Published: April 25th, 2020
Hi, fellow aspiring fiction writers, I think I have made a big break through this week. And I am excited. You see, I read a lot of crime, and love the Jack Reacher books, written by Lee Child. An article in the Times (18.4.20) by Sam Leith, featured Lee Child and something in the article has leaped out from the page and (metaphorically-speaking) hit me like a bullet between the eyes. It made me think about the pace of my fiction. Until I read this particular article I thought I understood the idea of pace – basically that long sentences tend to slow pace down, and short, staccato sentences speed it up. But varying pace in fiction writing is nowhere near as simple as sentence length.
So what is it that has excited me so much about this article? It’s this: ‘slow stuff fast and fast stuff slow.’ What does he mean? How easy is it to achieve? The Jack Reacher novels are Thrillers. There are about twenty four and I’ve read about half of them. Real page turners, in my view. I think that the ‘slow stuff fast’ (SSF) refers to the mundane, piecing together of our stories, the phrase meaning to get it done in as few words as possible so as not to bore our readers and stop them turning the pages. These scenes are not the exciting highlights but readers need them in order for the story to be a story.
The ‘fast stuff slow’ (FSS) is the opposite. These are the thrilling bits when something exciting is happening. So when Child’s character, Jack Reacher, has a gun thrust in front of his face and is in grave danger, or when Reacher is taking out a bunch of killers, with the odds against him, Child takes his time – giving readers a more exciting ride; up and down the roller coaster, therefore using a greater word count.
This is how I have interpreted these two opposite types of scenarios. But what is particularly exciting for me as an aspiring fiction writer – is identifying these scenes as complementary opposites in my own work. The scene when my dog is turned magically (I am writing fantasy) into a bear and it runs off down the street frightening people, is now a definite FSS scene because I want child readers to be there as it happens – experiencing it minute by minute – thrilled by the speed of the action. I want children to be asking questions as they read. Will Bear catch anybody? What will Bear do? Why is the animal panicking? Will he come back? So I have lingered within the scene, using a greater word count, while also pacing it up with short sentence length.
Conversely, the scene when the characters are talking about the incident over tea and deciding what to do next – is an SSF scene. Fewer words – with some longer sentences to slow the action and give readers a chance to rest. I realise also as I am writing this that my paragraph above on the FSS has ended up twice as long as this on the SSF. Not deliberately.
Of course, the writing of these contrasting scenes is not just a question of word count and sentence length. The trick of balancing FSS and SSF scenes against each other reminds us how hard thriller writers (and other writers) have worked to get to the top of their tree. There is a great deal more to this technique than meets the eye – for example, the use of vocabulary and metaphor. When Bear is bounding away in a panic (FSS) I have tried to use the best verbs to describe the animal’s movement and also create an atmosphere of danger. When people are trying to escape and get out of the bear’s path I have also tried to use varied and accurate language to describe their actions. Will they get out of the way in time? Through the garden gate quick! The roller coaster ride needs to be just long enough to leave readers breathless – and wanting more – albeit a bit further on in the story. If they know this is likely, they will surely turn the pages for the next thrilling bit.
All of this is easier talked about than done. I have huge admiration for writers who can achieve this effortlessly. I am not yet one of them – but as we have often said before – practice makes perfect, or if not perfect, at least better. I know I will now find myself analysing novels to look for these contrasts as I read to see how writers have achieved their effects.
So I hope you find this blog helpful and thought provoking. See you next week.« Back to Blog