As he hears the soft but unmistakeable clutter of metal behind him, he spins around on his heels with the speed of a leopard in full attack. What he sees, takes his breath away and makes him fear his days are numbered. It is Xena, the mythical warrior princess, coming at him with eyes ablazing and swaying some sort of circular weapon he has never seen before, leaving him in the dark on how he is to defend himself against it.
There are quite a few reasons why this piece of text stinks. But one of them is the huge clash between the pace of the text and the supposed speed of the action described.
The pace of their writing is one of the things a lot of aspiring writers overlook. Compare the above piece of drivel with this piece of slightly swifter drivel:
A soft clutter of metal behind him catches his ear. He spins around. Xena, the mythical warrior princess, is coming at him, her eyes ablazing. She is swaying a strange circular weapon he has never seen before. He has no idea how to defend himself against it.
It still sucks, I agree. But at least you were done reading faster, right? The second piece of text lugs along less ballast, but the pace is also (a bit) more lean and mean. That pace has a big influence on the reading experience of a literary text. So you need to choose very carefully where you pick it up, and where you slow it down.
Here are a few reasons why you might decide to go faster or slower:
– You’re describing fast action.
– What happens is of less importance to your story (but you cannot leave it out completely).
– You are describing a sensitive, ‘slow’ moment, like a beautiful romantic scene.
– What you want to tell, is really important. The reader should not be able to let it get by him unnoticed.
You might also want to switch between the fast and the slow mode now and then, in order to avoid boring your readers.
Now, to the how-to-part, how can you alter the pace of your writing? You can do that on several levels.
The first level is that of the content. You can speed up your narrative, simply by choosing to leave part of it out. For example: instead of describing how your protagonist comes home, turning up the driveway, getting out of the car, taking the home key from under the doormat… You could simply start the next scene in his living room/bedroom/wherever something is actually going to happen. Or you could sum it up in one sentence.
On the other hand, you can slow the pace down, by taking your time to describe a lot of (preferably striking) details. If you can give the reader the feeling something is up, you can also use this slow pace to build up the tension.
A second level which determines the pace, is the length of your sentences. Short, spunky sentences are quick. Long, complicated sentences, with a lot of subordinate clauses and lofty adjectives and adverbs, on the other hand, tend to take down the pace a notch or two.
A third level can be found in the sounds you use. Short vowels and strong consonants sound more urgent than long vowels and soft consonants. Compare the sounds of the words “quick” and “slow”. They’re actually well chosen, aren’t they? Another one: “Velocity” versus “boredom”, “huge” versus “short”. Although this technique is more common in poetry, it doesn’t hurt to pay attention to it in prose too.