Time and Pace in novels
‘I jumped out of the helicopter, bullets whizzing close enough to nick one arm. Then only air hit me and that was hard enough to confuse with bullets. Free fall was not what I’d had in mind for the afternoon and, if the ‘chute didn’t open, my planner was cleared for good.’
Pacy, exciting, all-action, in the style of a thriller and making the reader want to know who’s after the narrator, how s/he will survive and what adventures will follow. Suppose the book carries on like this, and meets reader expectation. We should get plenty of action, maybe clever twists in the story if we’re lucky. The fast pace comes from the extreme danger (two life-threatening situations in the first sentence) and the content being actions. If the whole novel is at this pace, the reader will be exhausted and probably won’t care about the characters . The story will be plot-driven, things happening; zap,zap,zap.
How do you slow a novel down? Detail slows the pace and adds to the realism, and doesn’t have to be description in the style of ‘the bits readers skip’. What happens to blood from a nicked arm during free fall? Does it spurt, blown in your face? Research will give you the answer and a description that will engage the reader’s imagination so that s/he is really in the scene, falling, with a wounded arm. Who packed the parachute? Another detail that could be included to make the reader think ‘Phew’ or ‘Uh-oh’ depending on whether we trust this person. Of course, we could be wrong. And what we as readers know, could be more than what the narrator knows, which makes the reader feel smug and satisfied as our predictions come true – or surprised as we realize there is a twist and we missed the clues.
What if your novel is not meant to be all action? It is character-driven and realistic, deep and slow. Unless you want to bore your reader to sleep, you still need to control the pace, to know what makes slow and what makes fast. ‘I sip my coffee. A wasp investigates my looking-glass world through the window. It sees a human, female, prodding a black object with her fingers. After crawling over the glass for long minutes, it loses interest and so do I. My page remains blank. ‘Ummm …Good morning,’ says the man I live with. ‘Yeah… err… good morning,’ I say. We don’t kiss. A dog gets up and wags his tail, half-heartedly.’ Suppose the whole novel carries on like this and is a masterly 80,000 word portrayal of writer’s block. Boring, no?
Present tense, first person, in real time, description, banal detail, dialogue (especially realistic, boring dialogue with ums and ers in) and lack of incident all tend to slow the pace. If you read pages and pages like this, wouldn’t you just ache for something to happen?! To speed the pace up, you could have different viewpoints, make something happen, omit dialogue and telescope time, describing exciting events from a longer period. Choices about time and pace are crucial for a writer in making a reader want to turn pages and also linger over what’s on them – the paradox at the heart of ‘a good book’.
About the Post Author:
I’m a Welsh writer and photographer living in the south of France with a very big white dog, a Nikon D700 and a man. I taught English in Wales for many years and my claim to fame is that I was the first woman to be a secondary headteacher in Carmarthenshire. I’m mother or stepmother to five children so life has been pretty hectic.
I’ve published all kinds of books, both with conventional publishers and self-published. You’ll find everything under my name from prize-winning poetry and novels, military history, translated books on dog training, to a cookery book on goat cheese. My work with top dog-trainer Michel Hasbrouck has taken me deep into the world of dogs with problems, and inspired one of my novels. With Scottish parents, an English birthplace and French residence, I can usually support the winning team on most sporting occasions.
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