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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Pace and Shortening Sentences

Today I am pleased to publish my seventh guest blog post. You too can have a post published on my blog. Just read the guidelines HERE. In the meantime, enjoy...

Pace and Shortening Sentences
By: Anthony M. Briggs, Jr.

I've been meaning to finish a follow up to that last post about the classics, but it's not ready yet. In the meantime, this will be the start of a new series of posts about ideas on writing style and technique.

I listen to various podcasts and read books on writing and frequently hear a piece of advice that I take a slightly different view on. It relates to the pace of a story, and the advice is this: “if you want to speed up the pace of your story, use shorter sentences; if you want to slow down the pace of your story, use longer sentences.”

I have heard this from many different sources, and the issue I take with it is almost simply semantic. But I believe a distinction can be made between the pace of a story and the tempo of a scene, and that this popular piece of advice actually applies to the tempo, not the pace.

First of all, here’s my underlying definition of pace: the speed the reader is traveling through the overarching story. To me pace deals with how quickly things are happening on the story level. The foundation, or the road over which the reader is traveling, is the clarity of what is happening on the current page and how it relates to the story. And here is where I think pace most clearly differs from tempo.

In any scene the reader has to know why what he or she is reading is important. There has to be an unanswered question being asked or addressed, a conflict being fanned or tension being built. If at any point none of those things are happening, the reader may ask, "Why am I reading this?" If that state lasts longer than one or two sentences, the reader will feel the pace has slowed. The reader will not feel progression through the story, but instead a sort of aimless meander.

During such a lull, shortening sentences will not help. That addresses tempo, which, as explained below, is generally applicable to a scene, not an entire story.

I would define tempo as the feeling of urgency in a scene. A measure of the rate of action in a scene. How fast or slow is an event happening right now? Writing style can affect this, via selection of short sentences, long sentences and run-on sentences.

When I write stories that don't follow a set pattern or plan, I find pace is often disrupted in between scene changes. I know why I want this scene here, I know important events will happen in it, nevertheless, as I read it in a full pass I can feel the disruption. The reader would not know why this is important. Instead of wondering what is about to happen, the reader could wonder, “Why am I reading this?”

To address this, I view the problem here as two-fold: a matter of clear transition between focal points and of foreshadowing. In the story world, when the reader asks “Why am I reading this?”, the answer of, "I will tell you later" is a legitimate answer, as long as not given two times in a row. So either answer the questions raised by the last scene or make it clear that the question will be answered later and there you go – the reader is ready to move on from that scene and is awaiting the arise of the next question. Before asking that question, I sprinkle in some foreshadowing as to why this question is important. Try to show what’s at stake. With a clear transition and foreshadowing of the question, the reader will embrace the new question and be absorbed in the scene, thus maintaining the pace.

If the reader is told twice, “I will tell you later,” the pace is dragging. The repetition of raising questions and answering them creates the illusion of pace. The length of time – or more precisely – the amount of words between reps determines the pace.

So in conclusion, I make the argument here that changing sentence length will not help a writer with a pace problem. Figuring out what questions have been asked but unanswered and what new questions need to be put forth can. Resolve the outstanding questions, raise the stakes on the next question. Shorten the amount of words between those questions and answers and the pace will pick up.

Anthony M. Briggs, Jr. is an author, attorney and musician who once approached a wild hippo to try to “get in the picture.” The encounter ended with a lot of running. Author of Nick the Lolt ( and Through Worlds and Hearts.

Twitter: @abriggsjr

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