Novelists trick us in multiple ways in order to ramp up the suspense of a story. Important facts are concealed, backstories aren’t revealed, and point of view is shifted from one character to another keeping readers outside the head of the person whose thoughts would reveal important clues.
One trick annoys me, probably annoys others, and disrupts the pacing of the story. Let’s call this “hurry up and wait.” Here’s an example:
Joe opened the suitcase. There is was: enough C4 to level the building and a timer with ten seconds left in the countdown. The timer was old, sounded like a plastic clock.
The tick tock, tick tock reminded him of summer evenings at the lake when Dad not only woke him at the crack of dawn, but kept him awake most of the night with a loudly ticking alarm clock. Every time it woke him, he lay there waiting for it to go off in an explosion of bells and sunshine. Before the left the old cabin, he threw that darned clock in the lake, hoping a gator might eat it. He had to smile in spite of the bomb in the suitcase. If Dad were alive and sitting here next to him, he would love the sound of that timer.
When a story is racing toward a critical moment, stopping the action for an absurd reason cheats the reader, for it builds tension where there should already be enough tension to cover the action. In this example:
- No sane person faced with a bomb with just seconds to defuse is going to walk down memory lane in his thoughts. He will run, throw the bomb out a window, or defuse it.
- Some novelists don’t pay attention to the time it takes a reader to read a passage. I always note it. In this case, the bomb will explode before Joe finishes his thoughts about the lake and the clock simply because the thought takes more time than he has.
A similar sin, somewhat less grievous, is the insertion of backstory information into a scene where, in reality, there’s no time for it. Now, if you’re a reader or a writer who isn’t concerned with the amount of time thoughts and memories take to occur, this won’t bother you as much as it bothers me. Consider this:
Sue lit another cigarette and blew the smoke out the open window of the car. Goodness knows, she was driving fast enough for the wind to draw everything out the window including her soft voice, her hair and the gnats that took over the car while they were parked at a rest stop.
“What are we going to tell our parents when we get there,” she asked.
“If you’ll slow down,” said Jim, “we’ll have more time to come up with an elaborate lie.”
She laughed, looked at him sideways, and punched his shoulder gently.
“I’m eight months pregnant,” she said. “What kind of elaborate lie do you propose.”
Other than how she happened to get pregnant, Sue was forever practical. He preferred jokes and delays and white lies. If he could think of a real whopper, he would resort to that. This road was a highway of lies because it connected their hometown with the beach cottages. Things happened at those cottages. Always had. The road home, lined with saw palmetto and scrub oak and a few longleaf pines, was a fertile ground for fibs, large and small. They literally fell out of the trees. If they’d been fish, they would have jumped into his boat. Sue felt uncomfortable with lies. That’s why she drove down this road faster than the law allowed.
“You’ve been overeating,” he suggested.
Okay, maybe there’s some relevance in the fact Jim uses the road as a time and place for covering up whatever he did at the beach.
- Nonetheless, this diversion destroys what was developing as a back-and-forth dialogue of short sentences. The pace one can create with that kind of dialogue gets derailed with the intrusion of a giant paragraph of information.
- Plus, I feel like asking the author exactly what Sue is doing while Jim has this multi-sentence thought. Yes, sooner or later such conversations have to end. But not before they’re naturally over.
Pacing can help a writer’s work or destroy it. Sometimes, it’s a matter of personal taste. If you read your stuff aloud, you’ll hear the pacing as surely as you hear the rhythm of a song on the radio. The pace not only needs to feel right, it needs to make logical sense. I think it’s illogical for a man defusing a bomb to think about something else, and I think most people having a conversation would be saying “Jim, Jim, Earth to Jim” before Jim finished his thoughts about the road and the lies he found on it.
Pitch-perfect pacing keeps the thrills in your thriller.
My two cents for a Monday afternoon.