By Margaret Lucke
My friend and fellow mystery writer, the late Jean L. Backus, once did a series of articles on the craft of writing for the newsletter of the Northern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America. In the one about pacing, she had this to say:
"Consider how an old river moves, and compare it with a good straight novel which relies on rich characterization and deep plot development for slow but inexorable progress toward its ending. Contrast that with an escape and chase story which crashes down a mountain exactly as a waterfall in its helpless hurry to get to the bottom. Good solid fiction moves in places as the old river, but encounters rapids and swift water at intervals until it comes to the cataract … "
Which scenes should be majestic waterways flowing between wide banks? When should the reader arrive at placid pools or eddies, and when should the raging current thrust them through the rapids or plunge them over a waterfall?
Of course the answers to those questions vary from book to book. What's the perfect pace for one might be all wrong for another. But in the process of writing a few books and reading a great many more, I've become convinced that achieving the right pace, for each scene and for the story as a whole, is one of the keys to a book's success. Too slow, or slow in the wrong places, and I get bored and set the book aside. Too fast, and I get confused and dazed. What's happening in this scene? And since the author has been in such a rush that I haven’t had a chance to get involved with the characters, do I even care?
What I like about the river metaphor, and this is probably the reason it's stuck with me, is that it implies that the story is going to take me on a journey. I’m going to be moving from place to place in the company of these characters, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, and if I’m lucky we'll have some interesting adventures along the way.
May the holidays and the year that's about to begin bring wonderful stories and interesting adventures to all of you.
Photographs of Alaskan rivers: © Charles Lucke. Used with permission.