Written by Sarah Yoon
Writing styles each have a voice of their own. You can write musically or mechanically, creating a dreamlike haze or a gritty nightmare. Some writing is preppy and pretty, or winding and seductive. However your style manifests, much of your unique voice comes from pacing.
Last week I wrote on macro tension and rest, first with examples from well-known authors, and then with tips on how to create a balanced yet engaging plot arc. But now we’re diving into the details of micro pacing, where scene work takes the spotlight. Both on the macro and micro levels, the three elements of dialogue, action and description are key. Today, dialogue takes the spotlight.
Timing with Dialogue Tags
Dialogue occurs in many forms. Characters can monologue, quip or pause thoughtfully. You may allow them to speak with minimal tags (approximately one tag for every three lines) to create the tunnel vision of overwhelming anxiety, gathering speed, or bursting energy. If your characters speak intensely, shutting the world out for a moment, you can focus on the dialogue and leave your readers to interpret simply from the character’s vernacular.
Maybe minimalism isn’t your style and you want to intersperse conversations with atmosphere and action. Both ways are correct, depending on your scene’s requirements, because content determines cadence. If externals are essential to the content, then the dialogue will slow down to include more details. You can express who is speaking and potentially add tension by subtly hinting at a specific object. For example, the knives on the kitchen counter. They’re just within reach, but your character talks as though he isn’t thinking about using them. Eerie, right?
Details like the knives create pauses in the conversation. If your character takes a break mid sentence, you don’t need to say “he paused.” Create the pause rather than announcing it. Add description or action: “he swatted at the fly as it buzzed around his head,” or “the grandfather clock ticked rhythmically in the other room.” The prior expresses irritation and the latter reminds both the reader and the character that time is running out.
Not all conversations are bullet trains; people need to collect their scattered thoughts, hide their personal opinions, or simply cough out that phlegm that’s irritating their throat. Gross, I know, but it adds a unique flavor to the scene. Giving a specific reason for the pause helps the reader understand the context and exposes the character’s unspoken thoughts.
Descriptive pauses not only tell you something about the character, but they show the tension or chemistry between the characters. Silence is an important tool. You can create it with body language. Does your character brush her hair behind her ear when she’s shy? Or will she pull her sleeve down to cover an old scar when she’s vulnerable? This pause becomes a poignant silence that you can draw out however long you want.
Small Talk vs. Smack Talk
Within conversations, the actual dialogue within the quotation marks, context is again key to pacing. If your characters are at a fancy restaurant, they’ll likely stick with small talk and polite conversation. Full sentences or even run-ons give a slower, formal feel. When they hit the dive bar after dinner, they’ll cut loose with upbeat quips and informal jargon. This speeds up the pace and makes it feel more exciting.
Yet another shift occurs in the middle of action—maybe they get in a fight at the bar after a few shots too many shots of tequila—where they use fragments and interjections. Each variation in sentence length and formality greatly affects the scene’s energy. As long as dialogue matches both character and context, you can devolve into as many grammatical atrocities as you want.
Dialogue is a complex beast that takes much trial and error. You want to enrich the scene as a whole to achieve the right pace, enhance character’s voices, and weave in enough action and description.
Want to read more? Find more helpful tips here: “Imitating Greatness: How to Find Your Voice” and “How Emotional Honesty Empowers Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises”
“to rest in me” illustration graciously provided by Mekhz. See more of his work on DeviantART!