I've just been listening to an item on Radio 4 about cinema, and about how students looking at 1920s footage find it very hard to relate to the content. It's not just that it's old, in black and white, and silent, it's also that often nothing much happens. Accustomed to the big effects of today, the relentless car chases and thrills (accompanied by intense noise, both sound effects and music), young people simply cannot attune to the old material.
Of course, the same applies to books and to the way we read. We're all familiar with the pace of a Jane Austen novel, or of George Eliot and Trollope. Would they be published today? Possibly not exactly as they stand. But I've been even more surprised by rereading novels from the much more recent past - Coming Home (1995) by Rosamunde Pilcher, for example, and Tara Road (1998) by Maeve Binchy. Now I enjoyed both these books immensely, because the power of the storytelling and the drawing of the characters is very fine. However, I do suspect that an editor buying either of these books today would ask for cuts, in order to increase the pace.
Pace is key to fiction writing. Too fast and we feel cheated, too slow and we stop reading. I think it's a very hard balance to achieve, and particularly hard to judge in your own work. In thrillers the advice is to alternate a chapter where the protagonist is forced to make one bad decision with one where he or she reacts to what has happened. Really fast-paced books drop the reaction and stick with the bad decisions made in impossible situations. In other genres, the principles are similar. Action and dialogue speed up the pace, reflection, rumination and description slow it down. To drill down further into technique, long sentences and paragraphs slow down, short ones add pace. Avoid commas, adverbs and adjectives for pace, and use active verbs. To slow down pace, make dialogue more relaxed. descriptions more panoramic, and use the time to delve deeper into character.
We need both, of course.
I once got a rejection from an editor who commented that while I wrote beautifully, she didn't find my work 'compelling enough'. I took this to mean there wasn't enough happening, particularly in terms of ramping up the jeopardy. The next rejection came from an editor who said that while there was a great deal going on, I didn't get deeply enough into the characters.
I've used the metaphor of a race in the title of this blog, but now I'm thinking more about cooking. Master Chef hosts John Torrode and Greg Wallace are for ever talking about the 'balance' of the ingredients – sweet and sour, delicate or spicy and so on. They talk about depth and lingering aftertaste and bursts of flavour and freshness. Apart from the fact that I'm getting a bit peckish (!), it seems to me that these are useful descriptions for writing too. We need to strive for balance in terms of pace, with bursts of flavour and a fantastic, lingering aftertaste.
Now for breakfast ...