Thursday, June 12, 2008

Pacing, Tempo, and the Dangers of Critique Groups

I’ve been reading director Sidney Lumet’s fine book Making Movies. He’s always been one of the most meticulous, hands-on directors, involved in every stage of the cinematic process. And he keeps on going: at age 83, he just released Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead to considerable acclaim.

Making Movies details every step of the moviemaking process, from rehearsal to lighting to camerawork on down to editing, sound mixing, and adding a score. This is a great book for novelists for two reasons. First, it makes you grateful you aren’t making movies (and Lumet himself wonders why anyone who wrote decent novels would ever move into a collaborative medium like theatre or film). Second, many of Lumet’s thoughts on process and technique are directly applicable to writing. Here’s some of what he says in his chapter discussing editing:

The more cuts, the faster the tempo will seem. That’s why melodramas and chase sequences use so many cuts. Just as in music, fast tempo usually means energy and excitement.

However, an interesting thing happens. In music, everything from a sonata to a symphony uses changes in tempo as basic part of its form. Typically, a four-movement sonata will change not only its musical themes in each movement, but also its tempo in each movement and sometimes even within each movement. Similarly, if a picture is edited in the same tempo for its entire length, it will feel much longer. It doesn’t matter if five cuts per minute or five cuts every ten minutes are being used. If the same pace is maintained throughout, it will start to feel slower and slower. In other words, it’s the change in tempo that we feel, not the tempo.


Physics people talk about motion and time in terms of calculus. The first derivative with respect to time is velocity; the second derivative is acceleration (or deceleration)—the rate of change in the rate of change. A story that moves forward at only one pace begins to seem as if it isn’t moving at all; it's acceleration and deceleration that the reader feels.

I think good critique groups can be useful to the beginning writer. They can give feedback on many important basics; above all, they allow the writer to establish whether he or she is able to hold the interest of readers for the length of a chapter.

Once you can write a killer chapter, however, I think critique groups become less useful, and sometimes dangerous. Since they tend to move chapter by chapter, each new submission is viewed in the light of previous submissions, but not in the context of a book. Often the comments are that this new chapter isn’t as fast-paced (or conflict-filled, or exciting, or sad, or lyrical, or sardonic, or whatever) as a previous submission. The group process tends to push for homogenization of your book. As Lumet notes, an unchanging element, even if initially exciting, gradually becomes a drone.

10 comments:

Jeremy James said...

As usual, David, well said.

Tim Stretton said...

An excellent insight, David. I'd never thought of pacing in that way, but it's spot on.

I think pacing is one of the most overlooked aspects of taught creative writing. The emphasis here is so much at the page or even the line level, that the movement of the whole is overlooked.

And it's one more reason why writing short stories is not a great help when it comes to trying the longer form.

Alis said...

You can take that down below the scene level to the sentence level too. I started reading a self-published book online recently (a taster) and when I'd got halfway down the page and realised that every sentence was virtually the same length, with the same basic grammatical structure I stopped reading. It wasn't just boring, it also felt quite uncomfortable.

David Isaak said...

Hola, Jeremy!

Good to see you're still in Dodge!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Oh, you are so right about the massive disconnect between the short story and the novel!

I think the reason pacing and tone variation isn't taught is that it's so big it's hard to address. But we adore it: From Ulysses to Lord of the Rings, the big books of modern literature are driven by large-scale v$ariation that is hard to see unless you back up for miles.

Matt Curran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Curran said...

Hi, David

This is fascinating stuff. I've been aware of the effect of explicit pacing in prose ever since I was introduced to the short stories of DH Lawrence – there was one story specifically (alas, I can’t remember the name of it) that described a locomotive running at full steam through the countryside and the tempo of the writing was breathtaking even to a twelve year old. It lasted for about a few hundred words, but these were a brilliant few hundred words.

The link to music is a significant one too. Whenever I write something with a bit of pace, I tend to use music with a high tempo, but like you say it only works in quick bursts – anything prolonged and it all feels a bit laboured.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis.

Indeed. I hate to get trendy about it, but it's almost a fractal phenomenon, and your term "uncomfortable" is precise. If you get a monotonous sentence pattern, it is usually reflected in a droning paragraph structure, and this moves on from scenes to chapters to larger-scale elements...

"Uncomfortable" is the precise word for it. It isn't stimulating enough to be claustrophobic, becausec that would be a full, Kafkaesque effect. Instead, it makes you want to squirm...but not enough to demand another seat.

David Isaak said...

Alis, where did you go? I liked your comment...

David Isaak said...

Ah, Mr MFW--

You ae so right. Lawrence was one of the folks, like Faulkner, who danced with words, but understood that the same tune, no matter how exciting, became boring unless switched for something else.

I suspect that DH would have thought it was about sex rather than music, but I figure the principle is the same...