Pacing Your Book So Time Will Fly
Does time really fly when you’re having fun? Well, it sure does when you’re reading a book with perfect pacing. When we feel like time is flying by (or dragging along), the seconds aren’t any longer or shorter than they ever are. Understanding why we perceive a change of pace depending on our circumstances can help writers manipulate the story to mimic these pacing tricks.
Anticipation, or goal motivation, tends to have an effect like acceleration. Philip Gable and Bryan Poole of the University of Alabama, psychological scientists, conducted tests that indicated subjects experienced time moving “faster” when they were shown pictures of things they wanted vs. neutral pictures. (Psychological Science.org)
The book Good Omens is a prime example of this principle in action on the page. Within the first chapters, it’s established that every side of the story, every group of characters, are looking forward to Armageddon. Some want it to happen, others don’t, but it will come one way or the other and it has to be resolved then in one motion. This isn’t a passive goal, it’s an active one that yanks the reader through the various perspectives and events like a solidly hooked fish gets dragged upstream to the fisherman.
Stories drag for psychological reasons too. A classic theory on time and aging, presented by William James back in 1890, suggests time seems to be slower in youth and faster in the later years because there are fewer memorable events – fewer “firsts” in life. Subsequent studies have disproved the assumption that all people experience time faster in old age, but it has been reinforced that humans do tend to measure time by memorable events. (PsychologyToday.com)
This psychological attachment to “firsts” can be used to kick up and maintain a story’s pace. A prominent and consistent feature of adventure stories, as discussed in Writing Excuses’ episode on elemental adventure, is setting and staging. At each turn, characters are placed in new and exciting locations in which to play out their confrontations, escapes, and feats of strength. This effectively varies the material shown to the readers. They’re fed a constant stream of intriguing and memorable “firsts”. These feed into one another, providing milestones and markers along the way toward the established goals in the story.
Sometimes we don’t actually want time to fly by. Consider how enamored audiences are with slow motion fight scenes. That swift right hook to the jaw wouldn’t be nearly so fun if we blinked and missed it. Slowing down crucial moments – no matter why they’re crucial – mimics the way the mind seems to experience powerful moments of life. For example, if you were dropped into a free fall. This was the experiment run by Vani Pariyadath and David Eagleman, used to test whether subjects actually experienced time more slowly during the sudden, terrifying drop. (National Center for Biotechnology Information)
Unfortunately for the scientists, dropping people from a great height did not actually slow time for them or accelerate their ability to read quick numbers. This left the question, “why do we sometimes feel like time slows down?” They actually already had an approach to this in “neural repetition suppression” (Frontiers In: Human Neuroscience). In simple terms, those moments that seem to slow down only seem slow because the rest of the time you’re so busy skimming over the common, repetitive input around you that it’s only in those moments that you slow down and take in more sensory detail.
All this nerding-out aside, if you want to slow down your scene (for all the feels, more sexual tension, or just rolling in the glory of a bad guy getting his comeuppance) work in details and novelty. The events that slow our mind are different, unusual, and often adrenaline-pumping. The details only magnify what the event should be and enhance the experience for full appreciation.
So, if your protagonist is breaking the antagonist’s nose, either make it a major character milestone or have them do it with creative flair! Then give enough delicious details to dig into so we can all happily replay it in our minds after we put down the book and go to work. With luck, someone will ask what we’re grinning about.