Living, Fast and Slow

On the importance of pacing.

November 30, 2020 • 3 min read

At the core of narrative design is the concept of pacing.

Interesting things need to happen pretty frequently, and at a brisk enough tempo to hold our attention. New elements need to be introduced over time, and new situations should test our characters and help them grow.

That said, an intense pace can only be sustained for so long. Even action movies and thrillers – good ones, anyway – intentionally bracket their sequences of intensity and turmoil with moments where our audience can reorient themselves, and process what they’ve seen. Sometimes we need a short montage as our heroes recover from a major setback, or even a few seconds in a ventilation shaft to breathe and crack a couple jokes before we jump back into action.

While great storytellers work hard to manage their pacing and give the audience alternating action and reflection, life does no such thing. Our world, haphazard as it is, is perfectly happy to give us a year of almost nothing at all, and then a year of incessantly everything so much. Where an author or screenwriter will pick one to three plots to weave together, and give much thought to how the audience’s attention is directed to important moments yet try not to overwhelm us, life will toss us eleven plots at once, and say, “Here’s some stuff, I guess?”. Rather inconsiderate, frankly.

Knowing this, society has some structures, rituals of a sort, that attempt to regulate the pacing of this otherwise random walk we’re on. We designate a few days a year, here and there, as holidays. We elevate a certain time of year as “The Holidays” and normalize the idea that some kind of reflection, reconciliation, or recuperation may happen then – and then, perhaps, set us off on January 1st with some new goals, and a renewed focus on doing better the following year.

Or at least a fresh mind and a belly full of hazelnut chocolates.

So I guess we’re not entirely on our own with regards to pacing our lives, but for the most part we need to take the reins when it comes to what’s enough and what’s too much.

Meanwhile, cooped up at home, a friend or coworker is less likely to notice if we need a break, a shoulder, or a kick in the pants. In such a state, it’s even easier to let the world’s randomness put us off track. To let it overwhelm, or stagnate, or – a pairing that once sounded unlikely but is recently all the rage – both overwhelm and stagnate at the same time.

We all know the tools for managing this, in theory. Saying no to more things, or yes to more things, as appropriate. Putting in the time to evaluate our habits and goals, instead of just going day by day. Reaching out to friends and to professional help as needed. Long hot baths and boxes of hazelnut chocolates. We can’t always control the plot, but we can control our attention, and how we as the protagonist work through what we’ve been given.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to source some chocolate and purge a horde of OmniFocus tasks I’m never going to get around to. It’s going to be glorious.

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© Allen Pike. You can find me on Twitter, contact me, or check out Steamclock.