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Exercise: A change of pace

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: Sun, 10 Jun 2001
Reposted on: Sun, 25 Aug 2002
Reposted on: Sun, 14 Dec 2003
Reposted on: Sun, 12 Dec 2004
Reposted on: Sun, 18 Dec 2005

This week's exercise derives from a discussion on the Writing list, between Mike Taylor and Sheri McGregor, about when descriptive text becomes excessive. I felt that the examples they gave provided a good example of pacing - alternating between rapid action and slower description for effect.

Mike made up this example of too much description getting in the way:

   As I moved quietly through the forest, I heard a twig snap
   behind me. I spun on one foot -- too late, as the dinosaur
   was upon me, the great claws of its hind feet tearing at my
   clothing. I tried to reach down for my gun, but as I was
   crushed to the ground by its weight, my arm was pinned beneath
   me. I felt its hot breath on my face as it poised to strike,
   and did the one thing I could: shoved my other arm down its
   throat as far as I could. As it struggled to breathe, I
   noticed that although its flanks were covered in
   non-overlapping tubercules about three to four centimeters in
   diameter and roughly hexagonal in shape, a variety of other
   integumentary structures were to be seen on its head: long,
   hairlike threads in drab grey-brown colours ran down the back
   of its neck, while keratinous structures not dissimilar to
   feathers formed a display crest, most likely for sexual
   display in the mating season. I estimated its femoral length
   as about two thirds that of the tibia, suggesting a cursorial
   lifestyle, although the femoral musculature was not proximally
   concentrated in the manner typical of an endurance runner, so
   a wait-and-pounce predation strategy was indicated. Then it
   bit my arm off.

This was Sheri's response:

   This is a fabulous example of description stopping the action. It
   just doesn't fit here. Now what if this [cave] man, on his first
   solitary hunt of manhood as some tribal ritual, somehow killed the
   darned thing. Plunged a stone into its eye and it backed off, and
   then he somehow killed it with his spear. As it lay on the ground, he
   might very well look at it and describe it, attached to some sort of
   emotions. Here's an example (which I feel I should apologize for
   since it was written on a whim and I obviously don't know the lingo of
   such a time period.... but what the heck):

   As it struggled to breathe, I saw its life wisping away, and I
   knew I was safe, knew I'd completed a kill that would make me a
   man. I shuffled closer, wanting to see the great beast with its
   flanks covered in tubercules, knit together like the dwan dwan
   bird's nest. Long, threads in drab grey-brown ran down the back
   of its now limp neck, the strength and ferocity ebbing away with
   its life. I bent close, felt its last heaving breath on my
   knees, and reached to touch the blue-green crest of keratinous
   feathers along its great chest. Up close, on a lifeless,
   unthreatening beast, the display appeared beautiful. With my
   flint knife, I set into trimming that away, stealing the beast's
   sign of virility as my own display of manhood to wear back to my
   tribe. Blood oozed from its ripped flesh, and squatting, I
   swiped my grimy hands on my loin cloth then set the feather
   crest aside. So close to this beast, this dragon whose life I'd
   stole, I compared my strength to the massive agility now gone
   from its sinewy legs five times the length of my own muscled
   thighs, but not so different, not so far from the structure of
   my own ropy, puberty-hewn thighs. I dropped to my knees, a wave
   of odd tension ripping through me, dragging at the beating life
   in my chest, trapping the breath in my lungs. Maybe this great
   beast had been on a manhood hunt itself, a journey to prove its
   worth. I jerked my gaze around the valley, searching for
   possible onlookers of its kind. There were none, and as I
   looked back at the beast, the sad and happy outcome settled down
   around me like fallen snow. The beast had failed. Here, beside
   a pile of rocks, in the shade of a knotted tree, the beast had
   failed. The sorry ache drifted away with a sense of victory,
   and I plunged my fist into its eye socket, ripped out the ball
   and rolled it between my lips. I had won.

   Obviously not the same "sort" of description, but description nonetheless,
   and more for a purpose in a story than just stopping it.

OK, the discussion was about description, but the two examples taken together provide excellent examples of good and bad pacing. In the first example, the story is brought to a halt at a moment of high action by description, destroying the flow. In the second example, the description comes after the action has taken place, providing the protagonist and the reader with a pause to catch their breath and reflect upon the significance of the event.

In fiction, as in life, there is a time to move quickly, and a time to slow down and reflect.

So, this week's exercise. In 300 to 500 words, write a scene containing fast-paced action and slow-paced description. As in the example above, the action can come first, with the description providing for a subsequent change of pace. Alternatively, the description could come first, setting the scene, creating suspense. Or any other combination of the two. Make sure the description doesn't get in the way of the action, or vice-versa - the different parts of the story should each follow the appropriate pace.

Remember to adapt your writing to the type of scene: sentence length and structure, use of omissions of modifiers, and so on all contribute to the effect. (Review the wrap-ups from previous iterations of this exercise for more information: http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/pwarchive/pw23.shtml )

When critiquing, look at how the pacing changes, and how effectively the pace is conveyed in the writing. Did the action get bogged down in too much verbiage? Did the slower scene really slow down, move at a different pace? Point out the effective examples along with the ones that can be improved!

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Wed, 20 Jun 2001

The purpose of the exercise this week was to look at pacing - combining scenes of fast-moving action with slower introspection or description.

Many of the submissions showed how effective this can be, whether it was to follow action with calm, or to use a period of calm to set up the action. Along the way, we saw some of the techniques of pacing being used, though these had not been discussed explicitely: for example, the use of short sentences, power verbs, and few modifiers for action, with longer sentences and more elaborate constructions for the slower sections.

Other submissions did not have enough of a change of pace, showing that this is not always a simple concept. Nevertheless, I think this exercise gave us all a chance to learn more about how and when to use pacing.

Many thanks to Mike and Sheri from the Writing list for inspiring this exercise and helping me put it together.

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: September 2, 2002

Another week of interesting submissions, with various types of change of pace. We saw a number of approaches: calm build-ups to explosive action, rests in the action, anti-climaxes allowing a wind-down or reflection. In all cases, when done properly, such changes in pacing helped maintain the reader's interest.

As was the case the first time we ran this exercise, there was mixed success. Some submissions had a clear change of pace, accompanied by a corresponding change in writing style (short active sentences for action, longer, more detailed, sentences for description.) In others, the change of pace was not as clear; in some cases, the submissions really had two different action scenes following each other, for example - the scenes may have had different pacing, but both were rapid.

As usual with a topic like this, many of the situations used dramatic situations - literally life and death. Others, however, managed a change of pace in less dramatic situations - remember that this technique applies to all forms a writing, not just action or adventure!

My congratulations to all who participated.


Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: December 20, 2003

The results of this exercise are always interesting.

Some of the submissions met the exercise goal. There was a clear change in the story pace; the events (and the writing) speeded up, or slowed down.

But pacing seems to be a more difficult concept than one might think. Many of the submissions had no change (or if there was, it was too subtle for me. The scene proceeded at the same pace (slow or fast), with no change in the events and the writing.

In other submissions, there were two parts to the scene - for example, a quiet scene might lead to a moment of high action (like an accident or conflict). However, the writing itself did not change - the sentence length and construction, the verbs used, remained constant, making the active scene seem like a continuation of the quieter prologue.

I hope that as a result of the exercise, people will think more about pacing. When is it suitable to speed up or slow down the pace? How is this communicated in the writing? Think of how a quiet scene might be described using longer sentences, more abstract constructions, more description or metaphors, while an action scene would work better with shorter sentences, active verbs, direct writing.

(The next time we run this exercise, I'll have to revise it to discuss pacing in more detail.)

To all who participated, good work - and remember, in the end it doesn't matter if the submission was perfect or flawed; instead, what matters is what we learned from it.


Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: December 20, 2003

Another interesting week, with several attempts at this exercise.

As before, changing the story pace seems to pose a real challenge to many of us. Many of the submissions had two parts, with different levels of activity, but too often the writing did not reflect that: both parts read the same, with similar cadences, sentence structures, and so on. So the effect of the change in the scenes was diffused or lost.

Perhaps one way to approach this exercise in future is to think in terms of tempo, of music. Think of a movie film score: quiet scenes have slow music, very melodic; action scenes have faster, more ragged, music. In writing, the choice of words and sentence structures provides this background music - so how do we make a passage faster paced, or slower? Pay attention when reading a book: how does the writing change as the pace of the story changes? (I recall reading Marcel Proust; as is usual with him, he'd been going on for pages and pages, using long complex sentences, to discuss the problems of a relationship his protagonist was in. This was appropriate, because the relationship was complex and going nowhere. Then there was a single paragraph of just a few words: But all this was about to change. No adjectives, no adverbs, no auxiliary clauses. After all those torrents of prose, this single sentence jolted me, put me in a different mind set. The pages before had lulled me - as the events were lulling the narrator; this sentence woke me up, as the narrator was waking up.)

On the other hand, some submissions managed the change of pace marvelously. And in those, everything changed: even the thoughts and preoccupations of the primary character. For example, one submission had the character preparing for a parachute jump; the opening was full of her thoughts and concerns. Then she jumped, and all that was wiped away; instead, she found herself living in the moment for itself, independent of what had brought her there.

This is the power of being attentive ot pacing, and to changes in pace: it can turn everything around, and increase interest and reader involvement in the story.


Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.