I searched for a definition of “pacing” in a few of my favorite craft books, and was surprised at how few make specific mention of it. John Gardner says only “the efficient and elegant writer makes each scene bear as much as it can without clutter or crowding.” Janet Burroway reflects simply, “Drama equals desire plus danger.”
Personally, I think pacing and tension are linked, but I'm still trying to discover exactly how.
In Mockingjay, when Katniss confronts the damaged Peeta for the second time, the scene is relatively quiet, especially when compared with the action packed scenes that comprise most of the novel:
I’ve just reached the door when his voice stops me. “Katniss. I remember about the bread.”
The bread. Our one moment of real connection before the Hunger Games… “So, what do you remember?”
“You. In the rain,” he says softly… “I must have loved you a lot.”
Now, how does Collins move out of this scene without putting the reader in a doze? By upping the emotional ante between Katniss and Peeta, by not letting them out of the trap they are in:
“…Did you like kissing me?” he asks.
“Sometimes,” I admit. “You know people are watching us now?”
Huh? Why did Katniss say that? Well, clearly, she’s thinking that maybe Peeta’s thinking about kissing her right then, and she wants to discover whether he would and whether it matters that they are being watched – in fact, she wants to discover his heart and whether it still belongs to her. Does he offer it up?
Not if you are Collins:
“…What about Gale?” he continues.
My anger’s returning… “He’s not a bad kisser either,” I say shortly.
…Peeta laughs again, coldly, dismissively. “Well, you’re a piece of work, aren’t you?”
And with that, Katniss and Peeta are emotional enemies, and Katniss is not going to settle into contentment with him (yet), promising the reader more drama (desire plus danger) as clearly spelled out in the closing lines of the chapter:
Finally he can see me for who I really am. Violent. Distrustful. Manipulative. Deadly.
And I hate him for it.
Collins is a master at manipulating pacing. This scene is less than 3 pages long. It acts as an interlude but it gives up nothing in the way of tension - and I think that's because she twists and turns in her characters' thoughts, just as we all twist and turn whenever we argue with those we love/hate.
Do you have any thoughts about pacing versus tension? What other novels do you hold up as examples of good pacing?