Pace, Tone and Tension – I

Posted on Posted in Writing Wednesday

This Writing Wednesday is focused on storytellers, however, some devoted reader might also find this interesting. Today, I wanted to talk about three really important parts of the narration process that most of the times we ignore. Writers need to have each of these in mind at every stage of their story. Readers normally don't notice, at least not consciously, but they do feel these elements. These elements are the pace, the tone, and the tension. Today in particular I want to talk about pace. I will board the other two in future posts, however, they still are closely related. You will notice soon enough.

So let's kick this off with Pace. What is a pace? In this context, it is definitely not the walking pace, but they are deeply related in concept. In writing, we refer to pace as the speed at which things are told. Now, I can totally see some of you thinking like this:

You silly! The pace will not depend on the reader. It's more about how action, in the "real-world context" of the story you are telling develops, whether it is fast-paced (filled with action and tension), or slow-paced (more quiet and relaxed). Let's set an example:

Jane and Austin were at their dining room, having breakfast, as usual. Some eggs, bread, and bacon, along with some orange juice. The radio was tuned in with the local news. Austin was reading the newspaper, completely unaware of what was happening around him, while Jane was actually trying to catch a bit of the weather forecast. It was a fresh, spring morning, and some birds were singing in the backyard.

"Are you working late today, Austin?" inquired Jane, without taking her eyes out of her cup of warm coffee.

"Perhaps" sighed Austin, barely interested in chatting.

Ok, ok, I know it was boring, but please bear with me: this is an example. Let's break this down. What is happening in this small scene with Jane and Austin? What is an important event here, that the reader needs to stop and pay attention to? The answer: nothing. Yep, it's nothing. Whether Austin is working late or not is irrelevant given the fact he wasn't even paying attention to Jane. Maybe he knew he was working until late, but he just said perhaps. And why do you say nothing here is important? And what does all this has to do with the pace? Simple! This small fragment is used to set a mood on the reader, not to transmit any information to them. Notice how much effort is put into details: what they are having for breakfast, what's on the radio, the soothing lullaby of the birds outside. Truth is: who cares?! You don't buy a book to read about a couple having breakfast not unless it is followed by some deep conflict with a mother-in-law. Well, maybe not like that, but you get the idea. A story needs to be engaging for the reader, but it cannot be engaging in every single paragraph, because it would become way too intense. That's why you need a calmed scene in between, to sooth things a little bit.

However, this is not completely useless: there might be particular settings or storylines in which this type of situations not only help to set the mood for the reader, but also for your characters. Perhaps, the indifferent way in which they both are talking hints on something happening in the background (maybe something your readers haven't seen or noticed yet) that might actually make a lot of sense with a bit more information. Maybe Jane didn't even give importance to the question because she doesn't care of the answer. Or she may know something about her husband's affairs, and is just curious on whether he will be nervous by the question, or if he will just give no importance to it. Whatever the cause may be, as for know, with the information on hand, what we just read is irrelevant.

Now, let's try to stop thinking of possibilities, and just focus on the difference between the previous example and the following one, pace-wise:

"I cannot believe you forgot our anniversary! Like, seriously?" Jane raged, with her ears turning redder and redder with every word. "You have become such an jerk, Austin Marshall King. And I am just making a fool of myself, thinking you still love me" she roared, and she ramparted out of the dining room, without Austin being able to say a single word.

This one is completely different, right? And it might be taking place two minutes after the previous one! So, what's different, pace-wise. A lot. Firstly, notice how there are a lot less details in the second fragment. "But you even mentioned how Jane ears turned red. That's details!!!". Hey, no need for the exclamation marks. Calm down... The fact that Jane's ears turn red is actually important: it shows her feelings, how angry she is at the fact Austin forgot that important date. The words 'raged', 'roared', and ramparted, also add up to that idea. There is very little detail given, and it all shows Jane's feelings. At any moment, the writer says she is angry, not directly: they used background details to tell you so! The fact she called Austin by his full name is also a sign. Nothing is mentioned about the newspaper, or the radio, or the birds singing Beyoncé's Single Ladies or whatever. Because it doesn't matter in this scene. The pace needs to propel fast, so such details that do not provide need to be omitted in order to maintain the tension (we'll go deeper on that when we talk about tension).

The pace changes throughout your story, all the time. A pace is slow when the writer gives a lot of details. This makes the reader feel the events are happening slower than usual. A pace is fast when you give very little details, which makes the reader feel things are happening one right after the other. This is what sets the mood for your reader, and also makes them feel engaged. Your readers would feel annoyed if you started writing how Michael Jones from the weather forecast predicted it'd be three degrees colder next Saturday right in between of Jane's yelling. Right? Who cares about the weather?! This woman might be having a mental breakdown, or the marriage might be in the brick of rupture for you to describe meaningless things. And if you have been paying attention, you probably noticed another important detail: pace can be used to affect your readers' reaction to your story: how they feel your story!

It is really important to understand the pace of your story, when to slow down a bit, and when to propel forward. You need to have both slow and fast pace in your story in order for it to be delivered consistently to your reader, but you need to know when and how to use it. Those questions, when and where, will be answered by your own story, what is going on at every moment, and how you want your readers to feel at each scene or sequence of actions. However, despite of the plot, you need to create a balance, somehow. Your story cannot be a continuous chill, relaxed conversation between character, but definitely not an endless rollercoaster. Way too much excitement can also make your readers feel your story as an stress rather than a escape.

I hope these tips have become useful for you, even if you are not a writer. Let me know in the comments if you have thought of pace, whether conscious or unconsciously, even as a reader. And stay tuned for when we talk about the tone and the tension!

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