Pacing is when athletes spread out their strength and power over a period of time rather than in short bursts; longer distance runners use the technique, as well as swimmers and bicyclists. Pacing helps an athlete save themselves for the entirety of a competition/sport rather than just the beginning or end. Through pacing they’re able to spend hours giving the amorous 110% rather than just minutes or seconds—like in sprinting, etc. (Usain Bolt has no need to pace himself since he’s only running for nine seconds at a time.) But what about writers? Writers too need to pace themselves when telling a story; and the memoir Cures for Hunger by Deni Y. Bechard is a great example of literary pacing.
Just as a runner can burst ahead at the beginning of a race, foreshadowing a future win, so too can a writer burst ahead at the beginning of a novel/memoir and foreshadow what’s to come. Bechard started his memoir with a prologue in which we learn that his father has died alone and in a cabin, that his father has had trouble with the law, and that the two were estranged. Then Bechard took a jump backward and began talking about his childhood, and so started the pacing; Bechard started off ahead, letting us know what the outcome was going to be, and then it was time to just sit back and watch the other 26.2 miles of the marathon.
Through the memoir, we are shown a chronological order of events that have taken place in Bechard’s life, and that of his father, Edwin. Bechard doesn’t give us too much at once, just a consistent stride throughout. Foot after foot until the race is over. That’s how it is for running, swimming and bicycling; and that’s how it is for writing, too. A writer needs to set the tone/pace that they’re going to use through their book, essay, and memoir, and it needs to be a pace that they’re comfortable with, that they can maintain, and that will ultimately, in a sense, lead them to victory! This is what interests us as readers and spectators. We become curious whether or not the person who takes the lead is actually going to win: What if an underdog comes from behind? What if the person trips? What if they win in a way that wasn’t expected? What if no one took the lead and we’re only watching to find out who eventually wins? We watch and read because we’re interested in the outcome, and it’s the pacing that keeps us going as we follow along the journey, cheering, hooting, and hollering, crying in victory and defeat, along with the winners and losers, and the characters and narrators.
Bechard tells the story on his terms, letting us know right from the beginning that he’s going to be taking us through his childhood year by year. When he introduces characters he neither introduces them obtrusively nor too circumspectly. His choice of what/when to describe certain scenery/emotions is dependable in the sense that he gives us the cues so we know what to expect—the way a runner might, for instance, always tilt his head down when running up hill. He never changes his pace and gives us too much or too little at a time, it is the same consistency through the book, little by little we find more and more and step closer and closer to the end. It is a good technique; however, not all authors use this technique. Sometimes for better or worse. Some authors will jump around with their prose. One minute they’re ten years old and then next they’re thirty. One minute we’re introduced to a dozen family members and the next we’re engrossed in ten pages of internal dialogue. In the military this is called 30, 60, 90; it’s an exercise to increase your endurance. It’s where you start walking for thirty seconds, jog for sixty seconds and then sprint for ninety seconds; and then you repeat this again, and again, and again. It’s an exercise, but this, too, can be parlayed into literary terms. Bechard takes on a very clear and steady pace throughout his story. He doesn’t have any huge time jumps—I.E. he doesn’t go from ages thirteen to thirty in a matter of pages—and we are with him every step of the way. Other authors take a more 30, 60, 90 approach, where they will start off slow, work their way up, start sprinting ahead with the story and introduce a handful of new characters, slow down again and focus on just one character or plotline, and then work their way back up. They are simply different techniques that work well in different situations and with different people.
Pacing, though, I believe, is important for any writer, and by discovering this idea of literary-stride, through reading Cures for Hunger, I realized that I needed to look at my own work and see what type of pacing that I was using; or whether I was evening using pacing in the first place? Was I just blindly running down the road taking stops whenever tired, or was I pacing myself with something that’s comfortable, something the reader could follow along with and would be interested in, something I could maintain and enjoy? When someone’s running a long-distance marathon, the last thing in the world he wants to do is start sprinting right out of the gate at a speed that is unmaintainable. He’ll become tired, winded, and unable to complete the race. In writing, one of the worst things a piece can do is start off strong and then let the reader down the more it drags on, getting slower and slower until finally the book is put down, unfinished. But, then again, there is a need to start off strong. Not too many runners, if any, can go from a last place start to a first place win. In writing we need to start off our pieces strong, but not too strong if unable to deliver that intensity throughout. The start needs to set the pace for the rest of the book: how it will be told, what it will be about, and how things will unfold. We need to see strength right from the beginning, but it cannot be overused or unmaintainable.
Now, granted, the literary pacing/athletic pacing analogy might be a little far-stretched but, in a general sense, it works. As I read Cures for Hunger, the strong start of the prologue is what initially hooked my interest. The foreshadowing of things to come interested me in seeing how things were going to unfold and come about. Then, as the story carried on further and he took us through the years, slowly giving us pieces of the puzzle, we learned more and more, until finally the end of the book. As a reader, I knew from the strong start, how it was going to end, but the pacing of the story, and having things unfold, is what kept me interested, even though I already knew the ending. There are different ways of doing this, and I’m tepid in the idea of using it in my own current work, but it was interesting to have in mind while reading Bechard’s work. Without the prologue, I don’t believe I would have been as interested, initially, in the book. If I didn’t know what the story was going to be about, and I just started reading about someone’s childhood, then I wouldn’t have been interested. But the prologue let me know that it wasn’t just a normal childhood I’d be reading about, it was a childhood of abandonment, of adventure, of estrangement, and that ended with the death of Bechard’s father. Prologue foreshadowing is only one technique, and even though I’m not sure whether I’ll be using it on my current work, the idea of it, and of pacing, in general, I will surely keep with me throughout all future work.