By Daniel Gleason
“Take out all the parts that people don’t like to read,” the great Kurt Vonnegut advised us years ago when we were his students. “Get people turning the pages fast….but know where to slow down for the curves.
This great American novelist spoke those words when he was teaching at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop more than thirty years ago. My first reaction was that it was just another clever, smart-alecky remark by this humorist who was at the time working on his famous novel Slaughterhouse Five. Only later did I realize that he was talking about “pacing” and how essential it is to good writing, especially fiction. I noticed that a few years ago, Vonnegut took his own advice, telling readers in the introduction of his novel Timequake that he had cut the first version of his novel by two-thirds.
About four years after he had given us this wonderful advice, I was asked by Random House to cut a book manuscript of mine from more than 500 pages down to about 330 pages, for reasons of pricing. I was miffed at first, but did the work, and realized when I was finished that my cutting had produced a far better book than the longer version. It wasn’t simply that the book was shorter and there were fewer words; I had cut a lot of fat out of the narrative. I had managed to pace it better. But be aware that pacing may require adding copy in the right places—the “slowing down for the curves” part.
And what is pacing? If you think of a movie, see a camera that pans over the entire city of Los Angeles, for example—as an opening scene might. That camera is showing you a lot of detail in a short span of time—millions of people in one shot that lasts a few second. Then the camera pans in on a neighborhood, and finally on one house, then comes into the window for a tight shot on a man sitting at a breakfast table at 7 a.m. eating Cheerios and drinking straight whiskey. An interesting set-up, but that’s not my point.
My point is that a lot of details were provided in a short amount of “space” and then there was a close up, where the camera slowed things down to show one person in one room doing something a bit odd but interesting.
Think of that example in terms of the written word. If you want to speed up the action, you cover more ground with fewer words, limiting your descriptions to perhaps a few words. Let’s say, for example, that you have someone running, being pursued, and you want to show some of the scenery to keep the scene vivid while keeping the action fast-paced. Okay, read the passage below and then, on your own, before you read my second example, rewrite the passage to pace it better. Then look at my example.
Okay, now make sure you have done your own rewrite before you read my version below:As the boy ran across the street, he saw scenes he recognized. He noticed the candy store that he used to love to hang out and the swing where he had got his first kiss on the cheek from his first girlfriend, when he was nine years old on what had been a chilly summer evening when he was supposed to be home.
The first version requires 250 words, the second just over 100. Of course, if this were a novel, the slowly paced description would make for a book the size of the New York City telephone directory. But more importantly, the first version is so slowly paced that it gets dull. Remember, you have someone being chased and the action should be moving fast. You do not have the luxury of going into long descriptions about unnecessary things. You could have either mentioned early on what the boy did and what kind of car the man had, or saved it for later, when the action takes its natural lull.The boy raced across the street past his favorite candy store as the angry man pursued him in long strides in cadence with labored breathing, raising his hopes that he would wear the man out and get away.
Here is a scene from a short story I wrote several years ago. I picked this one because it does just the opposite from the example I gave you above. It needed more details, because it was an intense and important scene. I’ll show you the first version and then the rewrite, but first let me set the stage.
Two men are in a poolroom. One is a con man and the other is a hustler. The con man, a slender fellow name of “Ace,” has set up a game with a roughneck pool hustler known as “Tiny,” who is anything but Tiny. Ace knows he cannot beat Tiny, but he’s done his homework and knows that Tiny lets his suckers win the first four or five games to suck them into a big bet. Ace is playing the roll of a mark, dressed in a suit and tie and appearing to have plenty of money but is really very low on cash and is simply trying to get enough money to get out of town. He also knows that if Tiny realizes he’s been set up, he will probably give Ace a very bad beating. Ace’s plan is to slip out to make a phone call after he’s been paid for the first five games and then sprint for the bus station.
Here is the first version from my story “A Friendly Game of Pool”
This version didn’t have much tension. It needed details. I needed some good “close-ups” with my camera. So I came up with this version:Instead of paying off after each game, Tiny had explained that house rules required that the money stayed on the rail until one man either wins it all or loses it all. Ace was stunned.
Pacing requires that a writer knows where details need to be trimmed to speed up the reading, or where they might need to be added to say more about a particular scene that is important enough to require more details. You can put your foot on the accelerator and decide whether to speed up or let off it and slow down for the curves.But Tiny throws ace a curveball. The money is to stay on the rail after every game, until somebody wins it all or lose it all. Those were house rules.
And that is exactly what Kurt Vonnegut meant when he told us that the secret to good writing was to “take out all the parts people don’t need to read” and get the readers “turning the pages fast,” but also know where and when to slow down.
This article first appeared in The Writer magazine.