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.
He looked back and saw that the man was still pursuing him angrily, running in long strides but breathing heavily now. The boy hoped that the man might slip in the wet street, but he could see why the man was angry, since he and his friends had let the air out of the front tire of his brand new Buick LeSabre.
He rounded the corner and climbed over old man Wilburn’s picket fence, which had never been painted, or certainly hadn’t since the boy could remember.
Then he cut through a yard that was cluttered with tin cans and old lawnmower parts and barely had any grass on it, except for crab grass and a few dandelions. The man was still on his tail.
Finally he crossed the same wet street again and headed back in the direction from which he’d come, up a long hill where he began to run out of breath, which is when the man who had been chasing him finally managed to grab hold of the back of his shirt and bring him to a halt.
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.
The boy continued on in unbroken strides past the swing where he’d got his first kiss, then climbed over old man Wilburn’s unpainted fence and through a scruffy, cluttered yard. He sprinted back across the street, the man still hot on his tail, then up the big hill where he finally lost his breath and the angry man grabbed him by the back of the neck. The chase was over.
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.
Tiny suggests they play best of five for a grand. Ace has no choice but to say yes. He tells Tiny he has to make a phone call. Tiny tells him there is a pay phone on the wall, and eyes the money on the rail as Ace edges closer to the stack of bills. Ace says, “I’m hungry. I can’t play on an empty stomach.” He takes another step toward the bills.
“We got chili dogs up front,” Tiny says.
Feeling boxed in and unsure what to do, Ace says, “I’ll beat your butt, then I’ll get something to eat. But I get to break.”
“Go ahead. Suit yourself.”
Ace leans over the table, eyes the rack, but instead of breaking, he lets the cue stick fly at Tiny’s head and in one motion grabs the money off the rail and runs out the door.
Tiny gives chase, but Ace outruns him after four or five blocks and finally makes it to the bus station and catches the first thing leaving.
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.
“How’s about we play best of five for a thousand dollars?” Tiny says. Ace pauses and tries to think of a way to get the money. It is about midway between him and Tiny and there is a clear path to the open door, some twenty yards away.
“Why not?” Ace says confidently. “I’m game.” Then he takes a step toward the money. Tiny squints. His arms are so big that his tee shirt won’t roll up past his biceps—where sits a tattoo of the grinning imp with a trident, and under it the inscription: “USN. Never Again.” Tiny’s right ear is missing and Ace wonders who was mean enough to get close enough to Tiny to tear off his ear.
“Tell you what,” Ace says. “I need to make a phone call first.” He takes another step toward the cash sitting on the rail. Tiny takes a step toward the money just as Ace does. It is like they are doing a dance. “Pay phone right here on the wall. You need a quarter, I got change.”
Ace thinks fast. “I’m hungry. I can’t play on an empty stomach.” He eases toward the money on the rail.
“Got chili dogs right up front,” Tiny says, taking yet another step toward the cash.
It isn’t working out the way Ace planned it.. “Okay,” he grins, flashing all 32 teeth in front. “Won’t take me long to beat you anyway. I’ll polish you off and then go have a great big steak dinner. But I get to break the first game, okay?”
“Suit yourself, hotshot.”
Ace isn’t sure what he is going to do. He’s always had a plan, even if his plan has been to have no plan. He can hear himself breathing and hopes that Tiny can’t. How can he not? It’s sounds as loud as an iron lung. As he bends down to break, he pulls his cue stick back and forth, back and forth, listening to the loud, squeaking fan that is even louder than his breathing. He feels the sweat running down his neck under the knot in his collar, down toward the knot in his throat. In an instant, his idea comes to him; instead of breaking, he just lets the cue stick fly right at Tiny’s head.
Tiny ducks down to avoid the wooden missile that just misses the top of his noggin, and in one fast motion, Ace grabs the money off the rail and runs for his life toward the door. He hears big footsteps behind him that sound like a big bear—gaining on him.
But after five long blocks, the steps behind him grow faint.. and finally quiet. Ace cuts down an alley and keeps running until he finally can’t run one more step. He looks back and sees no sign of Tiny, so he bends over, holding his aching stomach, taking gulps of air.
At the Greyhound depot, the pinch-nose clerk takes off his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose. “Where to, mister?”
“First thing leaving,” Ace says. “Don’t care if it’s headed for Hong Kong. Just get me a seat and point me the hell out of this town.”
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 originally appeared in The Writer.