On Pacing and Paragraphing

Hey Folks,

A few days ago as I write this, I was reading one of my magic realism stories to my grandson. “The Storyteller” by Gervasio Arrancado.

I wrote the thing several years ago, and I knew nothing about pacing. Or paragraphing, for that matter.

As I read it aloud to him, I got bored. Massively bored. I know it’s a good story, yet I found myself wondering what reader could possibly enjoy wading through this thing.

My pacing sucked. My paragraphing sucked worse. The two go hand in hand.

I thought I knew paragraphing. I did know what I’d learned in every English, English Comp and English Lit class I’d ever taken.

But no, I didn’t know paragraphing. And I had no clue about pacing.

The bare bones of pacing is this:

Especially when action is occurring, hit the Return (Enter) key more often.

Shorter paragraphs (smaller blocks of text) are easier and quicker to read and understand. So are shorter sentences and sentence fragments.

And all of those move the action along.

Shorter sentences and sentence fragments also convey a sense of drama and emphasis. If they aren’t overused, that’s a powerful tool.

Especially if they’re used in their own paragraph.

In an action scene, those shorter paragraphs force the reader’s eyes to catapult across the white space from one paragraph to the next in an attempt to keep up.

So even as the action is racing, the reader is racing right along with it.

But maybe the character moves into a new setting, one where he’s going to be for awhile and where action is not immediate.

For example, maybe he’s lying in wait for a victim or a perpetrator. Maybe he’s sitting with a colleague in a coffee shop discussing an interesting turn of events. Maybe he’s visiting family in Hoboken (or wherever).

That goes to pacing too.

In those circumstances, while he’s “resting” from the action, you can slow the reader with more detailed description and longer paragraphs.

So what about description? How much description of the setting is necessary?

Ask your character. He’s the one who’s actually in the story.

What does the character notice if he’s panicked and busting through a door to escape a fire?

What does he see, hear, smell, taste, touch when he’s immediately involved in a fist fight or a shootout as he enters a room (saloon, library, grocery store, airport, etc.)?

Maybe it’s all a blur. Maybe one aspect or two of the setting stands out for him.

Now, what does he notice (again, see, hear, smell, taste, touch) when he is admitted to the home of a victim’s relatives to inform them he’s found the body of their son?

What does he notice in the hospital waiting room as he awaits word about his colleague?

What does he notice when he joins the rest of his extended family for Thanksgiving dinner?

I ask “what does the character notice” because if you want to ground the reader in the scene (and you do) ALL description of setting MUST come through the character’s senses of the setting as expressed in the character’s opinions of that setting.

Think about it. He probably won’t notice a lot about the setting (but maybe some) as he’s busting through a door to escape a fire or suddenly being involved in a firefight.

He might notice a great deal more about a setting in which he’s relaxed or in which he’s spending some time as he awaits the next action scene.

When we’re bored or otherwise unoccupied, we tend to pay more attention to sights, sounds, smells, etc.

So do characters. Describe the setting accordingly.

Pace the scene accordingly.

‘Til next time, happy writing.
Harvey

2 thoughts on “On Pacing and Paragraphing

  1. What a great article on pacing and paragraphing. I now know why one passage I wrote reads so much easier and better that another. It means I have (mostly by accident) written one with better paragraphing and pacing. It has also made me aware of the effect paragraphing has on pacing. I appreciate it, Harvey.

    • Thanks very much, Don. Folks, if you want to see some truly great storytelling, visit Amazon.com and pick up some of Don’s novels. Great stuff.

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