Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Unsteady Pace

When I read classic literature, I'm almost always surprised by how unusual those books are. I go in expecting some sort of conservative, traditional work only to find that the classic writers typically use many more techniques than I do. I'm reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter now, and one thing that really sticks out is how unusual his pacing is.

Most of the books I've read lately preserve a certain pace as we hop from one chapter to another. The chapter breaks serve to break up scenes, but the story tends to move at the same speed from beginning to end. (I know that's how I've written my previous books too.) But in The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne will have one chapter describing a specific scene, such as Hester Prynne emerging from prison in the beginning, followed by another chapter that has no movement at all, such as a discussion of what sort of mind games two of the male characters are playing with one another, followed by another chapter that covers four years in a few paragraphs.

Hawthorne seems to be focused on getting out the information for the story rather than preserving momentum. If he needs to jump out of the movement of the story to explain something, he'll do it. Then, if nothing really happens for a few years, he'll simply skip those years.

I find his technique to be very clean, as if Hawthorne really valued a reader's time. I trust that each scene I do read will be important in my understanding of the entire story. The technique makes for a concise book, and I'm enjoying it as I approach the end.

Do you vary your pacing in your stories? How do you find that working for you and for your readers?


  1. "I go in expecting some sort of conservative, traditional work only to find that the classic writers typically use many more techniques than I do."

    I love this point. It's one of the under-appreciated joys of classic literature.

  2. Hektor Karl, It's so true. I think a lot of those classics are so groundbreaking.

  3. I found this also to be true of The Graveyard Book. Each scene in necessary to the story, although there are big gaps in time and such that are just left out. The reader didn't need them.


  4. I abbreviate some scenes and draw others out, depending on relevance to the overall story and characters. I try to maintain a pace that keeps the story moving forward, and vary that between real action and emotional movement.

    Sometimes the revelations in two people sitting and talking is just a pivotal as that high speed chase or dramatic rescue.

    When switching tracks, it's important to have some sort of reason to switch without affecting the flow. In my book THE MAN IN THE CINDER CLOUDS, I have a story-within-a-story (within a story) and moving back and forth between the layers was one of the hardest parts of writing it...I needed to shift focus from one set of characters to another, but make it relevant, and in some cases very brief. Maintain relevance and brevity, and doing it at the right time, was something I needed critique partners to help with, pointing out where it worked and where it didn't.

  5. First, I also find myself happily surprised whenever I read a work of classic literature. Years adn years ago when I first started seriously reading the classics I was afraid they'd be dull and difficult and all the same; I was delighted to see how much fun they are, how relevant they still are and how adventurous the writing is.

    As to pacing in novels, I'm not sure. Most of my novels have the main storyline that progresses pretty much moment-by-moment and I skip scenes where people are sleeping or whatever. Though "Cocke & Bull" has sections where I skip over a few weeks in a sentence and the like. A big consideration in this sort of discussion of pacing has to be scope of the novel. If the whole thing takes place within a week or a day, the amount of summing up will be less than if the story covers a year, a decade, a lifetime or more.

    I certainly have no problem these days stopping the story wherever it is and telling the reader something they need to know. My current WIP is sort of a study in interrupting the narrative to talk about other things.

    You know what you should read? You should read Tristram Shandy.

  6. Hi Shelley! :) I've always appreciated books like this, but I feel like I've never been able to pull it off on my own. I'm going to be trying again.

    Rick, as I was thinking more about this, I realize that what struck me about Hawthorne's approach was how dramatic his time shifting and pace shifting was. I think in my own writing I do the variation to some extent as well.

    Scott, I think I often overthink it myself when I worry that racing through a scene will make it boring. Or that if I'm feeling the need to race through a scene it must already be boring. At any rate, I need to play with this more.

  7. I always warn my 9th graders that Hawthorne's focus is on internal conflict rather than on action -- because not a heck of a lot actually happens in this novel.
    Plus, in the pre-Star Wars and Indiana Jones days of time, pacing tended to be slower. Have you ever watched a classic old movie, such as North By Northwest or Citizen Kane? They seem slow to lots of modern viewers. Many pre-1950 or so books are also paced much, much more slowly than recent books. It's not just Hawthorne; it's Scott (Waverley has 160 or so pages of background info before the plot starts), Hugo (an entire chapter describing the cathedral floor in Hunchback), etc. Maybe it's because life didn't move quite as fast before high-speed internet, before freeways, before space travel. I don't know what caused the change, but there certainly is a difference in the pacing of a plot.

  8. @storyqueen,
    Remember that Gaiman patterned Graveyard Book after Kipling's Jungle Book, which is much older and has a slower pace.
    (I didn't care much for Graveyard Book, either, but that's how Gaiman chose to do it.)

  9. English Teacher: I think the "older writers paced stories more slowly than new writers" comparison is generally flawed because the comparison is generally made between literary stories and popular entertainment. As you've done here, folks usually compare Hawthorne (for example) with "Fight Club" or "Star Wars" and that's a bad comparison. We should compare Hawthorne or Melville or Hugo to Byatt or Rushdie or Carey or Franzen, and compare "Star Wars" to Shakespeare or Webster or other forms of visual entertainment. The action in Shakespeare, for example, is usually pretty rapid. I don't really buy the "older slower/newer quicker" paradigm.

    "Jungle Book" moves pretty quickly, I thought. It's really short; there's no room for Kipling to stretch out. I think "Graveyard Book" might even be longer that JB?

  10. Valid enough to scold me for throwing in movies, but I still beg to differ with you. I'm no expert on Rushdie, but I've read Midnight's Children twice, and I find it to move very quickly. Alastair Gray's Lanark moves fast, too. Lessing's Golden Notebook and anything by AL Kennedy zip along and a far quicker pace than anything by Hawthorne or Scott.
    Of course, I'm no expert on post-modernist fiction, as I tend not to like it. I've read no more than 35 or so books in that genre, so I can only draw from what I have read.
    Still, although I bow to your point about not throwing in movies, you have not convinced me that I am wrong in saying that the pace in general moves much more rapidly now.
    I think we will have to agree to disagree on this.

  11. Hmm, have you read Lermontov or Turgenev? They wrote about the same time as Hawthorne, and their books move along at a rapid pace. Or what about Voltaire? "Candide" is all action. Have you read Franzen? It's long and slow, as is de Berniere's recent "Birds Without Wings." And what of James Joyce? "Moby-Dick" was written a year after "Scarlet Letter," and I don't think it moves any more slowly than a lot of things written this decade. I just don't think that the generalization holds. It's a common enough claim but I don't think a thorough look at the history of literature bears it out. But we can just disagree on it. I don't mean to start a fight, merely to point out that the claim isn't universally accepted.

  12. The English Teacher, Funny, I focused more on your comment about the internal conflict, which I am really noticing about The Scarlet Letter and plan to talk about in some future post. The large majority of the book is internal, which is helping me to see how my own work might read.

    Pacing is an interesting issue. I never felt like pacing was fast until I read Tolstoy. His books are huge but very fast paced. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, always feels horribly slow to me, as much as I admire the writing. Harry Potter feels slow to me, even though I admire it. Among books, comparisons of pacing are too complicated for me to figure out. I'd guess we could all find examples to support whatever case we wanted to make. Attention spans are a different issue though. I do feel like people these days have shorter attention spans.

  13. Honestly, I don't think I do. I write by rote; I'm a learned product of about every self help writers book out there. This teaches modern writers to follow a specific pattern.

    I think the earlier writers were more able to set their own rules. Few people read any book, let alone a variety, and I think there were fewer authors vieying for publication.

    I'm guessing in Hawthorn's time, he didn't have so many other authors to compete with, and publishing through Agents wasn't the norm. A writer could experiment with their own style - and opinions. Freedom of expression was encouraged.

    Now, its all about conformity; even when agents are asking for "unique" voice.

    Now that the publishing world is returning to inde-pubbed authors, perhaps there will be more experimental styles and techniques again.


  14. Scott, and English Teacher;

    You know, that type literary discussion is a big draw for me coming here. Thank you for the education.


  15. Donna, I hope there will be more experimental styles and techniques. I suspect they are out there but I'm not hearing about them as much, which is frustrating!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.