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Pace Yourself

I just finished reading a book that's gotten rave reviews from writer-friends of mine.  About a third of the way through, I was starting to wonder what was wrong with me.

I didn't like it.

I muscled through the rest, and while there were parts I enjoyed, overall, it just didn't do it for me.  (Nope, I'm not naming names.) Now, a good part of my musing over this book was just me letting myself admit that I didn't care for it, plenty of other people did, and that's ok.

Let's repeat that.

It's ok to not like The Book that everyone is raving about.

Then, being an overanalyzer, I started thinking about what it was that got the pass from me.  It wasn't the characters (loved them) or the plot (the basic concept was great) or the setting/world-building (I want to go to there).  It was the pace.

And isn't that just the worst?  The thing that I hate--HATE--trying to fix in my own manuscripts is pace.  It's hard.  Pacing is hard.  But a pair of little lightbulbs went on for me dissecting what didn't work for me in the pacing of this book.  I thought I'd share.

1) Isn't It Ironic?  Well, maybe not.  Dramatic irony, unlike the "ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife" colloquial irony, is defined as a literary device in which the audience knows or understands something that the characters do not.  The killer is in the house.  The soldier with amnesia was the prince all along.  You get the idea.  And the upshot is, it's brilliant for creating tension and engagement with the audience.

What went wrong in this book was, I felt, the dramatic irony not lasting long enough.  The clues came tumbling out in a few pages, and within another few pages, the characters had teased out the truth.  Come on, writers!  Let your reader feel superior and feed on the tension for a little while!

The other sticky part of dramatic irony is that you can't simply assume that your reader just happens to realize the reality of the situation before the characters.  Characters are not stupid.  If something is obvious to the reader, there needs to be a reason it's not obvious to the characters--they don't have all the information, they're limited in their understanding by cultural norms, they're under an evil spell.  Whatever.

2) Exciting =/= Driving the Plot.  To me, filler is killer.  Yes, I just coined a truly awful 80s style catchphrase.  But it's true--everything that happens in your story needs to further the plot.  It may be feeding into a subplot, developing a character, or even sending your protagonist on a deliberate wild goose chase, but it has to drive the story forward.  Anything that happens that doesn't drive the story is filler.

Here's the rub--filler can be exciting.  Your protagonist can battle a rabid wildebeest in a fight to the death.  He can built a tower of toothpicks eight stories tall before the hourglass runs out.  She can charm her way into a royal ball and steal the crown jewels.  But if it's not driving the plot?  It's pointless.

Sometimes cutting exciting filler can be a kill-your-darlings moment.  That scene may be beautiful, compelling, edge-of-your-seat, emotional gold. But it also may be filler.  And if it is, it needs to go.

What say you?  Is pacing a sticky wicket for you, too, or does it come naturally? Do you find ways to improve your own writing in the books you love--and those you didn't care for?

Comments

  1. Wow, I wonder if I'm reading the book you read. It's a very popular book, but I'm finding that the pace is really dragging. I don't feel an overarching pushing the story (and me the reader) forward. I'm still reading because I want to know what happens to the characters, but I don't feel the need to read late into the night to find out what happens.

    BTW, I've tagged you in the KidLit blog tour. No obligation to participate, but I thought you might enjoy it.

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