Devil’s Details – Overlooked skills that every writer needs to have.
I think I primarily like the phrase “devil in the details” precisely because it can mean so many different things if you adjust the details. “The devil was in the detail” means a rather different thing from “A devil in the details,” after all. But details matter; that’s the point of it all. Relevance to writing? Critical. We all know that you need a solid plot, decent characters, and maybe even a greater underlying message or two to produce good fiction. But to produce great fiction, you’re going to have to get technical, and so the first of who-knows-how-many “Devil in the Details” posts, where we take an up close and dirty look at really insignificant things that aren’t actually.
Today? Pacing. Broad concept, narrow skill set. The word gets applied to the plot of books as well as the prose itself, but that isn’t what I mean (at least not tonight) — fundamentally, pacing for our purposes here is the manner in which the text progresses, word by word. Choosing where plot points fall and when to whip a new one out of the hat is a good skill, but write it off the list for now. For now, we’re thinking about words.
Pacing Element No. 1: Words
No really, words. At the end of the day, every story happens one word at a time — sort of. Without going into too much detail, the visual component of reading is done about four or five character spaces at a time. In a text with lots of short words (like this sentence up to the parenthetical), the eyes can focus on a little over one word at a time. In a text laden with longer words (character length being more relevant than syllable), the visual focus is under one word at a time. What “time” are we talking about? That’s the brain’s half of the job, and it’s going to vary from person to person. Don’t worry about it for now, or go read through some Wikipedia articles on reading methods and pedagogy if you’re curious. We’ve already established the first key point — a text with short words reads faster than a text with long words, simply because of visual limitations.
Next-most immediate effect of words on a text’s readability is how common they are. The most common words — and, but, the, all those guys — are basically iconographic symbols, for most people’s practical purposes. You see them, you recognize them; the meaning is ingrained the same way that “Red Octagon = Stop” is automatic for most American drivers, and by way of many, many more repetitions. Those will be recognized and read with no noticeable slowing in the text. Longer but common words take up fractionally longer comprehension times. Something more esoteric, a word that the reader knows but probably hasn’t heard this week, will take longer to recognize; a word that the reader legitimately doesn’t know brings everything to a crashing halt. Even if he or she reads on without looking the word up (slacker), his/her brain is still rummaging through contextual and etymological clues to try and put together at least a guess at the meaning. And of course, a text that’s full of unfamiliar words will just become unreadable, or at the very best a painstaking study exercise rather than simple reading.
None of these effects are particularly dramatic for any single given word. Word choice has a cumulative effect rather than an immediate one, but it will eventually make the difference between a Run, Spot, Run and a Finnegan’s Wake. Although how easily-recognized or obscure the words are probably has more effect on the general tone of a text, the visual effect is actually the more fundamental — short words for a fast read, longer ones for a slow read, again speaking only of physical, character length. Each reader’s vocabulary will differ, but we all have the same upper limit on visual perception of words.
Pacing Element No. 2: Sentences
So you’re choosing your words with care, slowing the pace with longer and less common ones when you want a deep, contemplative text and jazzing it up with short, blunt, everyday words when you want that David Mamet Says Fuck You feel. The next fundamental tool is going to be sentences, their structure and their length.
I realize this will come as a shocker to people, but shorter sentences are easier to read than longer ones. Once again without getting too technical, a sentence is a memory exercise: the reader has to hang onto each part (remember diagramming sentences? those parts) until the period, and then put it all together to get the whole idea. The more parts, the harder the exercise. As with words, the most fundamental effect to remember will all come down to size. Longer = slower, shorter = faster. Not a hard concept.
But there’s more — how direct and unbroken the flow of the ideas in the sentence is also affects the speed with which it can be read. A point-to-point recounting of facts or events reads very smoothly: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. Because it’s written in the order that our brains normally perceive things, with no flourishes, it’s a fast sentence. Any sort of interjection will slow it down: The fox (which was quick) jumped over the lazy dog. Adding a few words slows things down a minuscule amount, but most of the retarding effect comes from the parenthetical statement acting like a speed bump for the reader’s thoughts. Introducing ideas which aren’t directly related to the action at hand will slow things down even further: The fox (and it was an odd season for foxes) jumped over a dog, most likely Farmer Johannsen’s, that lazed on the grass. Two ideas that have nothing to do with the mechanics of a fox jumping over a dog make the brain work in multiple directions at once, slowing the sentence down well beyond the minor impact of a few added words.
You can probably simplify all that down and just say that extra clauses slow a sentence down beyond the mechanical effect of the extra text, since they introduce more ideas for the brain to keep track of. Independent clauses (clauses that can stand as a sentence on their own) will have the strongest slowing impact, and total non sequiters will be less like a speed bump and more like a total roadblock. Look to mechanics (how many words and clauses the sentence contains) and content (how many ideas it introduces) for your pacing effects here, just like you looked at physical length and ease of recognition when you considered words.
Pacing Element No. 3: Paragraphs
I’ve already written about paragraph breaks and their specific effect on dialogue in an earlier post, so some of this may sound familiar — your next-biggest unit of text is the paragraph, and no surprises here, where you choose to break them changes the speed of the text.
The good news is, we’re now past the point where how many characters the human eye can track as it moves horizontally matters much. The bad news is, vision still comes into it; it’s just a broader range of vision now. Once you start talking about paragraphs, reading speed is going to be largely affected by typesetting concerns — how much space there is between lines, between words, between letters, and various other things that are completely out of your control as a writer. (Well, you can always argue with your publisher, but it’s nothing you can work on personally as a creative writing skill.) What you can work on is making a text that will be as readable (or difficult, depending on your intention) as possible no matter what your typesetter does.
If you remember the Where’s Waldo books, you know that surrounding an object with other objects similar to it makes it harder to find. Even things that don’t look much like Waldo can clutter things up, if there are enough of them — replace Waldo with words, and you have the basic gist of why paragraphs matter. The more words appear without significant space between them, the more difficult it is for our vision to find and focus on any given one (or any given five-ish characters within one, if you recall the horizontal limits).
The easiest way to create space, making the text easier to read, is to break a line. Blogs like this tend to be formatted with blank lines between paragraphs, but most contemporary fiction is going to be printed using indentations to denote paragraphs, so the only way to actually get a blank line is to write a very short paragraph (or to be able to predict where the end of sentence will fall on a given finished page — write me if you figure out how to do that one). Dialogue is the easiest way to achieve those sorts of spaces, since it demands a fresh paragraph for each speaker; a page recounting a conversation by two taciturn fellows could easily leave most of the page blank.
Failing dialogue and monosyllabic speakers, the next-easiest way to speed up the flow of the text on the paragraph level is going to be a direct inversion of the general rule for sentences: introduce more unrelated ideas to speed things up. Something new to describe generally requires, or at least allows for, a new paragraph, so new information will help keep the text readable. Obviously, there are going to be some content-based concerns that go beyond the mechanical — if the ideas are completely unrelated, the text will be hard to care about, if not necessarily to read. But switching the narrative focus from one object or idea to the next can keep the paragraphs short and punchy.
Additionally, some writers will insert a blank line into a text that uses indentations to mark paragraphs; this generally denotes a larger textual shift from one idea to a new, unrelated one, usually with at least some time elapsing in the narrative. I’m not a fan personally — I feel like it usually gets used where either a normal paragraph would have been sufficient or where there should be a whole new chapter (a post for another day) — but it exists, and it’s there for people to consider using. Just be cautioned that over-use will make it look like you’re used to writing comic books.
Going from Here
What we’ve covered so far is the core of readable text: words, sentences; paragraphs. These are mechanical skills that can be applied to virtually any text, regardless of content. Once you go much beyond the paragraph, the plot of the work in question starts to matter more and more in determining what goes where, so we’re stopping here for today. To recap:
- Textual “pacing” is the general speed with which your text can be consumed; the measure of how quickly and efficiently it moves from one idea to the next.
- Word choice will have the largest cumulative effect on a text, but the least individual impact. Short words are easier for the human eye to read, while longer ones require more visual effort; words that we hear every day will “jump off the page” and speed the reading, while more obscure vocabulary slows the brain down as it rummages around for definitions.
- Short sentences require almost no memory to process, while longer sentences with more involved clauses force the reader to assimilate the data more carefully. Independent clauses, interruptions like parenthetical statements, and other shifts in topic/focus will slow sentences down further.
- Long paragraphs are a visual strain to read, while blank space makes a page go faster. Dialogue can create empty space, as can topic shifts that necessitate (or at least excuse) a new paragraph.
- A fast read is not necessarily better than a slow one, or vice versa. Pacing will make your book better when it fits the mood, and worse when it doesn’t. Imagine Hamlet written by David Mamet: “This is fucked. Fuck me.” There’s your “To be or not to be” soliloquy — not quite the same feeling (though it still gets the point across). Be aware of how the words, sentences, and paragraphs you construct are moving the reader along, and don’t let them have an unplanned effect. It’s all about control.