Pacing

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I know nothing about pacing. I’m not even convinced that it’s a thing. If I’m reading a story and get bored, I don’t say the pacing is slow. I say it’s boring. That tells you more ways and more specific ways to fix it. If a story has two breathless action scenes in a row in a way that doesn’t work for me I don’t say the pacing is too fast; I look for something that’s missing. Raiders of the Lost Ark is just as fast, but it isn’t too fast.

I’m not convinced there’s such a thing as “too slow” or “too fast”. There’s such a thing as too boring, and such a thing as too many questions per second. The opening action scenes shouldn’t continually increase the reader’s uncertainty and pull their attention in different directions, because the information they provide will be outweighed by the questions that information immediately leads to. The opening action scenes in Raiders give us more story-relevant information than questions. They don’t open troubling new mysteries on us in the beginning or middle of an action sequence.

If there’s a correct ratio between slow and fast, or a correct interval at which to alternate between them, I don’t know about it. But I’ll play along for now and assume “pacing” means something measurable and useful for a story.

I was scanning in “Scene and Structure” by Jack Bickham when some of the highlighted words in the chapter on pacing caught my eye. As often happens, though I read it only two months ago, I had no recollection of any of it. I think maybe some alternate-universe stupid me underlined it, because he underlined the wrong parts. It said some surprising things that I would have remembered, or at least highlighted, if I’d read them.

Jack Bickham divides stories up into what he calls scenes and sequels. A scene shows a conflict; a sequel tells what the main character thinks about it afterward. Bickham’s theory of pacing is that scenes are fast, and sequels and interior thoughts within a scene are slow. So his prescription for making a story’s pacing faster or slower is to change the ratio of scenes versus {sequels and interior thoughts}.

This has the counterintuitive results that you can make something faster by making it longer, fleshing the scenes out with more detail, and you can make it slower by making it shorter, converting weak scenes into summaries (which are then sequels).

I at first mapped “scenes” to “showing” and “sequels and interior thoughts” to “telling”. This is close, but not quite right. I’ve read a short story that was boring because it was all telling and a short story that was boring even though it was all showing. I thought that the problematic opening was all a single scene, all showing. Why was the “pacing too slow” if it was all scene / showing

Then I realized it wasn’t a scene at all by Bickham’s definition. A scene starts with a protagonist who wants something, and an obstacle. It had a protagonist with a problem, but the reader wouldn’t learn what it was until the second scene. So the opening “scene” was neither scene nor sequel, according to Bickham, but an unclassifiable thing that you should not write.

So I don’t have to believe in “too fast” or “too slow” to benefit from his advice on pacing. I can think of “pacing” as just meaning “the ratio of scenes to sequels”, and this turns out to be useful (and more precise) information.

Here’s my theory of pacing, which I just made up at this moment: Pacing means balancing the load across your reader’s processors. Your reader has, at the very least, a graphics processor (GPU) for visual and perceptual scenes, a CPU for logical thought, and an EPU (Emotion Processing Unit) that decides how they feel about all these things. Bad pacing means fully-loading one of these processors with multiple tasks while another of them sits idle. Your reader’s CPU can still be crunching on the consequences described in the previous sequel while their GPU is absorbing the details in the current scene. If you put too many parts in a row that task only one of these processors, you’re not challenging your readers.

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