Writing Excuses 12.14: Controlling Pacing With Structure
Key Points: Pacing can be having more stuff happen, fulfilling promises more quickly. But it can also be structural, the form of the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Punctuation and paragraphing. Shape. Things. Comma, 1, period, 2, paragraph, 3. Pause. Lots of short sentences, faster breathing. No punctuation just running away — a different kind of excitement. But sometimes, a long sentence will read faster than a bunch of short ones. Length of sentence. Paragraphing. Be careful of overuse, but a one sentence paragraph can drive a point home. Pacing reflects the character’s experience. Watch the transitions between dialogue and narrative, which have their own pacing. Dialogue often embodies conflict. Beware overusing character beats — trust the dialogue to be the focus. Sometimes what you don’t say is more important than the dialogue. Let the readers fill in. Often we start a dialogue section with a quick zoom in, a little specific detail that tunes us in.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 14.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Controlling Pacing With Structure.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And… I’m structural.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m done.
[Brandon] So, now there are two examples of jokes by Howard. One, controlling pacing with structure, and the other using word choice to create a joke. We’re going to talk about how you can use the actual form of your sentences, your paragraphs, and your chapters to change how quickly your story is read. Pacing, normally, is… Involves having more stuff happen. You want to increase the pacing, well, you start fulfilling promises more quickly, or pieces of promises. But you can also pace someone through a chapter by the way you write that very chapter. Do you guys do this? How does it work for you?
[Mary] Yes. I do this all the time. So one of the things that I became aware of, being an audiobook narrator, is that my job is to take the written word and convert it back to the spoken word. Which makes me keenly aware of what punctuation and paragraphing does. The thing that I realized over the course of doing this is that writing developed to convey the spoken language. All of those pieces of punctuation represent places that we naturally pause in speech. So mechanically speaking, and this is like 101, as you’re learning to do it, you hit a comma, you count for one, you hit a period, you count for two, you hit a paragraph, you count for three. That kind of represents the way we pause naturally. So one of the things you can do to control a sense of pacing is literally how long your sentence structures are. If I have a se… If I have something that’s got a bunch of short, choppy sentences, that’s going to mimic a faster breathing pattern in some ways. If I have something where I have a character that’s speaking completely without punctuation at all, that’s going to mimic a totally different style of excitement. So you can do a lot just by the way you write the sentence.
[Brandon] I once had a professor talk about this, where they said some of these things are counterintuitive. You just brought one of them up. Sometimes, if done correctly, a very long sentence will be read more quickly than a bunch of short sentences. That, a lot of newer writers don’t realize. They’re like, “Short sentences. Stuff is happening.” But since we pause a little bit more at the end of a sentence, it slows things down sometimes.
[Mary] One of the things that can happen to you, if you have a paragraph that is made of only short sentences… Let me give you… An example… Of what it’s like… When you pause frequently.
[Brandon] You’re on Star Trek.
[Mary] I’m on Star Trek.
[Dan] The William Shatner paragraph.
[Brandon] But it does add some emphasis. So let’s talk first… We’ll do emphasis next, but let’s talk first about just varying this thing, the length. We’ll talk specifically about length. Now, Howard. You have almost always short bursts, right? This is your bread-and-butter.
[Howard] In the comic, I have to be very careful with long sentences for a couple of reasons. Reason number one, is that the comic strip fonts don’t have lowercase letters. The absence of that information is a huge penalty for readers. It makes things harder to read. A longer block of text with no lowercase, there is just… There’s less information for your eyes. So I shorten the sentences, I break things into different dialogue bubbles, if one person’s talking for two or three minutes, I will break those things up across dialogue bubbles to make it more readable. The second is that a large part of what makes sequential art a fun story telling mode is that the pictures change as the words change. If I put all of the words in one panel, it’s very, very static. So I have to spread it out and give… Even if it’s just one person talking, their facial expression changes from panel to panel. That’s what communicates the story.
[Mary] One of the things that’s happening there… Like… Because I have seen you use someone with a giant… One bubble with a giant block of text, which is, as much as anything, I think to give the reader the sense of this guy’s droning on and on.
[Brandon] I’ve also seen you do it where you write in such a way that the middle could be skipped…
[Brandon] Because you’re driving to a point that is a pithy sentence at the end. Which basically says, “And so, we need to kill them all.” Where it’s this long explanation of how cool they are… Boom. We need to go kill them. That’s the joke. So if you skip all of this, and you’re like blah, blah, blah, boring stuff… Joke, and driving force of the rest of the pacing.
[Howard] I’m so glad you noticed that.
[Dan] Now, we hope that’s what he was doing.
[Dan] Either that, or your writing is boring and droning.
[Howard] A lot of that, at this point, is reflex. It’s instinct. I can tell what’s going to work in support of the story.
[Mary] Well, it’s the way you tell that joke in real life. This is one of the things that paragraphing is useful for, is to set something off like that.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s move to paragraphing, then. How do we use paragraphing to change our style?
[Dan] I still…
[Brandon] Our pacing, I mean.
[Dan] I still use the old idea that I was taught in elementary school. That each paragraph is a separate idea. So I know, from my own style, that I love one sentence paragraphs. I have to force myself to not overuse them. I ask myself, “Is this sentence enough? Is this a single idea, all by itself? Or does it need to have more in there?” If I put in too many of them, it does make the chapter choppy. It slows it down, because we get an explanation and then a pithy thing. And then an explanation and a pithy thing. Too much of that…
[Brandon] It can ruin the emphasis of the pithy thing, but if used correctly, that one sentence can really drive a point home.
[Mary] Sometimes… I’m… Since I happen to have a copy here, I’m going to use Brandon’s Dreamer as an example. Because he’s got a paragraph that’s one word long. So let me pull out… What I’m going to do is, I’m going to read this without putting that paragraph break in, and with the paragraph, the way I would narrate it. So…
Phi stood just inside, arm leveled toward me, a handgun pointed to my head. I pulled to a stop, gaping for a moment, before he shot me point blank.
I thrashed about, losing all sense of location, purpose, even self as I was ejected from the dying body.
Okay. That’s with the paragraph break. This is stripping that out.
Phi stood just inside, arm leveled toward me…
I’m sorry. Let me say again. I’m going to actually strip out all the punctuation.
Phi stood just inside arm leveled toward me a handgun pointed at my head I pulled to a stop gaping for a moment before he shot me point blank disorientation I thrashed about losing all sense of location purpose even self as I was ejected from the dying body.
So you can see what the paragraph does. That setting that disorientation off… That is the only thing that the character is thinking about right in that moment. That’s one of the things… One of the ways you can control pacing, is by recognizing that, as much as anything, you’re also reflecting the character’s experience.
[Brandon] Right. I use the one sentence paragraphs, as we’ve been talking about this I realized, a couple of ways. One, which is that I’m going to refocus you towards something new. Something has completely changed the character’s perspective and we need to stop. And then start again. I also use it the same way I was saying that Howard does it, where it’s here’s a long paragraph. Here’s a one sentence or a two sentence paragraph that is a summation of that, made more pithy, that is saying, “And now we’re going to do this about it.” So they’re summaries or they’re changing directions.
[Howard] The emotion of a given paragraph for me is often countered by what comes next. It’s… Paragraph, next paragraph is often a form of scene-sequel. This delivers information and this delivers a reaction. For me, the reaction paragraph is often the short response. That pattern, as Dan pointed out, is something that I can’t overuse, because then it just becomes breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.
[Mary] We call it head bobbing in puppetry, which is when you overuse something and so it ceases to have any meaning at all.
[Brandon] There’s something in animation where if you animate every panel of everything that people are doing, it just looks really weird and eventually you can’t focus on the actions that are important.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is not actually a book.
[Mary] It’s not a book. Thanks to our Patreon listeners, we can actually talk about anything we are excited about during this spot. I’m excited about a podcast. So I’m going to talk about Tea & Jeopardy by Emma Newman and Peter Newman. Tea & Jeopardy, it’s… It is so much fun. This is an interview podcast, except that what Emma and Peter have done is that they’ve created this world in which Emma and her butler, Latimer, who is played by Peter, are having tea with a famous science-fiction person, and then something goes terribly, terribly wrong. So… I’ve been on this. When they invite you…
[Howard] Oh, nice.
[Mary] They’re like, “And you’re going to be threatened by a giant roc, the bird. How would you escape?” As… So as you’re listening to this, there will be moments where they will be having tea, and something will go wrong and… it’s so much fun. It breaks out… It uses some really interesting pacing to break up that standard interview.
[Brandon] I’ve been on it as well. It was a delight. It was a little intimidating at first, when they came and said, “Something’s going to go horribly wrong during our podcast. How would you deal with it?” I’m like, “What?”
[Howard] Sounds like my favorite thing ever.
[Brandon] “Oh, this is the thing.”
[Mary] It is so much fun.
[Howard] What’s the URL?
[Brandon] So they kind of start with a little skit, they then do some interview, skit in the middle, then end with another skit. It’s really cool.
[Howard] URL for this?
[Mary] That will be in the liner notes. Tea & Jeopardy. But if people who are listening just Google Tea & Jeopardy, it’s the first thing that comes up on Google.
[Brandon] Excellent. Well, let’s get back to controlling pacing with structure. So how do you transition between dialogue and narrative? Because I find that dialogue has different pacing from narrative. Right? And it changes the pacing you’re reading. So, when I say narrative, I mean the stuff that’s not dialogue. What does this do, how do you get in and out of them, and how is dialogue paced differently from narrative?
[Mary] Soul, can you actually clarify for me a little bit? You’re not talking about the body language that comes in between instances of…
[Mary] So you’re talking about…
[Brandon] Let me explain more deeply. Usually, when you’re writing, you will have chunk of text, chunk of text, chunk of text, either in third or first person, and then you will stop for a dialogue section. Where you transition into some people talking about something. Usually most writers… Not all, most professional writers dial down even the beats and the narrative during that and let the dialogue do the talking… Ha ha… And then they transition somehow back into narrative. Suddenly you’re back much more heavily in the character’s head and things like this.
[Mary] Golly. I have not actually thought about…
[Mary] How I do that.
[Dan] I… I… I do that when I’m writing in third person. When I am writing in first person, I am actively trying to combine the narrative with the dialogue more directly. Because it’s all coming through the lens of the speaker, anyway. So the main voice is constantly present. So the difference that you get, switching into third person, is that you do have different chunks. You have this is a scene and then I’m going to describe what happens in between the scene or whatever. We’re going to talk about what we’re going to do, and then we’re going to go do it. Whereas in first person, when I’m trying to keep them all together, that narrative is throughout. So when someone talks, I’ll add extra narrative in there. So it’s not just blocking of what they’re doing, but it’s also first-person narrative reaction to what they’re doing and why and things like that. That does change the pacing a lot, I have found. I think that’s one of the reasons that I keep going back to first-person, is because it keeps the pacing… I don’t want to say faster, because it’s…
[Dan] You could do fast with either one, but…
[Brandon] It’s engaging. The first person cheats in that it can make boring things really interesting…
[Dan] Yes, that’s probably what it is.
[Brandon] By letting character come out. I really like using pacing, dialogue to control pacing. Because it’s one of those incongruous things, that often you can handle it faster with fewer words with some lines of narrative, but readers click onto the dialogue, and if they see a bunch of dialogue coming when they turn the page, that dialogue will pull them through this narrative to get to the dialogue, because they want to read the dialogue because dialogue reads faster.
[Mary] Well, I think one of the things that’s going on there is that what we are tapping into is that there is usually some inherent conflict that is happening in a dialogue. Even if it’s just I want to get this information and you’re being slow to tell me. Or you’re being an idiot.
[Brandon] Thank you.
[Mary] You’re welcome.
[Howard] All conversation is conflict.
[Mary] Yeah. That’s how you use it.
[Mary] Clearly. Like an idiot. No. I mean, so… But what I mean is that this is often why we talk about putting conflict into dialogue. Or putting exposition into dialogue. Because it becomes a conflict. I think it’s one of the things that happens with first person, is that you get that character viewpoint automatically attached to it from the narration, and with dialogue you get it there too. I think… I mean, one of the things that happens with me when I’m using dialogue in pacing… I’m still thinking about how I transition in and out of it. But I do know that if I want a seem to feel like it’s very rapidfire, I cut almost all of my description. Because at that point, for me, the character is just focused on what is happening with the other character. When I want a sense of more leisurely conversation, that’s when I’m going to describe the things around them. Because the reader perception of it as well is that you have slowed down. That the… There’s a line and then things happen and then there’s another line. So it’s… It has a slower sense of pace.
[Brandon] One thing I noticed from my students, who are higher-level students, you have to apply to get in my class and all these things. So they’re really good writers. A lot of them, I feel, overuse character beats. They want you to always be imagining what every character is doing through dialogue. It leads to, through the dialogue portions, this really choppy pacing, where every person is modified with doing something. I would expect, just having known a lot of new writers, that a lot of our listeners are doing this. Even if their journeyman writers who are really getting good at writing… They’re not trusting the dialogue to be the focus of the dialogue scenes. It’s really going to slow your scenes down to have Brandon picked up a cup of water and sipped it blah blah blah blah blah Mary nodded her head, flipping through a book… Doing this. These are all good scenes, good ways to show the character emotion, but they’re just going to distract a whole bunch.
[Howard] One of the things that I’ve… Well, recently, and I’m trying to figure out how recent it would be… The strip that aired… Schlock Mercenary strip that aired on February 12th. Sunday strip in which I put in several panels of Captain Tagon walking. Just walking, because he was processing something that he had heard. The pacing for that visually… If you are a reader, you will often just scan past those panels and jump to the next piece of dialogue. Comics takes some practice to learn how to read. If you look at each of those pictures, you realize this is somebody who has gone for a five or 10 minute walk in order to think about the things he’s just heard. Then, he is talking to the memorial statue that was built of the him that died. I’ve gotten a lot of positive response for that, because while he says some things in that last line of dialogue, the things that he is thinking during his walk are not expressed, and the reader is invited to do some of that. For me, with pacing, if the character dialogue is telling me everything that the characters are feeling, it starts to feel very unnatural because the… We don’t speak our thoughts that way. So the speed change for me… The pacing change for me is when we drop to that point in the story where they’re not talking and they’re thinking. Yes, it’s character introspection, and the dialogue has dropped out, and often the things that you put in the description are just skating on the surface of the thoughts that the reader will have as they’re contemplating what’s happened. That was kind of long. Sorry.
[Dan] That was awesome.
[Brandon] I was really interested. As you were talking, I thought, didn’t he zoom out as he was… As you were doing the panels, or did you zoom in? So I just brought it up. Because you could have done that different ways with the panels, each one being quiet and getting closer and closer to his face. You did both. You zoomed out, showed him as a silhouette, and then zoomed slowly back in to his face. Which is a really cool way to handle it.
[Howard] Thank you.
[Dan] Well done, Howard.
[Mary] That is actually how I transition from…
[Mary] Finally. I’m like, “How do I do this?”
[Mary] It’s still been bothering me. But it is… That’s often what I will do when I’m transitioning from big narrative section into a dialogue section, is that I will essentially do a zoom in. That I get more… That I’m describing, particularly in short fiction, where I’m doing a big chunk of tell to move them from point A to point B, then I will… To signal that we’re about to start in, I will describe something very specific to that moment. Like “Brandon leaned forward.”
[Brandon] And pull us in and… Yeah.
[Brandon] We are out of time for this podcast. Turned out to be super interesting. I’m going to give you some homework. I want you to take a piece of your writing, and I want you to revise it without changing a word. I want you to change the punctuation in the paragraphing, only. I want you to try to go both ways. Make things shorter, make things longer. Play with it. See what it does to have a whole bunch of single sentence paragraphs. See what it does to mash it all together. See what happens if you split some of your sentences into fragments, and put the other fragments later on… Or not later on, but on the next paragraph. Things like that. See what it does. Play with this. Learn to master this tool. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.