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Music & Fiction - Tempo

It doesn’t take a lot of brain cells to understand how the terms “tempo” and “pacing” are related. It is, of course, another thing entirely to understand how to do both well. But, to begin, tempo is an Italian word that means “time.” Gotta love those Italians, they cornered the market on so much goodness.

As a live performer, I’ve sung my share of songs where the adrenaline of live performance has pushed the band into an insanely rushed rendering of one song or another. It’s often difficult to know, at the time, that you’re rushing. But man, when you listen back to board recordings or video capture of the show, you sure hear it. What happens is that the song loses its feel. Good musicians take time to dial in the tempo for a song, and the really good ones know when parts within a song need to change tempo to capture the feel they’re looking for. “Epic” tunes need this more often than three minute radio songs.


Music & Fiction

Before going any further into how this all relates to fiction, let’s hit some music basics, which will (I believe) also illuminate fiction pacing. Often a music form or genre implies its own tempo (just as fiction genres do—more on that below). Thus musicians expect a minuet to be performed at a fairly stately tempo, slower than a Viennese waltz; a Perpetuum Mobile to be quite fast, and so on. Music genres imply tempos; thus Ludwig van Beethoven wrote “In tempo d’un Menuetto” over his first movement of his Piano Sonata Op, 54, although that movement is not a minuet. Popular music often borrows terms like “bossa nova,” “ballad,” and “Latin rock” in much the same way.

These Italian terms are many, but a few:

  • Presto (very fast)

  • Vivace (lively)

  • Allegro (fast)

  • Moderato (moderate)

  • Andante (moderate, literally a “walking” tempo)

  • Adagio (slow)

  • Lento (slower than adagio)

  • Largo (very slow)

  • Accelerando (increasing the speed)

  • Ritardando (slowing down)


All that said, tempo does remain to one degree or another a point of subjective interpretation.

And when it comes to fiction, this speed or pacing is equally critical or else, like a great song, you lose the feel. And when that happens, well, it sucks. It stops the reader cold, in the same way a song that’s, say, played way too slow just drags on and you find yourself tapping your foot with impatience.

An easy way to understand pacing in fiction is to look at genres that typify or make essential use of pacing. Start with the thriller. There are a number of techniques a good thriller writer will use to manage pace:

  • Short chapters

  • Scene shifts

  • Cliff hangers

  • Short sentences

  • Fragments

  • Avoidance of words that aren’t in the general reader consciousness

  • Manageable paragraph length


The pace of a thriller is generally fast. They’re not typically ponderous in any sense. Oh, the concept may be intriguing or thought provoking, e.g. The DiVinci Code. But it’s not literary fiction, by which I mean, it’s interesting. Ouch, that was harsh. What I mean to say is, literary fiction is most often an internal examination of a character. It’s not designed or intended to thrill. By turn, thrillers aren’t usually mind-expanding, though a helluvalotafun.

What becomes interesting (to me, anyway) is watching good writers in any genre mix it up. I mean, think about it, once you understand elements of the writing craft that contribute to pacing, you can control it to effect. Sounds dry, doesn’t it? Well, if you’re a writer, you’re either pissing yourself right now with excitement or nodding sagely to this already hard-won knowledge.

An example of this could go something like this: fast, fast, fast (car chase, gun fight, hanging off a cliff), and then slow (love scene or funeral). You see how the content of a scene might give you a clue as to how you might manage pace. These aren’t hard and fast rule, of course. You can do love fast, I imagine—wouldn’t know, personally. Or, could be that in the middle of a gun fight our hero’s time or mind slows to recall an awful incident when in-country during the Vietnam War. Playing with these elements should probably come, though, once you understand them (and can pull them off) where they naturally occur. Just sayin’.

I’m currently writing book two of a fantasy series. It’s a big fat epic. There are a great mix of paces (tempi) to the novel. Or, in other words, there are battles, which need to quicken the blood; there are remembrances that need time to breathe and allow characters to feel stuff; and there are bits of history that need some detail but can’t be boring. It’s kind of like needing to drive a stick, rather than an automatic, I think. 

You don’t want to be obvious in all this, though, right? They call that “watching the furniture move.” It’s where a writer’s tools are quite obvious on the page. I’m guessing a lot of readers don’t necessarily see this. Still, transparency is best. Having a reader pause is the kiss of death, whatever the reason. Though, I’m still a bit of the opinion that if you write something that strikes a reader as rather profound or impressive, and they stop to consider or re-read, I’m all good with that. I know as a reader, when some writer makes me re-read, because it’s just that damn good, I’m not irked. And more than once (yes, even in genre fiction), I’ve had to stop and think about something. It’s probably my college years haunting me, but I still dig that.

Anyway, this “furniture watching” I mention. One example would be the whole “calm before the storm” thing. Like the fireside chat the night before the big battle. Or even the post-battle mourning. It’s not that these things aren’t natural, or even that you shouldn’t do them. Often, you should do precisely these things. But you can also search for a setting, a scenario, that allows you to do it in a way that gives it a bit of freshness. Just a thought.

I think this variable pacing thing is one reason I enjoy epic songs as much as I do epic fantasy. A tune that rolls along for three minutes at the same pace will bore me after a while. It doesn’t seem to have any life of its own. It’s kind of obvious. It’s kind of like watching the furniture move. Unfortunately, gang, The Beatles are pretty guilty of this. Now, some of you are aware of The Beatles only because Harmonix made a Rockband console game of the vaunted group. That being the case, you’ve no religion about these Brits. Others of you have stopped reading. Ah, well. To make you feel better, it’s not just the Beatles.

The truth is, however you slice it, many of the Beatle’s songs were really formulaic. I think about category romances in the same way. You know, more readers are going to buy and enjoy category romances than most any other type of fiction this year, as in so many years past, and so many years to come. And at the end of the day, it’s all personal preference when it comes to the consumption of entertainment in any form, right? But, that doesn’t change the fact that them there Beatles just so often bore the socks right off me. It’s like listening to a metronome.

The same goes for a thriller that never gives you a chance to breathe. The fast pace only seems fast if there’s some slow as counterpoint. Ya see, when someone say “page turner,” which often might be confused with “fast paced,” they mean that they don’t stop turning pages. They may be pouring over every word multiple times, savoring the story, and that may be in a book that is by turns fast, then slow.

Just don’t be boring.

Another way to think about it is in terms of dynamics. We’ll dig into that element of music and its relationship to fiction more in another of these here little articles. But one side of dynamics is to bring up the volume or mood or energy, and in another moment dial it down. These things affect pace. I’ll tell you what I mean. Next time you’re in your car, put on a song that you know has some very intimate parts where the singer or guitarist or whatever is keeping it soft, and make sure that same song has some bombast—loud, heavy, aggressive parts. Then, set your volume on your car stereo and pay attention to how loud the song is throughout.

This is just so geeky cool to me. Cause you see, it’s all the same level. This is audio engineering and mastering. This is done so that there’s evenness for listeners so they’re not constantly trying to adjust the volume—helps radio stations, too. And here’s the kicker: Despite all this, your ear (until you’re paying attention, like I’ve just asked you to) will hear volume changes, will hear things fast and slow, even when it’s all at the same volume/tempo, etc.

You can do this with your fiction if you make smart use of the tools. Of course, tools are tools. Often, what might be sustaining the pace—fast or slow—is emotional impact to you or the character. But again, my friends, a good writer makes use of this, too. The point is that—like mastering song volume—you can control the experience of the reader, causing their blood to race or settle, and regardless of the pace you’re using, keep them interested and engaged. This is the point of good pacing—it’s not just a breathless rush to the novel’s end.

Now, here’s more geekiness. In Renaissance music, most music was understood to flow at a tempo defined by the tactus (the basic metrical unit of medieval music), roughly the rate of the human heartbeat. Which note value corresponded to the tactus was indicated by the mensural time signature.

The time signature is that thing that looks like a fraction at the far left of the rows that look a bit like an excel spreadsheet—I hate that I made that analogy. Anyway, the cool point is: These “Renaissancians” were really on to something, don’t you think? I mean, trying to figure out how the music itself moved along at the same rate as the human heart? That’s all kinds of awesome. As writers—and I’m going to lapse maudlin, so skip ahead if you hate that stuff—we should be doing the same thing.

By that, I don’t mean that it’s all gushy all the time. The human heart’s got lots of sides to it, don’t you think? I mean, there’s anger, sadness, concern, love, despair, ad infinitum, ad nauseum, ad-vertising.

Okay, one more bit of geekiness. Human perception perceives a range of tempo speed from about 30 to 240 beats per minute. “Romantic” songs tend to have a medium tempo, while dance music may range from slow to fast tempo. March music—you know John Phillips Souza, which you can still hear at a good, small town parade—is about 120 beats a minute. Faster tempi are more energizing, slower tempi more soothing or solemn.

But here’s the thing, in music, tempo indications are of no particular interest to the average listener, any more than pacing (as a term and technique) are of any particular interest to the average reader. It’s the effect they groove on, that they feel. I mean, have you ever heard . . . hell, have you ever said something like this yourself: “I’m in the mood for a good [fill in the blank] book.” I think a lot of this has to do with the kind of a “ride” the reader wants to take. Do they want a rollercoaster, a Sunday afternoon drive in the park, or do they want to float on a raft in the doldrums.

Your job, musician or writer, is to take them somewhere. And while sometimes the pace may not be Kentucky Derby fast, neither should it be slack. Dig?

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