Public Readings from A to Z – Part 5 – Pacing

Welcome to part five of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.


Now let’s talk about pacing.

If there’s one piece of advice that gets handed around for how to do a reading, it’s usually “don’t read too fast.”

This is good advice. If you read too quickly, you don’t allow time for the audience to react; in an extreme case, they won’t even be able to follow what you’re saying. And since nerves often make people rush, this is a particular hazard to watch out for.

But “don’t read too fast” is kind of vague and insufficient. How fast is too fast? How can you tell? Should you read at the same speed all the way through?

This is another place where practicing in front of an audience can help you. If you’re going too fast for your spouse or kid or best friend to understand you, then that’s a good clue that you should slow down. Also, if you find yourself stumbling over your words a lot, then again, maybe it’s too fast. Or you haven’t practiced enough. Or both.

Your audience can also tell you if you’ve fallen off the bridge in the other direction — because believe you me, it is entirely possible to go too slowly. I’ve sat in on readings where it sounds like a cartoon sloth is telling you a story — where the author’s voice gets stretched out until they can’t sustain anything that sounds like natural intonation because nobody goes that slow in normal life.

So let’s talk about punctuation. (And no, that isn’t a non sequitur.)

Our system of punctuation is a later development in writing; it wasn’t there in the early days. And at least in the West, it evolved out of orators making marks in their speeches to guide their pacing. A comma indicates a very brief pause; a period indicates a longer one. We use paragraphs as a form of division, too. Among other things, this gives you a chance to breathe — and by the way, if you find yourself weirdly aware of your breathing when you practice this stuff, that’s totally normal.

Pacing isn’t just about the rate at which individual words come out of your mouth: it’s also about using those pauses to group your words into coherent chunks, cuing the audience that what you just said is a unit of meaning and giving them an instant to digest it before you start the next unit of meaning. Use this correctly, and you can go a lot faster than a cartoon sloth and still be understood. In fact, one of the issues with sloth-style reading is that you create the exact same problem as going too quickly: you smear all your words into one undifferentiated mass, without any dynamics to organize it.

This, incidentally, is why I loathe the current trend toward the most minimalist punctuation you can get away with. Those marks are there for multiple reasons, not just as decoration. And when I’m reading a long, complex sentence with relatively few commas in it, I find that I make the same kinds of pauses in the spots where a writer two hundred years ago would have put a comma. For example, let’s consider a sentence from just a moment ago (you may wish to check out the video for illustration — this is the point in drafting this series when I realized I was going to need some kind of recording):

So pacing isn’t just about the rate at which individual words come out of your mouth: it’s also about using those pauses to group your words into coherent chunks, cuing the audience that what you just said is a unit of meaning and giving them an instant to digest it before you start the next unit of meaning.

There’s no comma after “what you just said is a unit of meaning,” but I still pause there, because it helps organize the sentence for the ear. First you get the unit that is “cuing the audience,” and then the unit that is “giving them an instant.” I also have a tiny pause after “to digest it,” because “before you start” is its own clause, and again, that microscopic break alerts the reader to the shift.

How long of a pause should you have? I recommend not thinking too hard about this, lest you turn into the proverbial centipede, who forgets how to walk as soon as he tries to think about how he does it. As I said before, a comma is a brief pause and a period is a longer one — but don’t try to time them precisely, deciding that a comma should be a half-second and a period a full second, or anything like that. Among other things, this isn’t just a matter of pacing but also intonation, which we’ll get to in the next installment. The same goes for semicolons, ellipses, em-dashes, and so forth. Don’t try to give each of them their own precise length; done right, the pitch of your voice will help distinguish them. And it doesn’t really matter whether your audience could produce an accurate transcript of your punctuation, so long as they understand what you’re saying.

Also consider paragraph and scene breaks. Most paragraphs will end with a period (or less frequently a question mark, exclamation mark, em-dash, or ellipsis), but because a paragraph is also a unit of meaning — more on that at my website — creating a slightly longer pause will cue the audience to expect a shift in focus. Scene breaks should be the longest pauses of all, and I generally use them as an opportunity to take a sip of water. That both helps preserve my voice, and sends a clear message that the next words out of my mouth will be about something entirely different.

Dialogue is a special case. One of the most common errors I hear in readings is the author running the dialogue directly into the surrounding text, to the point where I realize too late that we’ve shifted from one to the other. As with the punctuation, this is partly about intonation (I swear, we’ll get to it!), but it’s also pacing. You want a slight gap between the narration and the dialogue, so the audience realizes it is dialogue. This goes triple if there isn’t a dialogue tag, but just separate action. Check out the video and compare the following:

“Alta Renata I hope you will forgive my informality she brushed a hand down her simple attire I did not expect visitors, but it sounded like your matter was of some urgency.”

(It’s . . . genuinely hard for me to read that without pausing.)

What it should be is:

“Alta Renata. I hope you will forgive my informality.” She brushed a hand down her simple attire. “I did not expect visitors, but it sounded like your matter was of some urgency.”

With all the details I’ve brought up, I realize this may sound extremely complex, but it really isn’t. It’s just a matter of practice, and being aware. Fun fact: originally this was just going to be a series of written blog entries, until I realized there was no real way for me to demonstrate things like pacing and intonation unless you could hear them in action. But the written form still exists, and if you’ve been only watching the videos, I recommend clicking through to the blog so you can compare my performance against the text, to see how the one turns into the other. You’ll probably find places where I varied slightly in my wording . . . but that’s entirely normal.

One final thing to consider: the prose you write will have its own rhythm, or several possible rhythms. I’ve said before that I read my stories out loud; well, one of the reasons for that is to find where I can fine-tune that aspect. In the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender, there’s a creepy repeated phrase of “there is no war in Ba Sing Se.” It wouldn’t sound nearly as good if the line were “There isn’t any war in Ba Sing Se.” The real wording — which you may remember from your English class is a sequence of iambs, an unstressed beat followed by a stressed one — works because it creates a steady rhythm. The topic of stress will come up more in the next installment, but be aware that playing with the specific pace of delivery on certain words can add to their effect. In my short story “This Is How,” there’s a sentence where the main character is struggling with the question of whether to kill the person he’s facing or not. The way I read the sentence uses pacing to add to the effect of the ending (video again):

She stands there, shivering, and he raises his blade and he does not strike.

I can either run “does not” together slightly and separate out “strike” — “and he raises his blade and he (does not) (strike)” — or I can give each of those three words equal weight, slowing down so they hit like three steady blows. “He raises his blade and he (does) (not) (strike).” At key moments in your story, making use of those distinctions can add to the narrative impact. But doing this requires you to have written the text in a fashion that gives you such opportunities . . . and that’s why reading my stories out loud is part of my final polish, even if I’m never going to perform them for an audience. It makes me a better writer overall.

Next time, we’ll finally turn our attention to intonation!

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