Just for a refreshing change of pace (that's foreshadowing) let's not discuss politics or cancer this week. Because they've become too similar.
Instead, let's talk about writing. One of the things a writer of any fiction (or anything else, to be honest) has to concern him/herself with is pacing. And although it's not often discussed, that's one of the most crucial elements of making your story work.
Pacing is not the same as structure. It's not about putting the right plot moment in the right place to get your reader to the information you want them to have at this moment in the story. Structure is about the order of things. Pacing is about the tempo of the piece.
And yes, we're going to be thinking about a story like music now. Because a story, particularly in its dialogue, has rhythm and beats and highs and lows and all the things that music has except music (in most cases). Tempo and rhythm are incredibly important and hard to teach. They're things that get better the more you practice.
Sometimes you want the story to speed along at a breakneck pace. You want incident after incident to keep the reader's attention, perhaps to baffle the reader (particularly in a mystery story) but always to keep those pages turning. Pace in these sections is a device to keep the story coming at the reader in an exciting, compelling manner. Every element of your story at this moment--plot, character, dialogue, you name it--has to maintain that rhythm.
For example, here's a quick excerpt of dialogue from
Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, which most people will agree is among the best the genre has produced. (Spoiler alert: This is near the end of the story, and if you're one of the 15 people on the planet who has not read the book or seen the movie, it won't exactly give the store away but it might do some damage to Aisle 6):
Sam Spade says: I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.
You can't read that passage slowly. It can't be imagined as a man trying hard to form his thoughts properly and taking his time to calculate the best way to get his point across. Now consider if Hammett had decided to write it only slightly differently:
I’m a detective. Expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit. Then you ask the dog to let it go. It can be done, all right. Sometimes it is done. But it’s not the natural thing.
That's read more slowly. It's not a man having a catharsis of some kind and explaining his code of behavior. It's a more gentle, less effective argument that doesn't betray as much emotion, and the only changes are a couple of punctuation edits (creating pauses each time) and three added words that don't really change the meaning of the sentence. It's about pacing. Spade has to be talking fast because 1. The characters are under time pressure and 2. He's having his most emotional moment of the story. Communicating his feelings to the audience isn't just a question of writing the proper words; it's about making sure they come with the right tempo.
In other areas of your story you will want the pace to slow down a bit. It's not about stopping anything from happening. You don't want to suspend the plot to describe the drapes in the room or to suddenly present a detailed history of 18th Century France if your story isn't about that. Sometimes the reader just needs a breather, particularly if you've been busting it at 75 MPH for a while. Your characters need to refresh their minds and occasionally their bodies. Your reader needs to digest all that's happened.
But it's not an invitation to suspend plot development. Sometimes a slower pace is necessary to ratchet up some suspense, which is always a nice thing to have in your story. Consider what
Alfred Hitchcock, who knew a thing or two about the subject, had to say about suspense:
Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.
Clearly, Big Al had a preference. But even he, in Psycho, provided an enormous surprise to set up the suspense he was to create later on. The key is to know when to pace your story more slowly to elicit the emotion you want, and when to let it go at full speed in order to give your reader an exhilarating experience.
Pacing is an essential element and it can't be ignored. Even for a pantser like me who ad libs his way through 80,000-word stories, the pace of the story always has to be a consideration. Yes, it can be found intuitively. But it's never not important.
Consider your pace.
The baseball season starts in 13 days.