In comedy, timing is everything.
Change the timing, and a comedy can quickly turn into tragedy.
In music, timing is the foundation of everything. Even in freeform stuff like Eric Whitacre’s work, there is a time to let go of a chord. The right time.
You’ve seen movie scenes that have made your eyes roll heavenwards: “Will this ever end? Shut up arready.” And I’m sure you’ve read books that have places in them that act on your forward motion like deep sand takes a runaway truck.
Or sometimes, things just happen too fast. CG guys love to have things happen just inside the too fast zone—that way, no body notices the gaffs in the graphics. But when’ you’re watching a real story, you kind of want to know what’s going on, which means that things have to happen so that you can tell what’s happening, and then there has to be a tiny pad built in – a pause, a long look, a pan back – so that your brain has time to process what it’s just seen within the context of the larger narrative.
And so it is with writing.
From the formation of the first sentence, to the size of your paragraphs (William Faulkner – are you listening?), to the rhythm of your dialogue – and the length of it – descriptions, word choice, chapter endings and beginnings, all of these are involved in the pacing of your book. Dwell too long on a dramatic, emotional scene, and you lose readers. Keep back all the juicy stuff till the end, your reader just might bail on you. Cram too much in too quickly, ditto.
We’ll talk about the sacred cows in another section, but it interfaces nicely with this one.
One thing you can do is read your work out loud to yourself – or, if you have a willing victim, to someone else. As you read, you will begin to feel how long something is going, or how abruptly something has just happened. Are you feeling impatient to get to the end of what you’re reading? Are you left unsatisfied with the abbreviated way that was put? Learn from that and rewrite. Rewrite as many times as it takes to get the FEEL right. But if you end up re-writing more than about three times, put the manuscript aside for a year. Then pick it up – and do one more fresh re-write, this one from the beginning – and see what happens.
By doing a lot of good reading, I think we learn a sense of effective timing. Some people are born with perfect pitch – some with a perfect sense of rhythm. Others of us have to learn these things. And some people may never get it. But exposing ourselves to the masters doesn’t hurt. Except, by masters, I don’t mean Nathaniel Hawthorn, who does not shine in this particular consideration. Caveat: if you read boiler plate stuff as your staple, you are doing yourself harm. Dumbing yourself down. Programming your brain with inferior patterns. So be careful of what you ingest.
Then again, if money is what you’re after – read the junk that sells. That’s really the way I learn a different style. Reading it.
But choose intelligently and deliberately. Once you get programmed with a style, it’s really hard to shake off.