Sunday, October 01, 2006

Pacing Yourself

When you're writing, do you start off at a sprint after diving into the water?

Or do you wade in slowly, letting the water reach your hips before leaning into a steady stroke?

Or, perhaps, you prefer to combine different speeds, sprinting until you’re out of breath, then slowing to a crawl before regaining your strength and sprinting again?

And when you’re reading... are you conscious of the pace of the story? Are you aware when the pace picks up... or slows down? And do you notice how the author sustains the pace?

Kathe Koja, the author of Straydog, Buddha Boy, Blue Mirror, Talk, and Going Under, is a master of pacing.

In Buddha Boy, she not only draws the reader into the story by raising the stakes for the main character in chapter after chapter, but she uses a kind of breathless narrator to increase the pace when necessary.

How does Koja construct such a fast-moving pace?

Take a look at this example from a particularly gripping passage in Buddha Boy, which I finished earlier this week feeling as if I'd just come sprinting to the finish line:
I heard about it before I saw it, from John Kindel in Algebra, It was in the bathroom, man: stuck like trash in a urinal, wet and filthy and spoiled and “If I find out who’s responsible,” said Snell--standing arms crossed at the front of the room, his voice shaking, he was so mad--“when I find out, that person is going to be in trouble. And if you,” his hard gaze like a laser, moving one by one around the Art room, “if any of you know who did this, know and don’t tell, then you’re just as guilty as that person. And just as cruel.”
Amazing, right? And how did Koja do it... keep the pace sustained so that we had to keep reading that passage? (If you didn’t feel that you had to keep reading, please explain what didn’t work for you, ok?)

Here’s what I think. First off, a minimum number of periods. Look at the passage: not one until the fifth line. And then again at the end. Two periods for, what, maybe 120 words? You keep reading so that you can finally take a breath... but, no, you cannot take a breath until that period appears.

Of course, it’s a sustained, controlled breath, not a breath that’s out of control, because Koja mixes in different perspectives... the narrator’s; John Kindel’s (with the italicized comment: It was in the bathroom, man); and Snell’s (the art teacher’s) voice, with his rhythmic vocal pattern emphasized with italics, and pauses between the quotes that offer descriptions of how he looks as he’s speaking.

And then, of course, there’s the dramatic content of the scene itself. Something has been ruined, desecrated, to create such a disturbance. Something valuable, as it turns out, a work of art by one of the story’s main characters, and we don’t even get the artist’s reaction here... just the reaction of his teacher and the other students in the class... as reported by Justin, the narrator, who happens to be the artist’s friend... or, rather, is struggling to decide if he wants to be his friend.

Here’s another example of pacing in Buddha Boy, when Justin is confronted by bullies who are upset that he’s hanging around with the artist, Jinsen, and warn him not to spread rumors about what they might have done:
In the hall, digging in my locker, a minute or two before the bell and “Hey,” from right behind me: McManus, hands in his pockets, head cocked to one side. “Hey, Justin.”
Lots of people, passing by; but no one saw, no one stopped. The rest of the crew--Magnur, Hooks, Winston--stood a few paces back, like dogs on a leash, a pack of dogs. Waiting.
McManus stepped closer, closing in on me. “You’re not spreading any rumors,” he said, “are you? Because I’ve been hearing some. About me. So if you have anything you want to say to me, you better say it right now.”
I could hear the blood in my ears, my heartbeat, rising; I stood silent in that sound, wondering what they were going to do, if they were going to do it now or wait for later. Finally, when I didn’t--wouldn’t--speak, McManus said, “I hear you’re hanging out with that freak Buddha Boy. I don’t think that’s such a good idea either.”
My own voice then, low and dry, as if it came from someone else: “You hear a lot of things, don’t you.”
And he reached out, fast, so fast past me to slam my locker door, slam it with all his force, if I hadn’t jumped it would have caught my fingers, crushed my fingers and “I hear everything,” he said, and walked away.
Again, Koja creates tension with dramatic content and pacing.

Notice how she gets the reader breathing fast, starting off the scene with the unconventional punctuation and phrasing... eliminating the subject, using action words--digging, cocked--and a kind of machine-gun-like blast of images: hall, locker, bell, “Hey,” hands, pockets, head, “Hey, Justin.” Fast-paced, using commas, and “and,” and colons to create an almost MTV effect with language.

Then, bringing in the drama: McManus “stepping closer”... “closing in on me.” You feel the tension building... and then the question, about spreading rumors, which raises the tension yet again (because we know the answer)... and, again, the unconventional beats of the sentence. “Because I’ve been hearing some. About me.” Getting the pace again to move quickly, almost at breakneck speed, because we want the narrator to get out of the situation unharmed, and we don’t yet know if he will.

Then, the narrator’s response... which takes us inside the voice speaking, lets us see the world from inside the narrator’s skin, and to feel his fear, too frightened to utter a word ... until he somehow finds the courage (as if it came from someone else) to reply to McManus.

And then the moment the scene’s been building toward, like a rubber band snapping, McManus whipping past the narrator to slam his locker door on his hand... and would have if Justin hadn’t pulled back in time, not because he was so quick to see the danger, but because he jumped back out of fear.

Again, in that last paragraph, Koja has used to great effect commas, short and crisp phrases, and words like “fast,” “slam,” “jump,” and “crush”... to move the reader forward at a heart-racing pace.

Anyway, Koja’s someone to study if you want to learn about pacing... and how to construct dramatic tension in your story.

Take a look at Buddha Boy, especially the last few chapters, which were almost blurry because I had to read them so fast.

By then, I knew Jinsen’s work of art had to play a role in the ending, but, even knowing that, it didn't matter because it was Jinsen's response that was at stake... whether he'd lose the poise and determination and resolve that he'd shown throughout the book.

For more on Kathe Koja and her work, visit her website at:

And for more on pacing in fiction, take a look at these resources:

“Techniques to establish Pacing” by Gerry Visco at Writer’s Store:

“Pacing and Narrative in Fiction” in Fanfiction:

“Pacing” by Dan Gleason on

“Pacing” by Vicki Hinze in Fiction Factor:

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