Or “Why a One-note Wonder Won’t Sing Well”
As I’ve written before, I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. Writers, especially fiction writers, do that. It’s kind of a requirement. You can’t know your craft without studying the people who do it right. You really can’t know your craft if you don’t know how people get it wrong.
And one of the things I’ve noticed – one of the things that separates the okay writing from the really good and the awesome – is the pacing.
Pace is connected to, but not the same as Plot.
Plot is the overall arc from the beginning to the climax and then on to the resolution. (I’ve written before about the difference between those two last ones; that we often confuse the climax with the end, and that this is wrong – see Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” which is the perfect/my favourite example. Darcy’s proposal is the climactic moment. All the action in the first half of the novel leads to that moment. And everything that happens afterwards develops from that proposal. This is crucial.)
Pacing is the stuff that gets you from here to there. Pacing is the slow accretion of the events and action that drives the reader to the climax, and then on to the resolution.
And this is where many authors fail. They write well. The plot is believable, within the framework of the world the author has created.
But then the stuff in between – the filler between layers of fictional lasagne, so to speak – is…not enough.
I’m not talking about action, or exploding bombs, or hot sex, or rather, I am, but not in the way you think. I’m talking about variation.
It gets tedious and curiously unfocused if, in a novel, the incidents that connect each plot point are basically the same activity repeated with different characters in marginally altered surroundings.
Threats to life and limb should not always wind up being knife-fights in warehouses or deserted alleys. Rescues are not the only way to get someone out of a jam. Betrayals are not always immediately unmasked. And if you want sexual tension from a character not knowing whether they can trust the object of desire, please, please, please don’t have that mistrust evaporate just because they got their rocks off.
The characters need to learn things. They need to change, they need to see things differently when they are presented with new information, they need to recover from devastation and they need to react to what is happening to them. But they need time to do that in. Transformation is a slow process.
Having just waded through what might have been a really good fantasy novel (above average writing, interesting plot and plot twists, some unique and engaging characters) and all the while thinking (just about every other chapter) “Oh, for pete’s sake, another fight scene?”, I realized that I felt cheated.
More than cheated. I felt resentful.
I deserved more. The book deserved more.
I know that a steady diet of action flicks and superhero TV has accustomed us to fiery car-crashes and multiple-person fight scenes every two minutes, and that’s a huge problem in books now too, because apparently, everyone envisions their novel as a potential screenplay.
And here’s where pacing, again, is sacrificed to lazy solutions.
You need to give the reader a chance to catch their breath. You need to give the characters some life – real life – in order for your reader to believe in them.
And, hell, you are flat out just wasting a lot of good ideas by trying to cram everything you know about bashing people over the head when you piggy-back one knife-fight onto the back of a barroom brawl after a duel to the death after a mugging in a dark alley after a boxing match.
If the only way you think you can keep your reader’s interest is to write one roll in the hay after another – if all you are doing in between those romps is setting up another one, you’re selling your readers short.
And it commits the ultimate sin: it gets boring. There are only so many kinky things you can do that aren’t outright rape scenarios, and there are only so many ways to depopulate the criminal underworld. Very few of them qualify as “character-building”.
Seriously. Since I know that the protagonist isn’t going to die if I am only two-thirds of the way through and they’ve already managed to survive the eight fights-to-the-death before this one, there is every chance that I will skim through the action sequences to make sure some small clue isn’t lying around, and move on to see if there’s something more interesting further on.
Ditto for betrayal. Not every betrayal comes in the form of some seemingly-innocuous street urchin spying on the main character from the gutter, or from their best friend nursing a grudge since grade six. And real betrayal should not be that easy for the reader to spot. It ought, at least once in a while, be as much of a shock to the reader as it is to the protagonist.
Pacing – good pacing – would vary the things that confront the main character(s) in tone as well as type. Things that are quietly menacing, things that are actually peaceful, things that are amusing – these are all things that ought to be in your characters’ lives. Not every piece of the plot has to be furthered by BIG THINGS HAPPENING. Sometimes, the most important revelation could come as the cumulative progression of small, inconsequential bits of daily life.
Just like, you know, real life. But more fun.