Monday, September 30, 2013

On Pace

Here I am today, minding my own business over lunch after a typically harsh Monday morning, and an article crosses my view on pacing in storytelling.  Hey, interesting topic!

Well, it is.  No, really.

One of the first--not the first; that honor belongs to On Writing--books I read on the craft of writing was Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel.  I mean, who wouldn't want to write a breakout novel, right?  The breakout novel is, after all, the one that makes you rich.  It's the one that makes it so you can choose to, or you can choose not to, quit working your day job to focus on penning the next successful novel (that by that point everybody is going to want--hey, another bonus!).  It's not necessarily your first, unless your first happens to be about sparkly vampires or repetitive kinky sex.  With Dan Brown the breakout novel was his fourth, in fact.

Hey, I'm on--hmm--number four!  What a coincidence.  Hmm....

Anyway, there was a lot of good stuff in Maass's book, but one of the key things that stuck with me was his exhortation to build tension.  Tension is, after all, what creates conflict, which is in turn what makes plots go 'round, and it is ultimately what makes readers keep reading.

Tension.  Got it.

Maass's assertion is that writers need to put tension on every page.  It's a good assertion, I think, because tension on page 88 makes me want to turn to page 89, and tension on that page in turn makes me want to turn to page 90.  I can't tell you the number of times I've put down *cough cough*'s books (if you've read any series about wheels of, say, time, then you'll know who I'm talking about) because I got bored reading pages of description about the grass the horses were walking on.

Tension!  More tension!

Rebecca LuElla Miller has a great post that summarizes Maass's point about tension better than I could.  Since I don't generally like writing something that somebody else has already written, I'll point you over there for more info.

But can it be too much?

What caught my eye today was a blog post over on David Farland's site.  In it, he suggested kinda the opposite of Maass: "I see a lot of trends in today’s literature. Perhaps the biggest one is that every writer seems to be in a rush. Many new writers try to keep the pacing blazing hot. They’ve heard that in today’s world, kids are trained to think in “sound bites,” and anything longer than a television commercial bores them."

Farland's recommendation?  Slow down.  "Your job as an author is to pace your story," he says.

Uh oh.

I feel like drawing out one of those cartoon scenes, the one where the guy is running, slowing way down the whole time, and eventually is moving in such slow motion that he's almost standing still.  Meanwhile he's saying something that turns into a long drawn-out call: in this case, "more tennnnssssssssionnnnnnnnnn!"

In other words, I feel like I'm pulled two different directions.

But is it really two different directions?  Maybe not.  It's possible, as I've been finding out in my own writing, to lengthen the work and add to the descriptions and background information, while still building tension, often because what's being described is, itself, a source of the tension.  In fact, the opposite can be the case as well: it's possible to leave out description and in so doing to lessen the tension.

Yes, I did the last bit, myself.  No, I didn't do it on purpose.  It's just the normal newbie mistake.  We like action, after all.  When we're writing, we like to write action.  And the god whipped around with the big fireball, and blam!  Now that's some action, right there.  And I, as the writer, already know all the crap that's going on in the background or in the guy's head as he pulls the trigger on the gun pointed at the robot's head just before he learns the robot is actually a person.  What's that?  You (the reader) don't know it?  How come?

The trouble for the author will always be the pacing, honestly.  I was guilty early on of the sin of not giving my readers enough to work with, because I focused entirely on Maass's recommendation of keeping the tension going while missing the point that it didn't have to be direct, actionable, tension.  As I've gained experience I've been learning how difficult it is to strike a good balance between not telling the reader enough and losing tension, telling the reader just enough to keep it tense, and telling the reader too much and losing tension.

I've started calling it "singing" because that's the best simile I can come up with.  When something is singing, it's more than just one note followed by another.  Singing makes us want to hear the next bit.  When the prose of my work is singing to me, it's got a pace and a rhythm that feels right.  But that's not a feeling you can develop on your own, because of your key handicap in already knowing all about the story.

You have to let others read it, in other words.

Only by seeing your story through others' eyes can you truly come to understand pacing.

And yes, I consider myself to be still working on this lesson.


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