Saturday, May 26, 2012

Storytellers Unplugged Revisited: The Fast and The Curious

The Fast and the Curious

There are a lot of tricky parts to writing a tale and one that is by far the trickiest is pacing. It’s the sort of thing that can make or break a short story or a novel with the greatest of ease.

How does one go about getting the right speed for a story? I haven’t the foggiest notion. But what the heck, we’ll look the idea over, and see what pops up, shall we?

First, and most obviously, a slowly paced story can be disastrous. As a reader, you better give me something to read about within the first few pages, or we’re not going to have a long association. I don’t mean you have to hit me in the face with an epic explosion of action, blood and gore, I mean you have to catch my attention. And if anyone here thinks for half a second that I’m hard on that sort of thing, they haven’t tried slipping a slow moving novel past a New York editor.

According to most of the publishers I’ve dealt with, the number one way to get a story rejected is to bore them to tears. (Well, actually that would be the number two method. The real number one method is not following professional standards when delivering a manuscript. So, remember, double spaced, on one side of the paper, don’t get all tricky and try putting it on oddly shaped paper or on colored paper, because you may rest assured it’s been done before and any unique tricks will bore most of the editors to tears.) Now, where were we? Oh, yeah, Pacing.

Every serious writer has their own voice. It might sound like someone else’s from time to time, but in the long run, it’s the writer’s. Pacing and voice have remarkably little to do with each other. One is the way you say it and the other is the way you lay it out. Am I confusing you? Probably, so I’ll explain. The voice you use to narrate a story is developed over time, and changes gradually in most cases. It’s instinctive. The pacing you decided on is a deliberate act that can completely alter the flow of the story.

In one of my earlier novels, FIREWORKS, I knew in advance that a LOT of the story I told would be slow moving, a gradual build up of tensions. With that in mind, I decided to open the book with a massive event that shaped the rest of the story: I dropped a UFO in the center of a lake and wiped out several hundred people. After something on that scale, I felt a little better about taking my time getting anywhere. It was necessary, in my opinion, to start with a bang and have the whimper follow it up.

I also decided early on that there would only be three or four lead characters whose perspectives would be shown to the readers. That was a bit of a change off for me, because normally I have at least a dozen different characters through whom the readers get to experience everything. So, again, I knew the pacing would be an issue as would the revelations that were set forth in the course of the novel. (And depending on who you talk to, I either did a stellar job or made a boring piece of fluff. But that’s not what we’re here to discuss.)
Pacing changes from story to story, novel to novel, out of necessity. If you’re writing the same story again and again, that won’t happen but if you’re genuinely trying to do something different each time, one of the biggest changes will probably be the speed at which the story moves along.

So how do you determine that? Well, that’s where pacing can get tricky. I tend to look at the speed of a story as an indicator of what the writer is trying to accomplish. Some writers prefer a slow build up to an ending that sends shivers. Others prefer to start off at high speed and never let off of the throttle. Both can be very effective, but as with all things have to be handled with care.

A slow build up is a fine thing, if you can sustain it and never lose the interest of your readers. In that sort of case you don’t really have to worry too much about the action, but you do have to worry about keeping the characters interesting and you better make good and damned sure they’re actually doing something worth noticing. In that sort of case subplots and interaction with other characters can make all of the difference. It’s just fine if the main point of the story takes a while, provided you can juggle the proper blend of events, people and introspection. Last month I did an essay on how much detail is too much. That was primarily with this sort of story in mind. Once again, and with feeling, if all I’m getting during the slow building storyline is a lot of descriptions of the wall paper, the ceiling, the interesting stains that have formed on the ceiling from the hole in the roof, and the smell of mildew, you’re not going to keep my interest until you finally reveal that the old house our under appreciated writer main character has inherited is haunted. I need a little something more. Is he having troubles with the missus? Are his kids being rebellious little shits? Does his imaginary lover make life interesting? I not only want to know these things, but I can pretty much guarantee I’ll find them one hell of a lot more interesting than the aforementioned wall paper designs.

You need to have details, granted, but I prefer the details about the people and what they are doing and how they are interacting, to the constant reminders that the house needs a good paint job. I suspect most people would agree with me on that (I’m probably wrong, but leave me my delusions.).

Using another analogy, if you’re going to go slowly and reveal the tapestry of a carefully woven novel or story, make sure you show me the interesting aspects of the pattern. Make me give a damn.

Now, there are varying degrees of speed involved here, but we’re mostly going to stick with the extremes. I could write volumes about the trials and tribulations of every possible pace, but a lot of it would just repeat the same things again and again. No point to that, so we’ll skip it.

I will pause here, however to add that a book with a leisurely pace doesn’t necessarily have to speed up. It can stay nice and casual as long as something is going on. The best example of that I’ve run across recently was Erik Tomblin’s RIVERSIDE BLUES, which remains a truly haunting and powerful story. At no point in the story does the pace suddenly shift into overdrive and leave you breathless. It manages to mess with your breathing and heart rate while staying at a comfortable speed. That, friends and neighbors, is a sign of excellence that I envy deeply. Mark my words: If Tomblin keeps managing that sort of feat, he’ll be considered a master in short order.

A nearly flawless example of a gradual build up, by the way, can be found in Jeff Strand’s GRAVEROBBERS WANTED (NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY.) Read it and you’ll understand.

So on now, to the full burn, full throttle story line. It’s damned hard to maintain that sort of attitude and pacing in a book. It works best in cases where the writer has decided to just pull out all the stops and damn the consequences. If that’s the trail you want to travel, have a blast, but expect every possible obstacle to get in your way.

In a nutshell, there are very few tricks that can be taught for this sort of thing, but there are a few. Short sentences help. We are, as readers, trained to notice things like commas and semicolons and even the occasional period. The more you use, the more your readers will pause in their reading. It’s an automatic thing. So, if you go crazy with the punctuation, you’re going to slow down the pace automatically. Therefore, short sentences, with less punctuation, will actually speed up the pacing on a subconscious level.

Ironically, there are a few authors out there who have chosen to go in the opposite way and will deliberately write longer sentences and descriptions without any unnecessary punctuation because the lack of punctuation will also increase the speed of a longer sentence. The end result is the same but the initial cause is different the change brought about can also cause the reader’s trained eye to unconsciously speed up the tempo for reading and cause a sort of mental breathlessness.

But short sentences can do it to. The shorter the better. A little sample of a description. Then you move on to the next sentence. And you do it all over again. Do it right and you have the desired effect. See what I mean?
Short paragraphs can have the exact same effect.

Problems can arise in that sort of writing. It can add to the desired effect, but is hardly enough to make handle the pacing alone. The story should be first and foremost. Smoke and mirrors can wait on the sidelines where they belong otherwise.

I really do tend to think that pacing is instinctive in most cases. What you need to say will be reflected in the way you write naturally, but it can’t hurt to be aware of a few of the parlor tricks used in generating the proper suspense.

Just make sure you are aware of the pacing when you write. It takes time and practice, just like damned near every part of writing. There are things I would definitely change about FIREWORKS if I were to write it today instead of ten years ago. That’s part of being a writer. If you aren’t changing, as I have said before, you’re probably doing something wrong.
James A. Moore

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