Some Attempts at (Re)Definition: Pacing

I have been thinking for a while about how our attempts to define craft terms influence our students’ (and our own) aesthetics, and I have wanted to try other definitions. The first post is here.

modulation of breath

When I first started writing, pacing seemed like math. Chapters were supposed to be fifteen to twenty pages. Workshop stories were supposed to be ten to twenty pages. I had heard that a famous professor at Iowa taught a course in which all stories had to be exactly fifteen pages, which he said was the perfect length for publication. I read, in a craft book by a literary writer who turned to genre, that all chapters should be under ten pages. A professor of mine in my PhD mentioned that one way to keep up the pace of a novel is to cut the chapters in the middle of an arc rather than at the end of one—you turn to the next chapter because you’re still in the thick of things. He said this about a book he hadn’t liked but had read at a sharp pace, unable to put it down.

When I planned my first novel, which became my second novel, I planned twenty chapters, each of about fifteen pages, each from a different perspective, with an intermission in the exact center, after chapter ten. There was other math too, but (as with all math) I’ve forgotten it. Then I tore the thing apart and turned two characters into one protagonist, moved the entire story back in time by three years, and wrote in a massive flood. It became even harder to make the chapters similar lengths. I knew the flood would take up a lot of space, for example, and I would have to break it into multiple chapters arbitrarily or have mostly chapters of one length and then an outlier.

I had been writing for workshop mostly stories between ten and twenty pages (more like 12 and 18 pages) long. Submitting fewer pages than that didn’t seem to give my peers enough to talk about, and they would digress or resort to asking for more of so and so or such and such (the easiest and laziest comment to give in a workshop is to say, tell me more about X). Submitting a longer story seemed to bother everyone. So I was used to a certain kind of pacing, where a story had to start, rise, and come to a head in between 3000 and 5000 words.

But subjecting a chapter to this pacing bored me. I could feel myself fighting myself. I kept trying to find the right length for a chapter, or even for a scene, to be; how long to go between switching perspectives; how long I could spend in the past; etc.

Merriam-Webster defines modulate as

  1. to tune to a key or pitch

  2. to adjust to or keep in proper measure or proportion TEMPER

  3. to vary the amplitude, frequency, or phase of (a carrier wave or a light wave) for the transmission of information (as by radio)

It wasn’t until I let myself throw out the idea of chapters that I was able to find a pace that fit. What fit was different, of course, for everything that happened. A common early mistake is for everything to take the same breath: a fight scene happens in three pages, as does a conversation about the weather, as does the revelation of the protagonist’s deepest secret. Sometimes these things happen in the same tone and pitch. The definition above includes both the idea “tuning,” or proportion, and the idea of variance.

We come back to difference again. It’s difference that allows for tune—to play everything in a single note is not to play in tune. To be in proportion means to be in proportion to difference.

This means not only between chapters and scenes and paragraphs and sentences, but also characters, and perspectives, and so on. And also for different authors—we each have our own breath. When I teach now, I remind my students that they will each find their own breath, their own key. Some might easily write a long scene, some might struggle to write a scene more than three pages ever. Then there are the variations within that breath, and variations between breaths, and variations adding those breaths up.

This is how I ended up with seven chapters, one five pages long and one fifty-four pages long, and within those chapters, sections ranging from one paragraph to maybe fifteen pages long. The flood takes a long time. Large moments must be given their due. But within the drama are also moments of quiet, moments when you can draw a breath in, even if it is only to have more breath to hold.

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