Monday, September 13, 2010

Reading Like a Writer: Pacing

Lately lots of people I know seem to be talking about pacing in novels. Pacing was the topic of discussion on kidlitchat a few weeks back, about the same time that a thread opened on my Vermont College of Fine Arts discussion board. These conversations were roughly coincident with the release of the final installment of Susanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay. Perhaps that was accidental; but because I think Collins has mastered the art of pacing, I’d like to take a closer look at the topic and peruse Mockingjay for examples.

I searched for a definition of “pacing” in a few of my favorite craft books, and was surprised at how few make specific mention of it. John Gardner says only “the efficient and elegant writer makes each scene bear as much as it can without clutter or crowding.” Janet Burroway reflects simply, “Drama equals desire plus danger.”

Personally, I think pacing and tension are linked, but I'm still trying to discover exactly how.

It seems that pacing is an art that must be mastered as we craft scene after scene after scene, making each scene work to the max, and bridge these scenes with perfect transitions that let the reader rest...but not long enough to put the book down.

In Mockingjay, when Katniss confronts the damaged Peeta for the second time, the scene is relatively quiet, especially when compared with the action packed scenes that comprise most of the novel:

I’ve just reached the door when his voice stops me. “Katniss. I remember about the bread.”
The bread. Our one moment of real connection before the Hunger Games… “So, what do you remember?”
“You. In the rain,” he says softly… “I must have loved you a lot.”

Now, how does Collins move out of this scene without putting the reader in a doze? By upping the emotional ante between Katniss and Peeta, by not letting them out of the trap they are in:

“…Did you like kissing me?” he asks.
“Sometimes,” I admit. “You know people are watching us now?”

Huh? Why did Katniss say that? Well, clearly, she’s thinking that maybe Peeta’s thinking about kissing her right then, and she wants to discover whether he would and whether it matters that they are being watched – in fact, she wants to discover his heart and whether it still belongs to her. Does he offer it up?

Not if you are Collins:

“…What about Gale?” he continues.
My anger’s returning… “He’s not a bad kisser either,” I say shortly.
…Peeta laughs again, coldly, dismissively. “Well, you’re a piece of work, aren’t you?”

And with that, Katniss and Peeta are emotional enemies, and Katniss is not going to settle into contentment with him (yet), promising the reader more drama (desire plus danger) as clearly spelled out in the closing lines of the chapter:

Finally he can see me for who I really am. Violent. Distrustful. Manipulative. Deadly.
And I hate him for it.

Collins is a master at manipulating pacing. This scene is less than 3 pages long. It acts as an interlude but it gives up nothing in the way of tension - and I think that's because she twists and turns in her characters' thoughts, just as we all twist and turn whenever we argue with those we love/hate.

Do you have any thoughts about pacing versus tension? What other novels do you hold up as examples of good pacing?


Lynne Kelly Hoenig said...

Excellent example, Janet-- I remember reading that scene between Peeta and Katniss and thinking "Yay, he remembers!" and then "Oh no, he hates her again!" Like Collins lifts us up and then drops us to the ground, adding emotional turmoil to a quiet conversation between two people.

I thought Carrie Ryan did such a great job of pacing in The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves; lots of action in those with the running and fighting, but even in quiet scenes when the main character is alone or talking to another person, there's still that tension under the surface that keeps you reading to find out how everything turns out. Carol Lynch Williams' book The Chosen One was amazing too, and I imagine especially difficult to pace well because it's not an action-packed story. On every page it's clear how the main character is feeling, what she's afraid of, what she's worried about, what gives her hope, and the reader rides on that roller coaster with her. It's that feeling of "Oh no, how's she going to get out of this?" that makes the book impossible to put the book down.

Janet Fox said...

Thanks! I love your examples - especially The Chosen One, which I thought was beautifully written and filled with tension, yet, as you say, it was more about the threat than the action. She paced her scenes so that threat was always present, in the smallest gestures.

I think it shows that you don't need mile-a-minute action to create the tension that comes of perfect pacing.