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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Pacing—the Rhythm of Words


By improving pacing, you can magnify your voice and enhance your writing. ♦
Those who understand basic music theory and writing can certainly point out the similarities between that which we hear and that which we read.

The pauses and key changes, the diminuendos and accelerandos, are made audible by the punctuation we use when we type. Someone who is decent at sight-reading may be able to hear the song before ever playing out what’s written on a paper, because they know the sound the chords make. Just as a reader may hear a voice inside their head reciting whatever their eyes are gazing at with the emotions conveyed within the story.

With this is mind, pacing is a key aspect of all writing. When I say pacing, I am including the rhythm of a piece, as well as the rate at which a story unfolds. Rhythm, stylistic as it may seem, is integral in determining both the speed at which a scene flows, and the feelings that follow. Rhythm is indicated in multiple ways: by syllables, punctuation, paragraph structure; even by the occasional, “he/she spoke as fast as he/she could.”

Whether you want to think about it or not, your writing has a rhythm to it. This article has it. This example of quipped speech has it: “‘Oh my God! You’re so dumb. Too dumb. I can’t believe it.’”

As do long, mellifluous sentences, which drain in a steady stream from the brain to the keyboard, to the laptop screen, emulating a beautiful choral piece such as those held in brilliantly designed Russian cathedrals.

Now keep in mind—let this worm wiggle into your ear—that poor pacing can make readers frustrated, annoyed, perhaps miserable. Though some readers may take pride in getting through the lengthy prose of Gothic romance and later works like Les Misérables, the typical reader would almost certainly prefer to read five 200 to 400 paged novels than one behemoth of a novel that requires multiple look-overs per page just to process the actual plot points that are present in it.

This is not to say that a lengthy book is worse than one that is shorter and easier to read—much can be gained from longer works with advanced use of the English lexicon. A short book can be a total waste of time and an atrocious experience to get through as well, and just as unreadable if the author fails to get an editor and goes straight to self-publishing on Amazon. Poor pacing, whether in sentences that are often interrupted by a period, too many commas, or are too long, is a detriment to what could be an enjoyable work of art.

So, like any song, it is important to include variation in the rhythm. Consider this:


I would like to sing. I do it all the time. Can’t you see me doing it for a living? I want to perform! That would be a dream come true. We all have dreams. And those dreams are special. Each and every one.


These are all short, end-stopped sentences. But not all of them require their own sentence, and could be attached to another line. For example, these three abrupt lines


We all have dreams. And those dreams are special. Each and every one.


This could easily become:


We all have dreams, and those dreams are special. Each and every one.


Keeping the last sentence short adds impact to what is being said. However, if these were still three short sentences, equally weighted, it would minimize the extra umph of the final one being shorter, making it carry less impact.

Now, let’s analyze the first few sentences.


I would like to sing. I do it all the time. Can’t you see me doing it for a living? I want to perform! That would be a dream come true…


This could be changed to:


I would like to sing—I do it all the time. Can’t you see me doing it for a living? I want to perform! That would be a dream come true.


By simply changing a period to an em dash, less space is added between the first and second sentence. In fact, it reads as rushed, as if the person speaking is excited about what they are saying. The original way this was written made them sound more robotic. All together now, the new paragraph reads as follows:


I would like to sing—I do it all the time. Can’t you see me doing it for a living? I want to perform! That would be a dream come true. We all have dreams, and those dreams are special. Each and every one.


But wait—something else can be done to make this paragraph flow better, which would likewise improve its pacing. Maybe making it two paragraphs instead will help?


I would like to sing—I do it all the time. Can’t you see me doing it for a living? I want to perform! That would be a dream come true.


We all have dreams, and those dreams are special. Each and every one.


Now consider the overall beat of the sentence fragments. Clap along, if you want:



versus




The pacing of this paragraph, as indicated by the number above the line which is where the emphasis falls on the sentence and its duration, is important in maintaining a proper rise and fall in how it reads. All writing can be equated to music and math. It might be 15 vs. 14.5, but the difference is noticeable.

Imagine reading a book that is only written in a frequent duration of 1, with short sentences that all sound alike in their rhythm. That gets old rather quickly.

For moments of greater emphasis, shorter sentences may be used to build more urgency in the narrative. There should be limited unnecessary info given in action-oriented scenes, whereas there can be greater details and longer sentences when setting a story and developing the plot, as well as during the falling action.

Focusing on craft and the writing itself is good to do during the editing process. If you are not familiar with varying the sentence patterns and paragraph structures as you are writing, it is something that can be worked on after writing the rough draft.

Some writers will have an easier time finding their own unique voice, as well as figuring out how to keep their voice without stubbornly sticking to one rhythm.

However, it is an area that can be greatly improved, for all writers.

So get to it.

  • About the Author
    Icarus O'Brien-Scheffer is an undergraduate student at Miami University. He is a writer of fantasy adventure novels, short horror stories, and poetry. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram. If you would like to seek him for beta reading services, he can be found on the online database violetanedkova.com.

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