Pacing Techniques with Jeff Vandermeer

One thing I noticed (and loved) about BORNE was that, compared to Vandermeer’s previous work, it’s much lighter on its feet. It dances and weaves and generally just progresses at a much more rapid pace than say, FINCH, which was much more grounded and plodding. The scene we’ll look at today, with rapid problem solving and quickly escalating conflict, is probably the ultimate example of what I mean. Spoilers abound, this time, since it’s such an important scene that takes place late in the novel. 

THE CHALLENGE


One of the missing skills in my toolbox, which I’m trying to improve upon, is the ability to pull back from the level of grounded, moment by moment play by play I do in a scene. For much of my writing time–especially while working on script writing–I’ve focused on writing as an act of continuity, sentence after sentence, moment after moment. But being able to pull back to even a detailed, immersive kind of summary allows you to float and bend through time in a really powerful way. It puts you in charge of how long each event takes and allows you a greater control of the scope of your story. 

Every time I’ve attempted to do this, it’s been a failure. So, as a part of looking at this, I wanted to take a look at Vandermeer, who is sort of touchstone author for me. But I’ll likely look at a similar topic with other authors as well. 

THE STORY


When it comes to BORNE, I’ve already talked about it a lot. Go look at one of those for a nice summary. Here I just want to appreciate how different it is from much of Vandermeer’s previous works, even his more recent work, like ANNHILATION. 

In some ways, BORNE feels like a messy, chaotic book. But part of that feeling comes from his deployment of an incredible range of styles, moods, and techniques. One of those, of course, is a huge range of pacing techniques that shows a very deliberate methodology. That’s what I’d like to talk about in the following scene, which rapidly moves through a series of problems and escalations, which I might have spent fifteen pages writing, but Vandermeer crams into just three:

I woke several hours later to tiny meteorites hitting my face. I woke up to Wick’s fireflies winking out, not one by one but in droves, swaths going dark, and the dead bodies falling onto the bed. Our alarm system.       

I shook Wick awake.       

“Wick–we need to go. Now.”     

He stared up at the ceiling bleary-eyed, and then he was reaching for hits pants and we were putting on our clothes in a frenzy.     

Thirty fireflies were left, then twenty, then ten, then we lived in darkness except of the faint pale glow from Wick and his remaining worms. The bed was covered in little dead dark bodies.      

“Where are they coming from?” I asked, even though I knew. What we didn’t know is who the intruders were.       

“Everywhere.” A preternatural calm from Wick as he pulled out his emergency pack, gave me mine.       

My heart was a bludgeon trying to get out of my chest.       

We had what we needed to survive. We knew our escape route. It had been maybe two minutes since I’d noticed the dying fireflies.       

Wick threw open the door to his apartment.       

The corridor was full of bears.                                                                                                                    *   *  *
A wall of coarse, dull fur given depth by shadow. The glimpse of the massive head of another Mord proxy beyond the side and haunch of the one blocking our doorway. The smell of unconstrained savagery that close poured into the apartment: blood and mud and shit and rotting flesh. The traces of leaves and lichen, the hot, bitter aftertaste of Mord breath that filled up the corridor, finding our new air.     

Half a second before I shut the door.       

Two seconds before Wick fortified it with his last beetles, four seconds before Wick had pushed me up into the air duct, five seconds before I pulled him up into the air duct.       

Ten seconds before the bears burst into the apartment and destroyed it. Swatted at the entrance to the air duct, Wick bringing his legs up to his chest, and then, as I pushed forward, surging almost on top of me to get away from those claws, those questioning paws.       

The bellowing and the terrible smell were right below us as we crawled through the air duct. A smashing, splintering sound was a paw punching up through the air duct behind us. Then another. More, following, ripping thorough the ceiling, clawing their way toward us, others trying to anticipate, get ahead of us.       

We veered off at an intersection, both silent, feeling our bellies exposed as we crawled as fast as we could because the air duct still ran above the corridor. One well-timed swipe from below and the ceiling would cave in and our entrails pour out in a cascade of blood.       

We were both like blind, dumb things burrowing in a panic so absolute that it came down like a dark, deep wall and became something like a great calm. Our packs were abandoned down below. Our minds were down below, being feasted on by the bears. Only our bodies had escaped, kept churning through the tunnel of the air duct reflexively, must soon come to a halt but kept going anyway. Our only urge was to get away, to get away, to get away and we pushed forward heedless of harm, bruising our shins, scraping off the skin on our knees, because our devotion to escape form the place we had spent so much time defending was so mindless and absolute that nothing else mattered, nothing else registered.       

At first I as in front of Wick, kicking him in the face without meaning to, and then he was in front and I was eating his kicks and yet there was no pain, not then. That came later, along with the lingering ache across our bodies, as if we’d been fish thrashing in a net, half in and half out of the water, unable to drown and unable to live.     

Finally, though, the hot, raw pain of my bloody palm against the grit of a shallow mound of gravel and jagged pebbles brought me back out of my animal self.       

“Wick! Stop!” I hissed, but Wick didn’t hear me. “Wick!” But still he didn’t hear me.       

I caught Wick’s foot, grappled with him, pulled him back into myself, pinned down his arms in that space and felt a shudder run through his body and with it a kind of resignation or surrender, and he went limp.     

 “Just listen,” I said in his ear.       

We listened. We could hear the bears in the distance, delivered to us via the acoustics of the air duct as a kind of tinny droning roar. A dim thick digging sound also sounded far away.       

“Where are we?” Wick asked.       

“I have no idea.” If he didn’t know, I definitely didn’t know.       

All I could see was air duct five feet ahead and air duct five feet behind.       

“They destroyed it all. They’re destroying it all,” Wick whispered, thrust into a pain I knew wasn’t all physical.       

The attack had sprung all our traps, destroyed our biotech, had come from so many points of the compass at once that the snapping of those leans, the ease of it, traumatized us almost more than the physicality of the invasion. An intricate map, burned, with no copy. It made it hard to think. It made it hard to breathe. We could not even frame the questions that would come hurtling toward us later, like why and how.       

And we were still in danger, we both knew that.        

[as the scene goes on, they make a plan for escape]

From How We Lost What We Had Fought For in BORNE, p227-229

THE SOLUTION

This is going to be a little piecemeal. I just want to take a look at specifically what techniques are used in the prose to create different kinds of pacing in different moments, and consider why that choice was made.

So I’m going to go through these one at a time. 

[1] I woke several hours later to tiny meteorites hitting my face. I woke up to Wick’s fireflies winking out, not one by one but in droves, swaths going dark, and the dead bodies falling onto the bed. Our alarm system.  

I shook Wick awake.    

 “Wick–we need to go. Now.” 

This moment, with the fireflies going out, seems to me to be unambiguously a traditional scene with the moment-by-moment pace that such moments should have. It’s the close attention and focus on an the fireflies and detailing specifically how the fireflies are dying that slows this down to the level of scene. The paragraphing of this moment also is consistent with most scenic writing, with a new paragraph for each action and for the one line of dialogue. And while dialogue can appear in some summary moments (especially in works by writers who make constant use of summary) it has a tendency to slow the pace and ground the event in a scene. 

[2] He stared up at the ceiling bleary-eyed, and then he was reaching for hits pants and we were putting on our clothes in a frenzy.       

Thirty fireflies were left, then twenty, then ten, then we lived in darkness except of the faint pale glow from Wick and his remaining worms. The bed was covered in little dead dark bodies.

Notice how quickly the pacing ramps up in this segment. Part of that is what’s not given: no particulars. We’re not given the color or sound of them getting dressed, or how they get dressed (like we were told how the fireflies were dying in the first segment), or what they’re thinking about while doing it. This part is “told” more than shown, and is much closer to summary than the first segment, although it’s probably not quite what would traditionally be called “summary.” In the next paragraph, we see the fireflies rapidly die (note the listing technique, which we’ll return to], and we get a few particulars about the “pale glow from Wick” and then, suddenly, a distinct image that drops us into scene: “The bed was covered in little dead dark bodies.” What’s notable about this, I think, is the use of adjectives. They create a more specific, more grounded image and slow down the pace of change. It’s also nice and short, almost punchy, making it feel like a landing zone at the end of the runway that was the previous sentence. 

[3] “Where are they coming from?” I asked, even though I knew. What we didn’t know is who the intruders were.       

“Everywhere.” A preternatural calm from Wick as he pulled out his emergency pack, gave me mine.       

My heart was a bludgeon trying to get out of my chest.       

We had what we needed to survive. We knew our escape route. It had been maybe two minutes since I’d noticed the dying fireflies.       

Wick threw open the door to his apartment.       

The corridor was full of bears.

[4] A wall of coarse, dull fur given depth by shadow. The glimpse of the massive head of another Mord proxy beyond the side and haunch of the one blocking our doorway. The smell of unconstrained savagery that close poured into the apartment: blood and mud and shit and rotting flesh. The traces of leaves and lichen, the hot, bitter aftertaste of Mord breath that filled up the corridor, finding our new air. 

Notice the paragraphing again; this moment is very much “in scene” in the traditional sense. We get dialogue, moment by moment action delivered in discrete paragraphs. We even get their reaction to this moment, finally, a particular that seems to really slow down the pace when delivered with a metaphor in a standalone paragraph. Then of course, another very final landing-zone: “The corridor was full of bears” followed by a line break, for good measure. 

That line break clearly exists to put emphasis on the final line in [3] but I think it’s also interesting that the story then reopens with an extended description, putting us distinctly in scene but definitely at a slower pace than before. This is a macro shot, a closeup. We get are given several sentences of particulars on the bears–how they smell (in a multi-faceted way), their positioning in the hall, the exactly look of this bear’s fur in the doorway, and how it notices the “new air” from the open door. It’s easy to overlook how precise this is, how slow. Is it fair even to call this “scenic” in the typical sense? I’m not sure. This is a question I’m hoping to look into in my next post. But for now, it’s certainly close to what we consider a scene, and it’s the wealth of sensory detail delivered over the course of many words, and the slow motion sense of action that gives this moment that scenic feel. We essentially run through a long, detailed list of every sensory possibility, even including taste. This list, by gradually revealing the descriptive details, and picking out individual images shows the bears in motion, but gives a sense of time slowing down. Consider the difference between this current sentence: “The glimpse of the massive head of another Mord proxy beyond the side and haunch of the one blocking our doorway” and what it could say: “The massive head of another Mord Proxy swings between the side and haunch of the nearer one.” There’s a significant pacing difference between simply noticing the head, as in the original, and showing it moving. Especially when using the verb “swing,” which evokes a certain kind of speed. 

[5] Half a second before I shut the door.       

Two seconds before Wick fortified it with his last beetles, four seconds before Wick had pushed me up into the air duct, five seconds before I pulled him up into the air duct.       

Ten seconds before the bears burst into the apartment and destroyed it.

This segment is fascinating to me. Similar to the segment [4] with the bears, it shows a series of static images, but instead of in different sentences, it’s in different clauses. And instead of all being tied to one subject (the bears) this shows Wick and Rachel in pretty rapid movement, flashes of progress rapidly progressing. This is actually a pretty rapid pace. Vandermeer could have shown them stretching to reach for the entrance, fighting their way up, the metal rim cutting into their hands. But he didn’t. And the way their movement is all delivered in one sentence, rather than in a series of sentences or paragraphs, speaks to the summary-like nature of this moment–that construction definitely picks up the pace. And then notice the enormous difference between [4] and the final sentence: “Ten seconds before the bears burst into the apartment and destroyed it.” It’s a massively quick action with sharp verbs (burst! destroy!) but notice how even the verbs aren’t painting a picture, aren’t delivering any particulars. That’s pure summary. 

[6] Swatted at the entrance to the air duct, Wick bringing his legs up to his chest, and then, as I pushed forward, surging almost on top of me to get away from those claws, those questioning paws.       

The bellowing and the terrible smell were right below us as we crawled through the air duct. A smashing, splintering sound was a paw punching up through the air duct behind us. Then another. More, following, ripping through the ceiling, clawing their way toward us, others trying to anticipate, get ahead of us.       

We veered off at an intersection, both silent, feeling our bellies exposed as we crawled as fast as we could because the air duct still ran above the corridor. One well-timed swipe from below and the ceiling would cave in and our entrails pour out in a cascade of blood.

Another fascinating edge case here. Definitely not clearly summary, and if you were looking at this through a scene/summary binary, it’s definitely scene, right? We see the particular way that Wick moves, the particular smell and sound of the first bear claw cutting through the air duct. And yet, it’s more of a quick sketch than anything really drawn out. Certainly it has nothing on [4] and it’s definitely not quite as grounded even as [1] in detail and dialogue. But the paragraphing is very scene like, with each action getting a dedicated paragraph. 

It definitely trends from particulars (the specific way that Wick moves) to generalities (“We veered off at an intersection”) but even the half that could be seen as summary is full of particulars, and we see here a carry-through of conflict that definitely ties this moment together as one. The entire time, the main concern is that the bears will claw through the duct at just the right place, killing them. 

I see, here, another list. “More, following, ripping through the ceiling, clawing their way toward us, others trying to anticipate, get ahead of us.” This is a list of actions, and particular ones at that, like you might see in a scene. But the actions are also broadened by the way these actions are attributed to a collective entity. 

[7] We were both like blind, dumb things burrowing in a panic so absolute that it came down like a dark, deep wall and became something like a great calm. Our packs were abandoned down below. Our minds were down below, being feasted on by the bears. Only our bodies had escaped, kept churning through the tunnel of the air duct reflexively, must soon come to a halt but kept going anyway. Our only urge was to get away, to get away, to get away and we pushed forward heedless of harm, bruising our shins, scraping off the skin on our knees, because our devotion to escape from the place we had spent so much time defending was so mindless and absolute that nothing else mattered, nothing else registered.       

At first I as in front of Wick, kicking him in the face without meaning to, and then he was in front and I was eating his kicks and yet there was no pain, not then. That came later, along with the lingering ache across our bodies, as if we’d been fish thrashing in a net, half in and half out of the water, unable to drown and unable to live. 

Here we finally get into Rachel’s head a little bit, learn how she’s reacting to this moment. We get lots of particulars in this moment about her internal state, and lots of adjectives. This certainly slows the pace a little. Of course, if we look at the action in the scene, it clearly trends on the summary end of the scale. The action takes place over an undisclosed period of time, but it tells of turns and multiple injuries, so it feels as if the time period were extended, and the writing itself could definitely be slowed down to elucidate all of the bumps and injuries and awkwardness. The structure of the sentences here matters too, with the pileup of commas and clauses doing double duty–firstly, giving a sense of rapid pace, and secondly giving a dizzying sense of circularity. Doing most of the summary work, most of the action-oriented work, is (again!) a list. The list of injuries is what creates a pile-up of action that progresses rapidly. 

And then we land int he second paragraph, which is super interesting. Something that never quite occurred to me is the value of ramping down from summary into scene. Vandermeer basically uses the idea of injury to transition from the general list, into a few extra particulars about “eating his kicks” which starts to slow down the pace, without actually reading like scene quite yet. And then it slows down even more, with a very specific action at the start of segment [8]. 

[8] Finally, though, the hot, raw pain of my bloody palm against the grit of a shallow mound of gravel and jagged pebbles brought me back out of my animal self.       

“Wick! Stop!” I hissed, but Wick didn’t hear me. “Wick!” But still he didn’t hear me.       

I caught Wick’s foot, grappled with him, pulled him back into myself, pinned down his arms in that space and felt a shudder run through his body and with it a kind of resignation or surrender, and he went limp.     

“Just listen,” I said in his ear.       

We listened. We could hear the bears in the distance, delivered to us via the acoustics of the air duct as a kind of tinny droning roar. A dim thick digging sound also sounded far away.       

“Where are we?” Wick asked.       

“I have no idea.” If he didn’t know, I definitely didn’t know.       

All I could see was air duct five feet ahead and air duct five feet behind.   

“They destroyed it all. They’re destroying it all,” Wick whispered, thrust into a pain I knew wasn’t all physical.       

The attack had sprung all our traps, destroyed our biotech, had come from so many points of the compass at once that the snapping of those leans, the ease of it, traumatized us almost more than the physicality of the invasion. An intricate map, burned, with no copy. It made it hard to think. It made it hard to breathe. We could not even frame the questions that would come hurtling toward us later, like why and how.       

And we were still in danger, we both knew that.  

There’s not much extra I have to add at this point. Segment [8] is a pretty straight-forward scene. What’s grounding this? Mostly dialogue, but also particulars of movement and imagery. In fact, it’s imagery (“bloody palm against the grit of a shallow mound of gravel and jagged pebbles”) that takes the semi-scenic quality of the last paragraph of [7] and drops it into true scene.

What I’m interested in at this point is WHY and HOW? 

Why does Vandermeer write this scene with constant acceleration and deceleration? And how does he pull it off?

When I think about it, and when I consider my experience reading this scene in the novel, it’s pretty simple. The “why” is clear–Vandermeer felt like certain moments needed to be drawn out for suspense (the discover of the bears, for instance) while others needed to be sped up to keep the scene punchy and action-packed (the travel through the air duct, a common trope that in movies can take up to 10 unbearable minutes) while others still are given full scenes because of their importance (the conversation in [8] brings the scene back to the novels core focus, Rachel and Wick’s relationship). Summary is pumped up and made engaging using sharp, exciting verbs, and while dropping most of the action-based particulars, is the most-full of emotional, internal particulars. 

As to how, that’s simple too, I think. What makes this part of the story feel so cohesive, despite the jittery pace, is in part that this pace follows the state of the characters. When they’re distant and automatic, the prose becomes summary-like, and when the characters are on high alert, noticing every minute detail of their environment, the text drops into scene. Often, Vandermeer even transitions with state-changing language for the characters, as in [8] when he says “brought me back out of my animals self.” Given that this story is narrated in first person, this puts us close to the character and makes it only obvious that the story would ebb and flow with her state. 

FINALLY 
At least for Vandermeer, there seem to be a handful of specific techniques he uses to create varying levels of pace. 

For summary 

  1. Use lists to make action pass quickly. 
  2. Cram the emotional beats here. 
  3. Pass this by in one or two larger paragraphs. 
  4. Cut down on sensory detail and punch up the action verbs. 

For scene 

  1. Pump up that sensory detail! The more you include, the slower the pace. 
  2. Dialogue seems to really work, maybe because it’s also sensory detail. Including small clips of dialogue in summary can do a lot to slow down a summary and bring it to life. 
  3. Smaller paragraphs, dedicated one to each action.

Some of this is, of course, not at all surprising. If anything, I’m surprised at how simple the techniques actually are. But I’m also impressed by the deliberate transitions, which exist in sort of half-scene, half-summary states to smooth out the space between.

What did you notice that I missed? Is there a particular part of a book or story you turn to for an example of pacing or scene and summary in action?