Narrative Pacing: High, Low, Fast, Slow
by Words and Chaos
Pacing is often something I fix on when discussing books. It’s become a feature I instinctively pick up on, and one that I return to in my own writing often. I don’t believe I’ve mastered the art, by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m developing a fairly good sense for it. In the modern world we don’t have time. That sounds like a bad advert catch phrase, but it’s true enough. There isn’t time enough to digest chapter upon chapter of nondescript throwaway content. There is too much else that needs doing or is vying for our time. So in the spaces where I sit down to read, and I should probably make more of those, I don’t like that time wasted. I ran into this problem with the Count of Monte Christo and subsequently never finished it.
There’s an innate tendency for writers to pad things out when writing a novel. You can’t blame anyone for that: There’s a lot of words to get through and, honestly, if you’re taking your cues from guys like Hemingway, you can get through a lot of material in a surprisingly small number of them. At the bare bones, interactions are very sharp and quick. What’s more, most don’t actually require much fattening up. Ideally the flesh should give the reader enough information that they can intuit most of the ‘description’ based on what ever you’ve given them for context. The problem is you can never be sure of this. You have to trust that your audience will pick up on what you’re trying to get across to them without shoving it in their faces like an over-excited lad. Hence we have adverbs.
So that’s the external side of pacing in story. In the August podcast, I gave Tolkien as an example of poor pacing from a drama perspective. That’s going to piss some people off, and I have great respect for the man, but it’s true. He was a linguist first, a world builder second, and a writer third. To the extent that you can see his writing progress in quality throughout The Lord of The Rings. By the time Frodo gets to Mt. Doom, Tolkien’s come a long way from where he started. No doubt everyone does, that’ a natural part of the practice, but he’s developing a solid grasp for pacing. Arguably pacing was never the point of The Lord of the Rings. I get that, however, it is still essential, even when secluded to specific contexts, for the sake of engaging the reader. Take the scene where the Orcs kidnap the Hobbits after shanking Boromir. I think the films actually got that part better than the book. Ooh, controversy! When your friends get kidnapped by monsters you don’t scour the beach strip searching corpses so you can have a Viking funeral and a sing along on the shore before you do the chase montage. That’s exactly what happens in the book. Legolas and Aragorn have what amounts to an extended duet on the riverbank after piling all the weaponry and armour onto the boat for Boromir. Occasionally Gimli pipes up and reminds them that their friends have just been kidnapped by some testosterone-poisoned mutant Orcs, and they should probably go find them. At which point Legolas and Aragorn agree with Gimli and then continue their rap battle.
Consider how long that would take. Consider how tired you’d be after that. Consider how far away a bunch of jogging super-soldier Orc hybrids can get while you’re doing all of this and singing karaoke on a beach! And then they’re supposed to just find them and track them and catch up to them? Technically, I suppose a large troop of warriors tramping through the landscape aren’t going to be particularly subtle, so tracking them shouldn’t be too hard, but it’s still a bit ridiculous. Back on track, Peter Jackson dialled that down in the films and for good reason. I don’t know about anybody else, but I was reading that scene and pausing every now and then to take in the fact that there was a giant ball of tension set up with the Hobbits being kidnapped… and then essentially pissed away. And before someone burbles, ‘but it’s fantasy!’ – No. Stop. You’re wrong and that’s not an adequate answer. I’d go into greater detail, but I think that explaining why science fiction and fantasy are not just ‘pull things out of your arse’ narratives, deserves its own post. I know, heavy words from a guy who’s never been published. Suck it.
Then you’ve got guys like Michael Ridpath. So let’s be fair: Thrillers survive on their page turning ability. If you can’t get the reader to turn pages in your thriller then you’re due a re-write. So you’re going to have to employ a lot of the standard hooks and so on. In that sense the entire genre is cynical like that. But there are levels of obfuscation and pacing that make those hooks less obnoxious. I mentioned that Where the Shadows Lie has the literary equivalent of extreme premature ejaculation and is in no way attempting to hide the fact. Perhaps it’s just because I’m a writer myself that I don’t like having the cogs and gears of the craft waved in my face. Perhaps I just notice it more than the average person. Either way, Where the Shadows Lie is a rare example of a book that is trying to do too much too fast. There is minimal set up and it’s clear that Ridpath is desperately trying to put some tension into the book.
The problem is that there’s no time to invest in any of the characters. You’re just shoved from cliché to cliché, one page to the next. As a result everything seems superficial. Why should I care that whatshisface is getting attacked in an alley and now his girlfriend, who hated him a minute ago, is demanding marriage? Why are these dramatic moments so underwhelming? Why have I basically digested several major tension scenes that would occur over the course of a single novel, in the first twenty pages of this one? Do we really have to lurch into a juvenile monologue about supposed warrior honour and so on? Please.
There should be a consistent flow of tension, even in the troughs of the narrative. You can’t have nothing but peaks, and the dramatic moments of tension that occur in those peaks doesn’t mean that the troughs are useless. They are just as important as the dramatic moments. It runs on the same idea that anticipation is better than the reality. It’s what PR firms are exploiting to absolutely no ends in hyping up media like films and games these days. The build up can’t be too slow or you don’t feel like you’ve really gotten anywhere, you’ve just ambled along a gentle incline and somewhere along the way it’s levelled out and now someone’s screaming at you. You can’t build up too fast either, because then you’re never not climbing. The troughs become ledges, and there’s a stranger with a plastic salesman’s grin standing on each one asking you if you’d like to know what’s on the next one, while some semi-contextualised madness unfolds in the background. It’s about as authentic as a tribal tattoo and the resulting moments that should be your rewards are no longer rewarding.