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Ideal Pace

Updated: Mar 5

what is ideal pace in fiction?

What is it with people at self-checkout registers in grocery stores?

While I stand in line holding my one or two items, I must watch people in front of me at the self-checkout machines empty entire grocery carts as if under the influence of a powerful sedative, struggling to lift each item one at a time from their cart to the scanner, eventually getting the machine to recognize it, and then expending great effort placing the scanned item in one of their carryout bags before managing to stand upright again and turn around to reach for their next item, pointing a finger at each one as if trying to decide which to pick.

I try not to judge because I want to be a nice person. But then I see that all the customers at self-checkout registers behave similarly.

This also happens at my local Post Office. Fifteen people wait in line to be helped by a postal worker while three other registers sit unattended behind the check-in counter. The customer at the counter tells the worker about her pets and grandchildren. The two of them act like long-lost friends who have finally found each other again. The line of people must become acquainted with the customer's life as the postal worker gets around to processing the customer’s packages.

Even more surprising is the next customer then behaves in the same manner. This astonishes me because when I finally reach the front of the line, I do my business in about 7.5 seconds before getting out of everyone else’s way.

What happened to the society-wide call for increased care and awareness? Why do people's claimed pathological level of sensitivity turn off the moment they get their way?

This question causes me concern because aren’t caring and awareness intertwined?

We’ve heard that time flies when you’re having fun. Do people forget what they went through the moment they get what they want?

What does all this have to do with writing? Everything. Authors must be intimately aware of the thoughts, feelings, and wishes of many thousands of people they have never met.

The metronome

I was in a vocal quartet where we rehearsed weekly for months before each performance because we wanted to sound good. At one point, I noticed a metronome on our accompanist's piano. I learned from thirty years of playing the trombone that musicians often have difficulty keeping a steady, consistent pace during performances, so I suggested we practice using the metronome to ensure we weren't speeding up or slowing down during our singing.

This was a mistake. The metronome didn’t do a good job keeping time, but sped up or slowed down randomly throughout our songs. This frustrated us so much that we stopped using the evil device.

But the metronome wasn’t wrong. We had taught ourselves to sing our songs without a good awareness of time.

Or, was it that we had a sense that the most important parts of the song deserved more time while the lesser important parts deserved less time? We’ll leave the answer to that question to the critics.

Magicians, musicians, comedians, jugglers, leaders, and orators

Effective entertainers and public speakers must be in the minds of their audiences.

People sometimes get nervous in front of others because they fear that what they have to offer may not meet the audience's needs and understanding, so they speed up. This is a good sign because it means they care about their audiences

It's nice to be so caring about other people. But it doesn't make for good entertainment.

To keep a steady pace, you must keep an unsteady pace

Pace is a critical part of fiction. A steady pace helps keep their readers' attention. The idea is to have them start reading right after dinner and then keep them going until after two in the morning because they lose track of time.

Many authors have a sense that the most important parts of a story deserve the most space on the page, while the lesser important bits should be given fewer words or omitted entirely. Such a notion is correct because during the more important passages, the readers' sense of time speeds up (“time flies”). Therefore, more words must be devoted to such scenes, or the experience will feel rushed.

Likewise, the less important passages feel drawn out, so their pace on the page should be sped up.

If the timing is right, your story’s varied pace will match your readers’ sense of time, and the reader will feel an equal pace throughout your story. When this happens, the reader will finish your story quickly and then long for the next one.

This is accomplished through practice and experimentation. Timing is one reason why the first page of any story is often the most difficult to write. Spend too much time setting up your story, and your readers will get bored. Spend too little time on it, and your story will feel trivial.

I’m afraid the difference between too many and too few words is very small—perhaps down to one word. I read once that,

“A good short story with one extra word

is a bad short story.”

I think of this whenever I write anything, even when composing business emails at work.

Here’s another thought. For every sentence in your story, ask yourself:

“Is this sentence worth the reader’s time?”

These thoughts have caused me to delete more sentences than any other, including those from this very post.

At the self-check-out registers

Don’t be like the people at the front of the line. Cultivate an acute awareness of people around you. Try to perceive how they feel, what they want, and what they understand.

Be like the person who “gets people,” who is unassuming and listens. Having a good sense of pace will improve every other part of your life:

  • When you’re making a point in an office meeting.

  • When you’re trying to resolve a conflict between family members.

  • When trying to keep anyone’s attention, including the girl you’re dating.

Moby Dick

Below is an example of the expert use of pace in literary fiction by Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. The paragraph takes place on the morning of the second day of a three-day chase of the White Whale. This paragraph occurs on page 454 of the 469-page novel. Readers have been waiting a very long time for this moment, so Melville extends the moment to allow them to bask in the scene until they're satisfied.

Instead of writing,

“On the second morning, the men prepared again to catch the White Whale.”

Melville writes,

“They were one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of all contrasting things—oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp—yet all these ran into each other in the one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew, this man’s valor, that man’s fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to.”

Moby Dick, Herman Melville

A stitch in time

Here is one of the oft-most cited proverbial phrases of its time, first published by Thomas Fuller in 1732 (making it over 290 years old):

“A stitch in time may save nine.”

Mending a hole in a fabric right away may prevent more mending work later on. Notice the word “may.” The entitlement craze of guaranteed immediate gratification didn't exist back then. The phrase wasn’t changed to “A stitch in time saves nine” until 1797 by Francis Baily, making Mr. Baily the grandfather of the Me Now generation.

Making adjustments in timing along the way in all aspects of your life, including in your writing, may pay huge dividends later on. Unless you're already part of the Me Now generation, in which case it's too late for you because you already know everything.

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