There are a couple of ways we can look at pace:
- How fast events unfold, and
- The rhythm and flow of the words you write
William Shakespeare Was Great At Pacing
Let’s look at that wonderful piece of villainy, Richard III. This is the scene wherein our anti-hero, Dick, goes on a wooing rampage, and attempts to get the widow Anne into an agreeable state of mind. Remember, folks, that Dick of the crooked back and withered arm has recently murdered her husband.
ANNE. Blacke night ore-shade thy day, & death thy life.
RICHARD. Curse not thy selfe faire Creature,
Thou art both.
ANNE. I would I were, to be reueng’d on thee.
RICHARD. It is a quarrell most vnnaturall,
To be reueng’d on him that loueth thee.
ANNE. It is a quarrell iust and reasonable,
To be reueng’d on him that kill’d my Husband.
RICHARD. He that bereft the Lady of thy Husband,
Did it to helpe thee to a better Husband.
Let’s Break Down That Pace!
Granted, we are looking at the middle of this scene, but we’ll go ahead and look at what’s happening here. Richard has just chivalrously informed Anne that she is the sun of his life, and his motive of being. Anne comes straight back, turning his sun analogy to darkness, and wishing (not for the first time in this scene) for Richard to die.
Now, Here’s Where It Gets Interesting
Richard does what all clever anti-heroes do, and makes it personal. He turns Anne’s words against herself, and she falls right into his trap. “Don’t say mean things about yourself, babe! You’re the only thing that matters to me!” he exclaims. “Well, I wish I did matter to you!” she snaps back. “If I mattered to you, I’d make your life hell!”
She has here accepted the premise that liking Dickie would be great; she’s even said that she wants to matter to him. Mistake number one, widow Anne!
The Bunch-Backed Toad Sucks Her In
Now Richard gets all metaphysical, and moralizes on the faults of Anne’s character. “It’s so weird of you to try to hurt someone who loves you!” he exclaims. Anne again falls right into his trap, and mirrors his language. “It’s totally reasonable to want you dead, since you killed my husband!” she cries back.
What is the trap she’s falling into?
She’s allowing Richard to set the terms of the argument. She thinks that she’s winning, because she’s taking up every scrap he throws at her, and turning his words upside down and inside out. He says he loves her, and she comes back saying she hates him. Etc., etc. But the problem is that Richard, very quickly, begins to spin a web of intimacy, and Anne becomes so far extended in expressing hatred that she begins to form an emotional bond with the man.
Let us look, swiftly, at the point at which Richard wins over the delicate female. At this point, he has knelt upon the ground, torn open his shirt, and thrust his sword into her hands. Anne is holding the weapon against Richard’s naked chest, and he monologues at her so fast and so hard that she finally drops the sword and agrees to marry him. (This is a mild simplification, for brevity’s sake.)
What Do We Learn About Pacing?
The biggest takeaway from this scene is that one character, and preferably several of them, want something super badly. And their desire (in Richard’s case, to claim the crown) drives them forward like a heavy steam engine, clattering remorselessly over the tracks of character motivation.
Negative And Positive Desire
Richard wants to build something; he wants a kingdom all to himself. Anne begins the scene wanting to be left alone. She expends her spleen on Richard throughout his harassment of her, but she never began the scene with any positive desire. She expresses herself quite violently, and in the spirit of revenge, but she does not want to make or unmake her husband’s murderer; she wants to be left alone.
Generally, the character with the most positive desire drives the pace (and usually gains their desire).
If you have a character with a negative desire (I want to be left alone; I want to have a peaceful time; I want to be happy; I want things to change), you may be experiencing problems in pacing. A negative desire is a goal that is ephemeral and emotionally-based; it is a state of being that is longed for, rather than a concrete item or physical arrival (I want to be king, I want the one ring, I want a white horse, I want to live in a red house on top of a hill).
Bad Writing (Negative Driver, Poor Pace):
Maldorf watched the birds float over the sunlit bay. He had no desire to go home again. Lian would be there, and she would have brought her sewing with her. Absolutely absurd, he told himself, to sew by hand when there was a perfectly good seam-kiosk in the middle of downtown. Lian, he reflected with some angst, was preoccupied with her domestic skills, and paid no mind to the way technology had outpaced her old-fashioned tastes. I bet she still owns an iron, Maldorf reflected sourly, as he watched a large sea-bird dip into the ocean and rise again, water spinning brightly from its wings.
Good Writing (Positive Driver, Strong Pace):
Maldorf paced up and down the coast, his eyes dancing briefly over the birds that floated busily over the sunlit bay. He opened his palm, and read the numbers that scrolled over his skin in blue. Not time yet, he thought, and plopped down in the sand. He suppressed a sigh, his fingers twisting through the tangled hem of his pants. I should take them to the express seam-kiosk, he told himself, tugging fitfully at the loose threads. A beep flashed up on his neck, and he leapt to his feet, putting his hand to his ear.
“Is she gone?” he demanded.
And Now, Thing 2
I said at the beginning that there were two different ways to examine pace; first we looked at the drivers behind events, and saw that visceral, attainable goals lead to a stronger pace. The second way to think of pace is to examine the actual words used. The rhythm and flow of individual words placed end to end have an enormous impact on pace. Let us look at Richard’s speech from the very peak of the scene, when he is on the cusp of convincing Anne to marry him, or at any rate, to think of thinking about marrying him (which, to him, is the same thing as agreeing to marry him).
RICHARD. That was in thy rage:
Speake it againe, and euen with the word,
This hand, which for thy loue, did kill thy Loue,
Shall for thy loue, kill a farre truer Loue,
To both their deaths shalt thou be accessary.
This speech is masterful. The repetition of the word “love,” as well as the labyrinthine route of Dick’s logic leads Anne through a coherent path of guilt, shame, and obligation, and lands her directly at his proposal of marriage. Richard wins.
You can write this way, too. Allow your character to desire a concrete end, give them honesty and direct language, and immerse yourself in the nitty-gritty unfolding of their thought-patterns. Your pacing will improve as a result.