Friday, February 1, 2013

Hold Onto Your Hats. We're Moving at a Clip!

Books, Movies, Movies, Books. Say that five times. Fast. Faster. That’s the speed at which you have to read this blog entry.

There’s much to be learned from movies to do with writing, but let’s focus on… pacing. (Did you see the way I slowed you right down with the use of the ellipses?) Recently I've been re-visiting the television series, WEST WING.

The premise for this series is, as pulled from IMDB (internet movie database): “(a look) inside the lives of staffers in the west wing of the White House.” More precisely, the viewer is following one president’s back-to-back double terms in office and all of the soap operatic events surrounding that and his immediate staff.

There is something about this series and its pacing that makes the viewer walk away, not just feeling smarter, but actually being smarter. There is much to be garnered with regard to real-life politics – the hierarchy, the three-branches of government, the machinations of politics, the “taken from the headlines” serial plot lines, the mirror of current events. (This series began in 1999 and makes constant reference to political events that are on-going or recently resolved.)

But there’s something beyond the content that makes the characters, and thus the viewer, seem smarter. Pacing.

You don’t have to watch a lot of WEST WING to realize that these characters are portrayed as fast-on-their-feet. The dialogue is delivered in a clipped, fast pace that forces the viewer to look and listen sharp or you’ll miss the punch line. Sure, it’s also got multiple sub-plots and a cast of a thousand characters, but all that aside, it’s the pace that makes me sit forward in my seat and hold on tight to keep up.

I guess part of the magic of this style of writing is that it not only transports the viewer (me) through the vicarious thrill of working in the White House. It makes me feel like I could work in the White House – for real – if only I could keep up.

But how does that look on the written page? Well, that depends upon how quickly you read. Me, I'm a slooooow reader. I like to feel the words with my tongue, practically read aloud. Okay, honestly, I can't read fast. There's a disconnect for me between the written word and comprehension, so I have to pause after almost every paragraph to formulate a picture in my head. (Yeah. It's slow, but oh-so-enjoyable.) But for me, I get pacing, when the dialogue takes over and the writer moves away from blow-by-blow description. I can fill in the blanks. I'm imaginative that way, playing the story like a movie in my head.

I picked up a written copy of one of my son's favorite series, PSYCH. In it, (the television series), the characters, like those in WEST WING, enjoy quick, snappy dialogue. But I lost half of the humor in the book version, because the pacing just wasn't the same for me. It was slow, because of the laborious description. Oh well. That's me. Not everyone has to plow over every paragraph like some of us. 

Anyhoo, if you wanna see some great examples of pacing in movies as it builds characters, check out WEST WING and PSYCH. (Dule Hill appears in both series.) Then report back if you have suggestions about how to duplicate that tool in writing. Until then, I'm on the last season, episode 12. Zip. I'm off.


  1. Hi Sofie! Enjoyed your post. I am right there with the importance of pacing. Various genres dictate different "speeds," but, no matter the genre, get it wrong and you'll lose the reader. Writing for performance dictates a snappier pace which suggests to me why the book from PSYCH is less than the series and yet, it seems a disservice to me that the book was noticeably slower. The reader, you, comes to the book with expectations based on the show. I guess the only excuse would be a "chicken and the egg" thing. If the book is from the show, then it should be similar, but if the series is roughly based on the book, then the differences could be shocking. At least that's been my experience, i.e. BONES and the Kathy Reich's Temperance Brennan novels. Thank you for the reminder about pacing and it's place in the writer's toolkit.

  2. Great post Sofie! I agree with you on the importance of not giving a blow by blow on dialogue tags. For me, that can slow down my enjoyment of a book. There is something about me being able to add those little things, and like you, see the scene in my head like a movie. I love being able to use my imagination and "watch" the character come alive through my understanding of the character. Thanks for another great post, and I think it is something we all need to keep in mind: pacing can kill a great story or make one even better! :)