Time is an odd concept. On the one hand, it is hard and set. It is measured by scientists, egg timers, stopwatches and (apparently) my dogs on Saturday and Sunday. They wake me up Saturday and Sunday to the exact minute we would usually get up Monday through Friday. On the other hand, it shortens and lengthens itself in odd ways. If I’m stuck in a boring meeting, an hour is interminable. If I’m visiting with friends, an hour passes in seconds.
The older I get, the weirder this flexible aspect of time gets. It is almost the end of August, but I could swear I’ve only blinked once since it was early July. The day before I leave work on vacation lasts a century, but when I realize next year is 2021, I have to shake myself to remind myself I’m not dreaming. Surely any year in the 2000s occurred just last week.
And can anyone explain why reading an 80-page Supreme Court opinion seems to take more time than reading a mystery book of 200 pages or more?
Writers struggle with time as well. Not just with the more mundane aspects of making sure your 32-year-old heroine doesn’t remember an event that occurred 40 years earlier or get confused about the day of the week, but also with the rhythm and tempo of our words and the flow of the story. Rhythm, tempo, meter, and flow are all part of what writers call “pacing.” Pacing is the speed at which the story is told, not the speed at which the story happens. And it is not bound to hard and fast rules of physical time. For example, the show 24 made an entire season last one 24-hour period. But the show’s events and the way they were presented certainly did not drag on the way a 24-hour video of my life on a quiet Sunday would. Pacing is one of the many writing techniques I am still struggling with. While I like thrillers, the constant action is wearing. I prefer quiet moments interspersed with faster action, but there is a fine line between a quiet moment and a dragging scene. While common sense tells you that a quiet moment or a pause in conversation might be the perfect moment to end a chapter, the better practice is to end chapters in the middle of a cliffhanger, to keep the reader wanting to keep reading to find out what happens next.
If you’re a writer, what sources have you used to refine your pacing skills? And if you’re a reader, how does pacing affect the way you enjoy (or don’t enjoy) a book?