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Obstacles to Good Writing #2: Pace

Lots of telling, rather than showing, pushes the reader out of the story and slows things right down; showing, rather than telling, pulls the reader into the story - in fact, right into the characters’ heads - and speeds things up. That’s one way to control the pace of the story. Both ways are means to ends.

At some points in Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace, the author ‘tells’ to the degree that he departs entirely from relating a tale featuring characters having adventures and instead elucidates what is occurring through the medium of historical and philosophical essays. The entire last section of the book is composed of his thoughts and theories about Life - he has left characters behind at this stage. But at other points of the novel, Tolstoy is a master of showing, of drawing the reader into a character’s mind, as in this example:

Nikolay Rostov turned away, and began staring into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, at the sun, as though he were searching for something. How fair that sky seemed, how blue and calm and deep. How brilliant and triumphant seemed the setting sun. With what an enticing glimmer shone the water of the far-away Danube. And fairer still were the far-away mountains that showed blue beyond the Danube, the nunnery, the mysterious gorges, the pine forests, filled with mist to the tree-tops … there all was peace and happiness … ‘There is nothing, nothing I could wish for, if only I were there,’ thought Rostov. ‘In myself alone and in that sunshine there is so much happiness, while here … groans, agonies, and this uncertainty, this hurry … Here they are shouting something again and again, all of them are running back somewhere, and I’m running with them, and here is it, it, death hanging over me, all round me … One instant, and I shall never see that sunshine, that water, that mountain gorge again …’ At that moment the sun went behind the clouds; more stretchers came into view ahead of Rostov. And the terror of death and of the stretchers, the loss of the sunshine and life, all blended into one sensation of sickening fear. ‘Good God, Thou who art in that sky, save and forgive, and protect me,’ Rostov whispered to himself.

Effective pace could be defined as communicating to readers what is happening in a way that they can easily assimilate. Too much information communicated and the pace quickens out of control; not enough information communicated and the speed of the thing slows down and becomes unbearable. And vice-versa, depending on how it’s done.

As an example, let’s take this review of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, written by ten-year-old Rayner Unwin at his father’s request back in the 1930’s, as though it was the story itself:

Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit who lived in his Hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his Dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exiting (sic) time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they get to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home — rich!

Of course, it's a review, not a story, but it will do to show how telling or reporting on something affects pace. Here we are not permitted to share the space of the story, to enter into any character’s mind, and so everything is rushed and we get a snapshot of the thing without experiencing it much at all.

In the opening of The Hobbit itself, we are given a lot of information, and the pace slows down completely:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it—and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

Tolkien spends further paragraphs elaborating about hobbits in some detail. The effect is to create an impatience in the reader, a desire to ‘get on with the story’ - at least in the older reader, who might have grown up to resent ‘description’ of this kind. But Tolkien is ‘setting a scene’ and introducing an entirely new breed of character - the hobbit - to young readers for the first time, and so can be forgiven what seems to be an information overload at first.

What is the right approach? How much information, moving across to the reader, is the ‘right’ amount?

It all depends on what you’re trying to do. Tolstoy couldn’t begin his novel with vast treatises on history and philosophy - he first had to draw readers in and engage them with living, breathing characters - or created entities who appeared to live and breathe - before any reader would care for his thoughts about Life and the Russian military campaign of 1812. Similarly, Tolkien, who began The Hobbit with the ‘info-dump’ outlined above, could not expect readers to jump immediately into the minds of characters they had never heard of before.

The guiding principle in both these cases, and in the case of all great fiction, is the placement of the reader by the author. Where do you want attention to fall? How long do you need it to linger there before you move it on? You, the writer, are in control of pace; you are the master and commander of the reader’s attention. Description, showing, telling, viewpoints: these are your tools, amongst others.

There’s another tool vital to your overall mastery of a story too, which we’ll look at next.


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