Pacing your Prose Part 1: Using Description 


I rarely hear anyone talk about the speed and timing when talking about creative writing, but how fast or slow a sentence reads does affect the tone and experience of your prose.

The amount of description in your prose definitely affects the speed and tone of reading your prose. This may sound obvious in that the more words in a sentence and the longer the words, the longer it takes to read the sentence, however the types of description can range quite widely. 

1. Minimal Description

leopard-459761_640This can read in several ways, depending a great deal on sentence length but usually reads in a non-emotional or report-like manner. Here, the speed of your prose is generally very fast if the words are short and slow if the words are long.

For example:

‘She ran down the road.’

‘The female descended the thoroughfare.’

These sentences have zero extra description and just describe exactly what is happening,  yet the speed and tone are different for each sentence because of the word choices. The first choice is simple and can be a little boring to read but sometimes, when you just need to tell the reader something happened and that’s all, this can be useful. Not all sentences are to be emotive, many just fulfill a purpose to inform. Many people will read this information without even thinking so minimal description means no embellishment. However if the information given is unusual, using this type of writing could have a different effect.

For Example:

‘She ran 250 miles in a second’. 

Therefore the lack of description here is still dependent on what you are writing and word choice but this kind of description usually has the effect of reading quickly, appearing as matter of a fact despite the oddness of the sentence content.

2. Long Description

Longer description no matter what form you write it in, has the effect of slowing reading down, as there is more information to take in.  The difference here is usually based upon punctuation. Punctuation in longer sentences can act as a pauses, allowing for a tone of something happening in steps or moments. Consider these two examples:

English: The white-lipped snail (Cepaea horten...

English: The white-lipped snail (Cepaea hortensis). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She walked, down the grey, bleak thoroughfare, a pace at a time, considering the unusualness of the air that night’.

This sounds fairly steady and contemplative, the commas acting as pauses and resembling the steps of her walk. If you change this even a little the tone and speed change.

She walked, a pace, at a time, down, the thoroughfare, grey and bleak, considering, the unusualness, of the air, that night’.

This sounds more ominous and yet much slower even though the sentence content is almost identical to the first. A third example could change this again, just changing the odd word choice to speed up the whole sentence.

She moved down the bleak road, considering the oddness of the night.’

This one is much quicker, but again has much less information. Word choices have been changed making `walk’, `move’ and `unusualness’, `oddness’ and halving the sentence description to add speed. That doesn’t mean that it works better or worse. Choices depend on how you want to pace the scene and often this will come second nature to you, with the overall emotion of what you are writing, affecting everything. Consider this though, be aware of using extreme amounts of description as it can actually weaken writing, rather than strengthening it.

For example look at this sentence:

`The length and dullness of gently ambling down in a descending manner, along an street adjacent to another street was hard and tough.’

This is a long, description heavy sentence but in some circumstances, such as a historical novel, or biographical piece, it could still work. However if you even more description, the sentences becomes a very long sentence to read.

‘The absolutely tedious, length and dullness of gently, softly, ambling, down, in a descending sort of ill manner, along a bright yellow and red street, adjacent to another bright yellow and red street wasn’t in a manner of being ultimately hard and very tough.’

Now I’m sure lot’s of people wouldn’t mind that sentence but personally, I would have probably put the book down by now or skimmed past it. Keep this in mind when writing your descriptions. You can put as much or as little description in as you want but not everyone will have the patience for reading a sentence filled with every inch of it.

Some Useful Tips

I’ve probably mentioned this before but sometimes doing the opposite of what you think you should do sometimes works in creative writing. Here’s some tips that can defy the normal rules:

1. A short sentence can be powerful.

William Blake knew the value of brevity and the power of honesty. His writing was often clear and didn’t use large amounts of description. His descriptions of poverty were stark and therein was their power. Click here to read the poem `London‘ and you’ll find that the majority of the sentences in the poem are quite brief, e.g. `Marks of weakness, marks of woe’.

2. Action can be slow to have an impact.

If a scene is meant to be shocking it doesn’t have to be fast. Action delivered gradually can sometimes be more shocking than a fast, instant information, particularly if this action is still written in short sentences but slowly.

For example:

`It happened. He had been shot. The blood poured out onto the cobblestones and the world blurred before him.’

Instead the temptation is usually to write action as in this next example as a rush of events:

`It happened so fast, the shot, blood pouring out, the world blurring before him.’

Both work, depending how you want the scene to be read but the first example is designed for impact whereas the second for excitement or quick action scenes.

3. Adverbs are better in small doses.

Adverbs are fine. Some people advocate avoiding them altogether but I think they have their place and work for standard sentences such as:

`He smiled gently at her.’ or `He gently smiled at her.’

However if you add them frequently to your descriptions it has a different effect and is often not necessary such as with:

‘He leapt quickly over the bronze statue, landing swiftly onto the shiny marble floor.’

If you instantly want to strengthen this sentence you can remove some or all of the adverbs. You don’t have to never use an adverb but consider the differences here from the original example:

`He leapt over the bronze statue, landing onto the marble floor.’

‘He quickly leapt over the bronze statue, landing onto the marble floor.’

Adverbs get a bad reputation, for the reason that they often weaken sentences and are often redundant. I think they are still useful but are better used carefully and sparingly as many times they are just not necessary.

As with all my advice, I always refer to your choice. Writing is case-specific. Different styles do different things. Different words, different choices, different speeds create different writing. The choice if always yours which is where the fun is.

Create worlds with your words, tell fast events, tell slow events, paint large pictures or individual moments. Make it personal to you and it will have always have something unique.

 

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