Meetup 141: Narrative Pace

Last weekend, Pavan conducted a session on narrative pace. It was our first ‘technical’ session after a long time, so I enjoyed it thoroughly. In summary, we looked at ways to deliberately control the pace of our writing. Sentence structure, word lengths, and effective paragraphing were discussed as possible methods by which an author can bring variety to the speed of his narrative.

In Meetup 66, when we talked about dialogue, I remember we spoke about how it can be used to alter prose rhythm. Generally speaking, more dialogue equals more pace. Less dialogue equals less pace.

There was some discussion on the concept of beats, and how a writer can either stretch or compress them at will if he’s skillful enough.

Warm-up Exercise

Here we had to each pick two books and two movies each, which were in our opinions fast and slow. Here are my picks:

Fast-paced books: Foundation series, anything by Agatha Christie
Fast-paced movies: Matrix, Star Wars

Slow-paced movies: The Pianist, The Cider House Rules
Slow-paced books: Lord of the Rings, Atlas Shrugged

Notice that when we say ‘slow’, we don’t mean ‘boring’, though it sometimes can be hard to tell the difference.

Exercise 1

The objective of this exercise is to write a scene first at high narrative pace, and then rewrite it more slowly. I tried to use sentence length and paragraphing to my advantage here. The slower scene has longer sentences, and the mood is more contemplative and the drama more emotional. The faster scene, on the other hand, is full of short, sharp sentences.

High Pace

I light up. Tastes like burning wood. But I let it stay in my mouth. A waiting man needs his cigarette. I take a deep drag. With the smoke still filling my head I take a peek through the telescope. My finger plays with the trigger. The apartment is empty.

I look at my watch. Fifteen minutes to go. The voice on the phone said she was never late. Well. I am never late either.

In my line of business, it pays to be early. If only I had something to stop my hands from shivering, though. I draw my coat around myself tighter. It’s not the cold. It’s the waiting.

Footsteps. I hear footsteps. Not on the pavement on the street, but behind me.

Low Pace

I place my leg on the stool and press my eye to the viewfinder, gingerly swaying the gun around so that I could look through the windows of Level 10, one after another. In the right-most window, a woman is holding a milk bottle to a baby’s mouth. How nice it would be if I could just let my finger lean on the trigger twice? No one would know, and it would be good practice for the main course. I spat out my cigarette. The world is not ready for artists of my kind, I thought, still looking at the blonde curls on the mother’s head. How much more beautiful would it look with a nice red circular spot just around the scalp? And the milk – let it spill. Yes, let it spill, all over the sheets and the tiles, over the stubby fingers…

I turn my wrist around. Twenty more minutes. I look up at the night sky. The clouds smile down upon me. Then I hear the door behind me open.

Exercise 2: Climax

In this exercise, we were asked to write a climactic scene. I came up with this:

The moonlit roof of the Shiva temple loomed over Arvind’s head. Shilpa flailed with her hands on the ground, grasping for something. But she only came up with leaves. She kept moving back, one eye fixed on the sharp edge of the knife in Aravind’s hand. She backed up against the hard bark of the oak tree. His forehead glistened with sweat, and she saw the full moon run in his crazed eyes. He got down on one knee, next to her, head cocked to one side, as though he was in deep thought, as though he was considering just how to propose to her.

‘Arvind,’ she said, and reached out. He took her hand, and for a second his grip was gentle. But then he began to squeeze. He turned her wrist over and brought the edge to rest on the skin, driving it in just deep enough to draw a spot of blood.

‘I love you,’ she said, biting back the pain. ‘I love you!’

Something in his eyes changed then, and he frowned up at her. But then a streak of lightning hit the top of the temple, and a thunderclap drove through the air. His eyes went back to what they had been a moment ago – red and white, flesh and blood. He pushed himself closer to her with a sigh of effort, and when he put his lips to her cheek, she realized how cold he had gone. How cold and how yellow.

Without warning, he lifted the dagger and drove it into her heart. Her gasp turned into a low whimper. Her hands closed around his, and looked up to see him smile. ‘Why?’ she said. ‘Why are you killing me?’

And he said, ‘Because I already have.’

What do you think?

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