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.
As a result, writers try to keep their description stark, the narration nonexistent, and the action heavy. They write rapid-fire dialog.
Unfortunately, their stories become a blur. They never really come alive.
When I talk to the authors about this problem, they’ll always begin to explain by saying, “I was afraid that it would be too slow.” Stop being afraid.
Pacing is important, but it’s not all-important. I love an energetic story as much as anyone, but great writers manage to bring their worlds and characters to life without sacrificing the pacing of the plot.
“Rushing” a story isn’t the same as “pacing” it. Years ago, when people rode horses, they found that they could get the most out of an animal if they “paced” it. They’d walk the horse for a bit, speed it into a canter, then run it, then let it cool down by walking again. Then let it stop and graze and drink, then go through the whole process over and over again. That’s what the word “pacing” means. If you just leap on your mount and run it as fast and as long as you can, you know what happens? The horse dies.
Stories are much the same way. There are scenes that you want to race through, and others that require you to slow down. In fact, there are some scenes that may need to come to a dead stop.
There was a time, say a century ago, when people used to talk about sitting down to “enjoy” a novel, or “relax into” a novel. A story wasn’t necessarily seen as an adrenaline pump.
There are a lot of virtues that a slow story can have that a fast story doesn’t. For example, if I want a story to be intellectually complex or morally profound, I may need to spend more time narrating thoughts and internal dialog as my protagonists wrestle with major life-changing questions. Does this slow the story down so that it's boring? No, it actually engages the reader intellectually, and may carry the reader better than another action scene would.
If your reader is a normal, thinking person, he or she will mostly likely find such passages to be delicious—the best part of the tale. If your reader is not a normal, thinking person—heck, people like that don’t read anyway. Let’s face it. They’re staring at the television with glassy eyes, or sitting out on street corners and watching others drive by.
Similarly, if you’re writing luscious prose—if your own unique poetic eye informs every description, every phrase—then that can be a huge draw for readers, too. It lets them see their own world in a new, and often exciting, way.
There is tremendous power in writing a story that engrosses the reader, a tale that engages the reader intellectually, emotionally, and artistically while at the same time transporting the reader into a fully realized world. If you’re not engrossing the reader, if you’re just racing through the story in an effort to keep them on an adrenaline high, then your tale is like an engine that’s only running on one cylinder. It may chug along, but it’s clunky and inelegant.
So authors who rush through a story, sacrificing clarity, profundity, and grace in an effort to draw readers run a huge risk. Too often their stories often come off as feeling artless or vapid.
Slow down. Your job as an author is to pace your story, to make it delicious in a number of ways. If you feel that your description is weak, don’t cut it out or try to gloss over it. Instead, you have to learn to write gorgeous, powerful description.
That’s your job as a writer—to become multifaceted as an entertainer.
Write that Novel Seminar in Phoenix, Arizona - I will be doing a writing workshop in Phoenix in May. This is a two-day intensive workshop. Learn more about it or register here.