Pacing — dialogue, read-speed, comma, semi-colon, colon, stop.

I already discussed layout of direct speech, nametagging and said last month, but a feature of dialogue that I overlooked was the issue of pacing.

In real life, when people speak, they do a whole lot of other things at the same time, and in between speech. Some of this is unrelated to the conversation — breathing, eating & drinking, swinging an ax. Some of it arises from or illustrates the dialogue: shrugging, gasping, pausing for effect.

Imagine a game of squash between a pair of irritatingly competitive young executives, letting off steam after an important negotiation. I imagine them warming up on court, pounding the ball rather too hard for tactical practicality, and then playing a couple of games, discussing both during and between points, the behaviour of their colleagues and their client; pausing in their dialogue occasionally when the game gets difficult or strenuous.

How do you go about writing the dialogue of such a scene? I would have a little fun with the vocabulary and the imagery, by having Steve and Gary use exclusively physical metaphors when describing the meeting:

"We totally pounded them on the preference agreement," Steve hustled left and Gary had to back into a corner and swung his reply awkwardly.

"It looked as if Janet would drop that one, until you jumped in." Carefully evading Steve's fillibuster, Gary changed his policy and forced Steve to negotiate a tricky trajectory.

"Didn't matter how much they fired at us; Clive just kept batting it away."

Their exchanges intensified for a few seconds, and Steve, overtaken with determination, responded to Gary's every demand, until finally, reaching high and wide, he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

"Nice," said Gary, not needing to force good-humour in defeat; he'd already scored enough points in the meeting.

Apart from the language games, what I'm going for here is a sense of two things happening at once. On screen, in the theatre, action and words can be presented together. On the page, you have two choices: you can give them one after the other:

"I've got this one," Steve shouted as he ran across the court 

Or you can try to give a feel for the action during the dialogue as I attempted in the earlier section. Whatever the type of action going on at the same time as the dialogue, the dialogue needs to be paced accordingly. Pacing is the art of convincing the reader to experience the action at the right speed, and the key to it is convincing the reader to read the same way that you would have narrated aloud — at the same speed, with the same pauses in the same places. The key to this, I increasingly think, is not punctuation. 

You may have learned in school, or read in a style guide, that you can use punctuation to control the length of a pause, with the short dash (–) as the shortest break, followed in order of length by comma, semi-colon, colon, and full-stop (period). (The long dash (—) is fashionable at the moment in place of a comma or matching pair of commas, and some writers feel that it fits between commas and semi-colons in pause length). I suspect that this principle arises from a misunderstanding of part of the explanation of what these punctuation marks are for.

(Originally, commas indicated separations between related clauses in a paragraph. En-dashes indicate breaks, such as cut-offs or interruptions. Em-dashes indicate interjected clauses, such as a remark that breaks the flow and the content of a sentence (e.g. "Beverley, hung over, made her way — not her usual way mind you — drearily to the office."). Semi-colons indicate a change of section, such as a progression in a multi-stage argument. Colons indicate that what follows is consequent to the previous clause ("Jimi was loved and lauded the world over: his death was a shock."). Full-stops indicate the end of a grammatical logical closure (usually called a sentence). You can observe from this post that I use these marks much more loosely than this — but I think it is worth knowing.)

I do not think that punctuation is the key to pacing. Punctuation, like everything else in language, is subject both to regional variations, personal variations and the mercurial vicissitudes of fashion.

Strong diction is part of what makes for good pacing. Strong diction is taking time over the choice of words, and strong diction can sometimes completely countermand what I said in my previous post about the word "said". Consider:

“Holy macaroni,” Claudine repeated. “And how do you feel about the situation?”

You will infer that this is not the first time that Claudine has used this expression in the present exchange. In terms of telling us that it is Claudine who is speaking, the nametag is already redundant; doubly so, therefore, with the verb "repeated". And yet the nametag itself is serving the pacing. Suppose the author had said:

  “Holy macaroni!” She paused in surprise. “And how do you feel about the situation?”

We now know what the nametag is there for: to provide a pause in the flow of speech. The pause that results  from this explicit tag is slightly longer, and weakens the impact, compared with the technically redundant tag in the original version.

I think that the only reliable way to control the read-speed is by choosing the right words, and placing them appropriately. I attempted to demonstrate this in the first example using this paragraph as a pacing break:

 Their exchanges intensified for a few seconds, and Steve, overtaken with determination, responded to Gary's every demand, until finally, reaching high and wide, he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

While it doesn't take as many seconds to read as it probably took Steve and Gary to play the point, it serves to control the pace without resorting to the explicit (and too short):

They stopped talking to finish the point. Steve won.

Of course, pacing is also an issue involving the author's unique voice. And a reason, therefore, why the author should practice reading his text aloud, preferably to a live audience. 

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