Writing Exercise – Changing Tone and Pace

Here’s a fun exercise I’ve always heard about, but never actually sat down and did.We know a lot affects the real meaning of words. And several listeners can get all sorts of different meanings from the same phrase. I thought about it again as I was selecting a short piece of text to submit as a writing sample. Without divulging anything further on the scene or characters, or else risk muddying the waters of this exercise, suffice it to say there are a group of 12-year-olds. They’ve got themselves hiding in a corner alcove of a tavern during which a prize-fighting tournament is being held, and when a bouncer got scent of trouble and nearly stumbled upon the group, one of the boys – a lad named Reggie Books – broke an ran for the door. This short snippet is the immediate aftermath.

Here are the 151 words I chose:

Rumwald’s voice sounded from the other side of the tavern, apparently oblivious to the scandal. “What are you about?” he asked his bouncer. “What’s the matter?”

“A boy,” called the bouncer, his back to the shadowy alcove where the remaining kids were crouched. “He was hiding. He’s off now, the little bugger.” He stooped to retrieve the fallen chair and set it upright.

“Don’t just stand there, they travel in packs! See about any more!” hollered Rumwald. “Fortian be having my hide if the guard come to know I’ve let youngins scurry about on tourney nights!”

Back in the alcove, Rosie scoffed. “When we catch up to Books he’s going to hear about this,” she muttered under her breath. Then she flashed Keldares a grin. “What’s the word, richie? Are you fast?”

Keldares found himself smiling back despite the fact that it sounded like suicide. “Try and keep up.”

Simple, right? Knowing what I know about the full scene, it’s easier for me to infer what is really being said and how every feels. Honestly, I don’t even need to infer anything, because I’m the author, so I’ve been inside the characters’ heads a lot. The message came from me. Well, mostly. (I say this because sometimes characters do talk on their own, the little bastards.)

So let’s experiment with how we can change the message without changing the spoken dialog, actions, or setting. And for extra fun, keep the word count the same:

Rumwald’s voice sounded from the other side of the tavern, apparently oblivious to the scandal. “What are you about?” he asked his bouncer. “What’s the matter?”

“A boy,” called the bouncer, his back to the shadowy alcove where the remaining kids were crouched. “He was hiding. He’s off now, the little bugger.” He stooped to retrieve the fallen chair and set it upright.

“Don’t just stand there, they travel in packs! See about any more!” hollered Rumwald. “Fortian be having my hide if the guard come to know I’ve let youngins scurry about on tourney nights!”

Back in the alcove, Rosie scoffed. “When we catch up to Books he’s going to hear about this,” she muttered nervously. She looked to Keldares and forced a grin. “What’s the word, richie? Are you fast?”

Keldares smiled back, knowing this was suicide. The words caught in his throat. “Try and keep up.”

And once more:

Rumwald’s voice boomed from the other side of the tavern, apparently oblivious to the scandal. “What are you about?” he demanded. “What’s the matter?”

“A boy,” stuttered the bouncer, his back to the shadowy alcove where the remaining kids were crouched. “He was hiding. He’s off now, the little bugger.” He noticed the fallen chair and rushed to set it upright.

“Don’t just stand there, they travel in packs! See about any more!” hollered Rumwald. “Fortian be having my hide if the guard come to know I’ve let youngins scurry about on tourney nights!”

Back in the alcove, Rosie scoffed. “When we catch up to Books he’s going to hear about this,” she whispered. She bit her lip before flashing Keldares an uneasy grin. “What’s the word, richie? Are you fast?”

Keldares found himself smiling back. Rosie was crazy, but it was their only shot. “Try and keep up.”

The characters themselves can change with a twist on their emotions or the adjectives used to describe their actions. Likewise, having other character’s react accordingly can reinforce what you, as a writer, are trying to imply about your characters. Remember you cannot (and should not) try to tell the readers what they should think. But realize what you want to say, how you want to say, and put the facts down on paper that support it.

Naturally, I could have done a great deal more if I changed the word count as well. I could have sped up the pace of the scene just by the amount of words I used. The less description, the greater the urgency of an action scene (typically).

Barbara slid down the hallway, tugging at door knobs, but everything was locked. The baying of dogs was growing closer, and she swore she could feel eyes on her back.

Desperately she threw her weight against one and bounced off. Then there was a *click* behind her.

Barbara froze.

And using more words, describing sunsets as it were – think of the rosy fingers of dawn – you can slow time down.

Slowly, painfully, Barbara turned on her heel, eyes closed and breath held. Was it over so quickly? Did she ever even stand a chance to begin with? Did either of them? No, she guessed they hadn’t. James was already dead, and even though she couldn’t see the face of her adversary, she knew she was facing them now.

It was fine. They would have to shoot her like this. Face to face. Not in the back. She tried to find the courage to open her own eyes, wanted to make them look into her soul before they pulled the trigger, but she couldn’t. She hadn’t the strength left.

The wait was more painful then any bullet, and she silently wondered how long they would make her suffer before they got it over with. Her heart pounded in her ears, and the dogs – those damn dogs! – they wouldn’t shut up.

Wait. The dogs. They were getting further away. Why would they..?

Barbara opened her eyes, shocked to see James staring at her from an open doorway across the hall, a Pabst Blue Ribbon in his hand.

You can also use this minimalist approach for just the opposite, though. And give a character who is very laid back or immovable very short pieces of prose. Combine it with other characters, who are a flurry of action, and they contrast each other nicely.

Barbara was on him in an instant, grabbing at his face and blubbering like an idiot. James took it all quietly as ever as she slobbered on his shoulder.

“I – I was certain you were dead! Where did you go? James, where were – how did you..? My God, James, they are going to find us, they’re going to be here any moment!” She started to run, but he wasn’t following. “James! We need to go, we need to move!”

She tugged at his arm and pulled him in a circle, her mind wheeling to much to get her bearings. Finally, she stopped a stared hard at him. “What are you doing?! Why are you just standing there!” Her voice was desperate.

Silently, he handed her his beer.

“What is this for?” she asked incredulously.

“You’re a nervous wreck,” said James.

~Meredith Purk

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