Writing advice

Creating Suspense: Pace

There are many techniques the savvy writer can employ to help create and heighten suspense in his/her work. Among these is the creative and judicious use of pace. Pace is the controlled speed with which your story progresses.

Think of the soundtrack to your favorite movie (and you really should pay attention to this, if you don’t). The music is not the same during the romantic love scene as during the car chase, or as the hero enters the house where the monster is lying in wait. In the same way, and for the same reasons, the pace of our fiction should not be the same throughout the story. It also shouldn’t vary randomly, but in direct relation to the effect we’re trying to achieve.

So how do you, the author, control pace? There are two primary means of doing this: through the balance of dialogue and exposition, and through sentence length and structure.

Dialogue and exposition are perhaps the easiest to control. Simply put, dialogue moves faster than exposition; exposition slowly things down. Inserting an exchange of dialogue will speed up a long passage of description. Inserting a passage of description or explanation will slow down a long, dialogue-heavy scene.

The very best authors use the balance of exposition and dialogue to carefully control the pace of their work. Consider Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpiece of short fiction: “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Read it and you will notice the crescendo effect of approaching doom. It almost feels like riding a runaway train, starting slowly, then picking up speed until we crash into the conclusion.

How does he do this?

Well, he was a master. But take the story apart and you will notice in the first half of the work it is almost all exposition, with little dialogue. This, naturally, moves at a more sedate pace. The second half of the story, on the other hand, is mostly dialogue, which moves quicker. Together, the effect is one of starting slowly and ending fast.

He, of course, uses other techniques in addition to pace, but that discussion is for another day.

Another way of controlling pace is through the thoughtful use of sentence length and complexity. Longer, more complex sentences move the narrative more slowly than short, declarative ones. (For one thing, they take longer to read.) It mimics the way most of us talk and think. When we’re relaxed and contemplative, we tend to work with more complex, nuanced language. In excitement, when our adrenalin is flowing, we think and speak in short, powerful phrases.

To demonstrate the effect of varying sentence complexity, consider the opening sentences of these two short stories:

“The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber. Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage man had pitched out of the door of the baggage car. There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country.”
Ernest Hemingway
“Big Two-Hearted River”

And then:

“The store in which the Justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish—this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believes he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood.”
William Faulkner
“Barn Burning”

Doesn’t the difference in sentence complexity alone seem to bring Faulkner’s narrative to a screeching halt? Especially when compared to Hemingway’s lean prose. This is an extreme example, but I think it makes the point. Longer, complex sentences slow the narrative down; shorter, simpler ones speed things up.

Putting it all together is a little more tricky because there is no set formula for either sentence structure or the ratio of exposition to dialogue. Every story is unique and every author writing is unique. This is where writing becomes a form of art. It is only through study and experience that the author will be able to decide the best way to use these techniques. And, of course, practice.

So, the next time you read one of your favorite authors, pay attention to how they use the mix of sentence structure, exposition, and dialogue to control the pace. And how the pace of the story, it’s peaks and valleys, work to keep you reading. Then try the same techniques in your own work.

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