Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Pacing Triad

There are more paces than just "fast".  Let's start there. When authors talk about pacing, they often mean, "How can I make this book go as fast as possible?" The first question, however, should be, "What pace will help me give my readers a better experience?"

After all, readers who like a Henry-James-like contemplative approach don't actually WANT your book paced like The DaVinci Code.

So what pace is right for your book? More on that in another post, but right now I want to talk a bit about a technique that can help create a different pace. That's what I call the "BAR" method.

Build up.
Action (or event).
Reaction (or emotion/aftermath).

This is a typical sequence for a pacing/event unit. (Pacing is all about how many events you have and in what period of time/pages.)  We will, of course, have a bunch of these in a book, maybe 15 in a fast-paced book, or 5 in a leisurely-paced book.

First you do the buildup, whatever decisionmaking, investigation, exposition, and/or consideration has to happen before the action or event.  Like if Sadie is (in the coming action) going to find a clue, the buildup might be where she figures out what she needs to know, and decides to risk arrest to get it. This is about anticipation, preparation, consideration.

Second, there's the action or event-- what happens. This is the most essential part of pacing as it's how we calibrate pacing. A thriller is "fast-paced" because it has a lot of actions and events coming quickly. A more contemplative or leisurely paced novel will have fewer actions in the same amount of time. The action or event is something that a character does (or happens to the character) that changes the course of the story. So this would be where Sadie breaks into the office and steals the old typewriter and finds the letter on the old typewriter ribbon. (Typewriter ribbons were really cool clue-locations.)

Third, there's the reaction or aftermath. That's where the character (and/or the world of the story) reacts to the event, shows the emotional or actual change because of this event. So Sadie gets back to her apartment and reads the typewriter ribbon and realizes it implicates her own mentor, and she is plunged into doubt and despair and can't decide whether to turn this over to the police, or protect her mentor.

Now those three elements can be each in a separate scene of more or less equal length, or separate scenes of different lengths, or just passages within a scene. But I think -- just speculating here- that if we want to make the pace of a book something or other, we can do this by manipulating the relative length of these elements.

Let's say we want a more methodical pace that's suitable for a police procedural. We might amplify the Build up section to show the careful consideration Sadie goes through figuring out what she needs to, why she needs this clue, whether she ought to commit a crime to get it. Or conversely, for a suspense thriller, we might want to expand this passage to build up the suspense, the danger involved, the threat to her life and career, the looming darkness that is the villain-- before she does what she has to do. Fear, suspense, threat have to be created in the reader by the build up to an event. But of course, that creates a slower pace.

Or maybe we want a fast pace for an adventure book. In this case, the build up might be pretty short, just enough to set the stage for the action. Then the action scene might be long, exciting, and richly detailed, very physical to give the reader a visceral experience. So in this case, there wouldn't be a lot of Sadie debating the morality of breaking in-- She decides to do it and just does it, but we get a full account of all the obstacles she encounters and the last-minute interruptions and the near-miss security guard patrol, and the slippery feel of the folder in her fingers.... Expanding the action passage to a greater length than the other two elements will lead to a more adventurous pace.

But then, what if we want the reader to feel emotion, to identify with the angst and triumph and despair of the character? Then we might spend the most time on the reaction or aftermath, where the character deals with the impact of what she's done or learned or experienced. Romances particularly I think often need long aftermaths to create the depth of feeling and the potential for interaction that deepens the love story. So in this case, Sadie might be rocked by her sense of betrayal by the mentor, remember all the times Mentor helped her do her math homework, and plunge into a despair because he is the only person she trusts, and now she might have to betray him. (And she has to call that hunky but arrogant police detective.... Romance!)

Anyway, no rules here, but if our story doesn't have the appropriate pace, it might not be a problem with the plot or characters, but rather just a matter of manipulating this BAR sequence so that the most important element to our pacing choice is emphasized by being longer than the other two. I don't mean making the action scene 15 pages long in a fast-paced book (long scenes will slow down the pace), but rather making it the longest of the three, so maybe we have a paragraph or two of build up, five pages of action, and two paragraphs of reaction.

What do you think? Look at your own stories. What sort of pace are you hoping for, and what kinds of passages or scenes go on longer?


Wes said...

Great analysis of pacing.

You ask what we are shooting for. Since I'm writing historical fiction in a unique place (New Mexico) in a unique time (1821) I'm trying to make the land and the culture characters in the story. I want the flavor of the place and time to seep thru between bursts of furious action (slave raids, battle, death, treachery). When your partner in crime critiqued my MS, she correctly pointed out that I spent too much time setting the stage and didn't construct a scene quickly or thoroughly. That's great feedback, and I'm working on changes.

A few of your readers might have seen the Spanish Peaks in southern Colorado. Their original name was Breasts of the World (don't you love PC). Anyone who has seen them knows the original name was more apt. I spend ten pages with my protag comtemplating his lover's breasts and how countless Indians, Mexicans, and Spaniards must have felt like he does as he hurries home, and then in two pages he's attacked by Jicarilla Apaches, three men are killed, his partner is severely wounded, and the purpose of their journey is ruined.

Sooooo, getting the proper pacing is important to me, and I hope I'm closing in on it.

Alicia said...

Wes, yes, I see what you mean. Part of build up might be establishing the setting and the world. I wonder if you might think of also though the action or the inevitability of action starting there. Like, you know, a character getting insulted sort of impels action eventually-- he'll strike back or get his revenge or commit hari-kiri or something.

Anyway, maybe part of the buildup can be initiating the conflict that will cause the big action, so the buildup won't slow the pace to much as there's conflict.
Hmm.I'm confusing myself here. :)

Wes said...

Your comments make great sense.

Callie said...

I agree, a great analysis, Alicia.

In my historical romance, I have an event with a build-up of about one page, followed by an action scene of 3 paragraphs, then the aftermath of 4 pages, and I think the pacing works.

I can see that other events in the book need work, keeping in mind your formula.

I've tried to alternate, somewhat, scenes of action with slower scenes of introspection, but I think your system makes more sense and is more natural.

I'm in the middle of one of Trollope's novels right now, and after an amazingly slow build-up, I can hardly put it down. It's all interesting to think about. Thanks again for such helpful insight/analysis.

Jeanne said...

It's always interesting how different fields of work developing nearly identical structures to address seemingly unrelated problems. Your Pacing Triad is a case-in-point. People who work in behavior modification talk about the ABC's - the antecedent, the behavior itself, and the consequence of the behavior. It's essentially the same framework as your Pacing Triad - what came before, the event itself, and the outcome of it. Fascinating.