Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

On plotting and pacing —

Here’s an interesting question, and an even more interesting conclusion, from Nathan Bransford.

Nathan asks:

“Writing in the modern era emphasizes moving the plot forward at all costs, and everything else is “ruthlessly killed off no matter how darling.” Digressions and detritus that might otherwise be compelling on their own are eliminated. Is this a purely modern phenomenon? And is it for the best?”

And he concludes:

“My opinion: Yes to both.”

Now, of course, Nathan is always very nice about it when he takes a strong position on something like that, and his comments on MOBY DICK and other classics are very interesting. And I like his optimism about the future of books! But I’m not sure I agree.

It’s not that I doubt that modern books are more streamlined with regards to plotting and have much faster pacing than a lot of older books. Not that I’ve ever studied the question or anything, but it’s certainly plausible.

Although I read MOBY DICK once, it was a long time ago and I don’t think I liked it. (I was sorry for both the whale and Ahab, plus I wanted the whale to win.) These days, I’d be a lot more likely to read RAILSEA. But now if I do read RAILSEA, I’ll be tempted to go back, read MOBY DICK, and think about this plot thing and whether Mieville pares away everything nonessential in a way that Melville didn’t.

Anyway, the part I’m not sure I agree with is whether this paring away the extraneous bits is a good thing. I just don’t think every book in creation has to be fast fast fast and nonstop action and hurtle along to the blazing climax and all like that. That’s fine in its place, and if that’s what you want you could hardly do better than Patrick Lee’s THE BREACH and sequels, by the way, because wow, talk about nonstop and hurtling.

And I have to admit that when I finally read an unabridged copy of THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO, which is one of my all-time favorite books and why can’t they do a good movie version? Like cut the whole prison thing down to ten minutes max and move on with the cool part? But anyway, I found I really strongly preferred the abridged version because I liked having all those extraneous bits removed.

And yet. And yet, sometimes I really like a slow exploration of the author’s world. I read the unabridged LES MISERABLES, and I really enjoyed the long digressions on, like, the street urchins of Paris and on convents and so forth and so on. And more recently, I really liked the easy pace of Robin McKinley’s DRAGONHAVEN, which my very own agent thinks should have been pared way down. And how about Sharon Shinn’s TROUBLED WATERS? Part of what made that book so comfortable for me was its unhurried pace. The exposition about the world in Myra Grant’s FEED was my favorite part! Or at least one of my favorite parts!

And what about Tolkien, hmm? I actually have met a woman at a convention who said she thought he was a bad writer. A bad writer! Tolkien! I would bet that what this woman meant was (among possibly other things): too slow.

So . . . so I guess I would say: pacing depends on the book and on personal taste. A fast pace is not intrinsically a good thing. Can we perhaps stop holding a fast pace and an unadorned plot up as an ideal that all books ought to meet?

Agree or disagree? Anybody got examples of a slow-paced book or a book with digressions that they particularly enjoyed?

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6 Comments On plotting and pacing —

  1. Maureen E

    I know for myself, I enjoy both types for what they are. I love Tolkien and Dickens and Jane Austen and Elizabeth Goudge, because they are slow-paced and old-fashioned and digress all over the place. And in general, I personally read more for character than plot so I’m quite happy for nothing to happen externally as long as there’s plenty happening internally.

    As far as more modern books go–again, I tend to read more for character than plot, so I often don’t mind a slower pace (and I agree, I love the worldbuilding bits of FEED). But if I feel like nothing is happening in a way that neither builds character or world development, I tend to get impatient. So maybe the bottom line for me is how well-written the overall book is.

    At the moment, my brain is fried, so I’m having trouble thinking of specific examples. Except that I love all of the myths in Megan Whalen Turner’s books, which could be seen as extraneous diversions, except that they’re so clearly NOT.

  2. Elaine T

    Since I’ve grumbled here and elsewhere about modern books that are too long, I feel obligated to chime in here. I disagree. Some are so unfocused they’re a bloody mess. Or they’re trying to do the GRRM thing of multiple characters, multiple overarching plotlines and most of both categories – characters and plotlines – are BORING. Or they are putting in the wrong details, dragging down the story instead of enriching it.
    I hate seeing the author’s hand at work; when I’m reading along and get to scene involving memory/ritual/something to a god. “Oh good, fleshing out the worldbuilding.” Two pages on the god does something, and is never mentioned again. That’s bad worldbuilding and bad writing.

    I loved the digressiveness of JONATHON STRANGE & MR. NORREL. It all worked together well. I’m not especially fond of the Tom Bombadil section in LOTR, but it would be a less rich book without it.

    I’ve been purging our collection and rereading older books to see if they are worth keeping. I’ve been impressed by some of them and how much character, story and worldbuilding got packed into one volume.

    Boils down to – make element in the book pull its weight.

  3. Rachel

    Oh, yeah, and while we’re on the subject of everybody and their cousin trying to be GRRM, I just read another like that! EXCEPT for GRRM, I think everybody should cut it out. In particular, I DON’T CARE about the viewpoint of the bad guy! It just distracts from the POV of the actual protagonist. Re: hating to see the author’s hand; yes, some writers manage to be perfectly invisible and I really admire that. I think Robin McKinley sometimes writes really invisible prose.

  4. Rachel

    Oh, and I think I could have lost the Tom Bombadil scene without fretting. I didn’t even much care for that the first time I read the trilogy, when I was a mere tot.

  5. Elaine T

    I looked at Nathan’s post and don’t remember him actually naming anything specific (although he might have, I’ve been migrained in between which always affects my brain).

    The GRRM thing is one of those styles that leads to lack of focus. It’s HARD to control a story with lots of viewpoint characters and keep the whole thing focused on where ever the writer is trying to take it. Even he (I gather, I stopped halfway through #2 while saying the 8 Deadly Words) has developed a focus problem. Before him was Robert Jordan. I can’t help wondering where the editors are. (I know, probably counting the $$ the big names bring in….)

    POVs – If the villain is more of an interesting antagonist than a villain, the POV might be interesting, if it can be pulled off without making the hero look like an idiot for not noticing Villain’s machinations. I don’t completely hate it. It’s one of those ‘if you can pull it off well’ deals.

    I do object to switching to a new POV just to convey something because it is easier than figuring out how to to get the information through in some other POV, or to give me a look inside a redshirt character just before the author offs him. And, again, it’s often not done well – when it’s the only time you’re in that person’s head it is a dead giveaway.

    I haven’t read the unabridged COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO in ages. I gulped it down in the glory days when I could spend all day reading a book. I really should pick it up again. The COUNT as I recall him is more of an anti-hero.

  6. Rachel

    “I do object to switching to a new POV just to convey something because it is easier than figuring out how to to get the information through in some other POV”

    Yes, this.

    What I object to is the author forcing me into the bad guy’s pov when he isn’t even interesting to me. Too many pov characters and the Eight Deadly Words are exactly what I start to say. Besides, I don’t WANT to know what the bad guy is planning, can’t the author let it take me by surprise when it happens?

    Oh, to me the Count is a hero! Ruthless I grant you, and sometimes he goes a little far, but actually he does back off doing the unforgivable stuff he plans to do.

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