Finally, the helicopter came over the peaks. It hove into view and circled.
Edgar opened his eyes. They were dull. Maybe he saw, maybe he didn’t. The big beast hovered over them, kicking up dust. It started to descend.
     Edgar raised his head. He opened his mouth, but the motors were too loud for anyone to hear anything. He raised his hands as the machine landed.
     He put his head down.
     He died” (Urrea 175-176).

     This example has short, to the point sentences and small paragraphs that forces the reader to read faster. There’s tension as the reader waits for the helicopter to land and get to Edgar, until it peaks out and “he died.”

 

 2.     Longer Paragraphs Makes The Reader Read Slower

     It only makes sense that if shorter paragraphs forces a faster read, longer paragraphs forces a slower read and relieves tension. It gives the reader a break from all the built up suspense, which is necessary so your reader isn’t uncomfortable for a long time. That’s good for a little while, just not all novel long. A lot of times, we break from the action and details with narrative. Here’s another example from The Devil’s Highway:

 

     ““The highway’s right over the hill,” Mendez said.
     It wasn’t.
     They veered northwest in the dark. Mendez allowed few rest stops. No one knew what he was orienteering by—since the rain had started, the stars and moon were hidden behind cloud cover. Even with clouds breaking up, and the sky becoming partially visible, Mendez was hardly a master of the astrolabe. He wouldn’t have been able to tell the North Star from Venus” (Urrea 111-112).

     This example shows a break from action and tells the reader (through narrative) what is happening and that Mendez really doesn’t know what he’s doing. It sets the reader up for the characters journey of being lost in a desert because their guide mislead them.

 

3. Dialogue Is Essential To Pacing Too

     Dialogue can both create and relieve tension. For example, if your character is in a heated argument, then it’s likely the dialogue is going to be very short and fast, back and forth with minimal dialogue tags and no or little accompanied details. Think about your own verbal fights you’ve had, you argue with short and sharp sentences because your out of breath and your mind is racing. Here’s an example from The Devils Highway:

 

“One of the Border Patrol guys saw that Mendez had a rabbit tattoo on his arm.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.
“What?”
“The rabbit.”
“The tattoo?”
“Yes, the tattoo. What does the rabbit tattoo signify?”
“Nothing.”
“Gang sign?”
“No.”
“Is it some kind of Coyote code?”
“It’s a rabbit. I like rabbits.”
If the Migra had realized who they had in the holding pen, the Yuma 14 might be alive today. But somehow, Mendez wasn’t recognized. They were looking for Jesus Lopez Ramos from San Luis, not some Rabbit Mendez of Sonoita” (Urrea 90-91).
     The dialogue here is short and concise so it reads fast. There is one dialogue tag to show who started talking so the reader knows who is talking.

 

     If you want more advice on pacing in novels I recommend Plot & Structure (Write Great Fiction).

 

Nicole Michelle

Works Cited

Urrea, Luis Alberto. The Devils Highway: A True Story. New York: Back Bay Books, 2004. Print.

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