Excellence in the Art of Pacing: Three Examples
At their most basic level, all stories are a timeline, a series of events that move characters from one moment or place to another. How those events are organized and presented ultimately determines the pace of the narrative.
As editors, we tend to (whether we realize it or not) think about pacing in terms of our magazine as a whole. We employ a variety of approaches to the length, weight, and organization of content to keep our readers moving at a decent clip from the front of the book to the back. Well-crafted features and featurettes employ the same tactics on a smaller scale: varying approaches to the length, weight, and organization of words, sentences, paragraphs, and sections.
Some of you may remember the excellent Neiman Conference presentation from years back by Bruce DeSilva on “managing a story’s internal clock.” Bruce, a former writing coach at the Associated Press who retired to write crime novels, says one of the tricks to good narrative is to control time—to create the illusion that time is passing on the page, speeding up at points, slowing down at others, in a temporal push-pull that keeps readers captivated. We like that notion of pacing. And we like it even more when we encounter it artfully executed in print—those magazine stories you just can’t stop reading. Here are three recent-ish well-paced reads we couldn’t put down.
LUKE DITTRICH’S “THE PROPHET”
(Esquire, July 2013; online version is $1.99 – it’s worth it)
This story received heaps of praise for its investigative work in revealing factual discrepancies and potentially dubious motivations in neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s near-death-experience best-seller Proof of Heaven. But what we appreciate as much as the investigative journalism is Dittrich’s helmsman-like control of the narrative’s pace. Over the course of 9,856 words, he floats us around in time and space (and even dimension), moving in a carousel-like motion between scenes of Alexander as a college student in the distant past; as a neurosurgeon, then hospital patient, in the recent past; as a disembodied spirit floating through Heaven in god knows when; and as an interview subject in the present tense. And along the way, Dittrich controls his phrasing and employs a couple of age-old rhetorical figures (remember that Greek literature course from college?) to help link it all together. In the following passage describing the hours when Alexander first contracted E. coli, Dittrich uses fragments and sentences of increasing and decreasing length to gradually quicken, then slow, the pace:
A headache. November 10, 2008. He has a headache. Not a bad one at first, but it gets steadily, rapidly worse. He tells Holley that he just needs to rest, that he’ll be fine. Escherichia coli bacteria have insinuated themselves into the lining of his central nervous system, the membranes that protect his brain and spinal cord, he writes in Proof of Heaven… Alexander’s immune response kicks in immediately, deploying fleets of white blood cells to kill the invaders. His cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid that supports his brain in every sense, buoying it and nourishing it, becomes a terrifying battlefield. While the invaders consume his CSF’s brain-sustaining sugars, the defensive onslaught of white blood cells causes the volume of fluid to swell, raising the pressure inside his skull. By the time the EMTs wheel him into the ER at Lynchburg General Hospital, his besieged brain, choked and starving, is severely dysfunctional. He is raving, thrashing, incoherent. Then he slips into a coma.
FRANK VIVIANO’S “A VACATION GOES SOUTH“
(U.C. Berkeley’s California Magazine, Summer 2012)
When CASE announced its Best Articles of the Year awards a few months ago, none of us were the least bit surprised to see Viviano’s piece as a Gold Award winner. His story—a first-person account of getting kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel during a visit to the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal—offers a full-throttle commentary on the “3,000-mile chain of narcotics supply and demand, anchored by pitiless Colombian and Mexican drug cartels on the one hand and the affluent U.S. market on the other.” Viviano had the misfortune of seeing that chain from the worst possible vantage point—as a hostage. On one hand, you could argue first-hand material on this level would be impossible to screw up. On the other, what readers get is a controlled chronology of nightmarish events, unloaded in a syncopated procession of detailed reporting. And thankfully, the storytelling isn’t hindered by needless metaphors or overwrought language. Here’s an example of how Viviano slows down a few seconds in time (in this instance, he’s relaying a heart-racing scene inside his tourist group’s minivan):
No one offered any resistance—until he lunged at Sharon and grabbed a black shoulder bag lying next to her on the seat. “No!” she yelled, yanking it back. What only she and I knew was that the bag was actually mine… It was a conscious gambit on Sharon’s part, and he fell for it, convinced that the bag must be hers. Why else would she have fought for it with that blade a few inches from her jugular? He laughed out loud, contemptuously, when she finally let go after what seemed an eternity but probably consumed no more than a minute. I stood paralyzed in the aisle of the van just a few feet away, my eyes riveted on Machete’s right arm, agonizing over what to do. It was the longest minute of my life.
IAN FRAZIER’S “THE LAST DAY’S OF STEALHEAD JOE“
(Outside, August 2013)
This story came across our desk at Dog Ear HQ courtesy of our friend and writer, Scott Ladley, who is a notoriously voracious reader and has fed us plenty of good fodder for this blog. Most of us have long known Ian Frazier is a master. You have to be to be a staff writer at The New Yorker. And while this profile about quietly depressed fly fishing guide Joe Randolph might be ignored at major awards ceremonies—it’s not the type of sprawling big-picture reflection that tends to earn top honors—it is indeed an impeccably developed narrative that sets our pulse quickening with slow-blossoming passages like this one:
At a very late hour, I awoke to total quiet and the sound of the river. The moon was pressing black shadows against the side of my tent. I got out of my sleeping bag and unzipped the tent flap and walked a distance away, for the usual middle-of-the-night purpose. When I turned to go back, I saw a figure standing in the moonlight by the camp. It was just standing there in the sagebrush and looking at me. At first I could not distinguish the face, but as I got closer I saw that it was Joe. At least it ought to be, because he was the most likely possibility; but the figure just stood in silence, half-shadowed by sagebrush bushes up to the waist. I blinked to get the sleep out of my eyes. As I got closer, I saw it had to be Joe, unquestionably. Still no sound, no sign of recognition. I came closer still. Then Joe smiled and said, “You, too, Bud?” in a companionable tone. I felt a certain relief, even gratitude, at his ability to be wry about this odd moonlight encounter between two older guys getting up in the night. Now, looking back, I believe that more was going on. I believe that what I saw was a ghost—an actual person who also happened to be a ghost, or who was contemplating being one.(Historic cycling image courtesy of Andrew Ritchie.)