I’ve recently finished reading The Hard Way, the latest paperback thriller by Lee Child. I’ll post up a review of it shortly (something I plan to do for all the books I read), but one thing that struck me about the book was how many chapters there were – over seventy in total – and how fast I got through it. To get this in perspective, I’m a fairly slow reader (I’ve still got a John Connolly knocking around from nearly a year back) but this I literally raced through, reading almost a third in one evening sitting!
I put it down to the pace and there’s a big hint as to what that was like with the number of chapters already mentioned. It was fast and fired in bursts like a machine gun triggered by Reacher himself (the hero of all Child’s thrillers).
I found it fascinating that by breaking the novel up in this way, literally ending a chapter at the end of each major scene rather than, say, resorting to a section break, I was propelled through the narrative at a rate of knots. The pacing was perfect. Breakneck in fact and had me building up such momentum that I wanted to race all the way to the end without stopping.
It got me to thinking about how important pacing is in a novel, and how the really effective pacing is that which the reader isn’t even aware of. How the quickfire opening must hook and the need for a breather mid-way through, the skill of using it to break up necessary ‘low action’ points in order to describe the more delicate intricacies of the story. It’s pretty fundamental to how a book reads and even ‘feels’.
To take one step away from the written medium, graphic novels (well, the good ones anyway) are great exponents of pacing but here there’s the extra dimension of panels to think about as well as narrative. I’d recommend any author who’s looking at getting his or her pacing right to read a few graphic novels under this kind of targeted analysis. How the panels are arranged on the page, the number, the ‘beat’ inherent in the script.
For instance, and I’m going back to my Batman appreciation here, I was flicking through The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (a superlative example of the graphic novel and a wonderful re imagining of a classic comic book character) and the knowledge of pacing on display is nothing short of superb. Pages absolutely crammed with quick fire panels like flung batarang give way to glorious full page spreads. It’s a pretty dense story (and by that I mean there’s a heck of a lot to it) but I absolutely cantered through and ended up feeling exhausted and exhilarated at the same time by the end. Besides the fact that the story is great and the artwork is wonderful, the ‘beat’ of the narrative fires you onward like out of cannon or something. Equally good are books like Preacher, The Punisher: Welcome Back Frank and Watchmen. All are classics of the genre. All display an incredible appreciation and understanding for pace and the dramatic tension inherent in it.
If you really want to see an exercise in meta-pacing, that which crosses several books then look no further than Doomsday – The Death of Superman. I watched an insightful documentary on this very subject a few weeks ago explaining how the writers took the step of adhering to a strict formula in the number of panels presented in an ‘episode’ of the longer saga. Initially, they went for a large number of panels and as the confrontation between Doomsday and Superman came about the panels would decrease suggesting the immediacy of the impending battle, while also hinting at the immensity of it. By the last ‘episode’ in the series, when Superman and Doomsday were going toe-to-toe, culminating in the Man of Steel’s death (sorry to spoil it folks, but you know how it turns out right?) the writers were down to a full panel per page! It made for quite an impact in terms of the pacing and the book became a best seller.
When I was eighteen I took a course in Media Production, and in the second year I specialised in creative writing and for part of that specialty I studied graphic novel production. I even wrote a full graphic novel that formed part of one of my assignments. I daresay, looking back on it now, it probably wasn’t up to that much, but the training I received definitely made me aware of and gave me a strong appreciation for the balance of pacing and dramatic tension in the graphic novel form. I found it fascinating.
Obviously, the graphic novel links up both words and pictures (in most instances) in a fairly blatant way in the telling of a story but I also find that prose writing, at least for me, has a kind of cinematic quality to it as well. I imagine my scenes as if they were a movie or graphic novel. I put my characters into the panels, see the speech bubbles, feel the build up of gradually larger panels until the big, double page spread reveal at the end. I find visualising in this way very useful and from it I get lots of other ideas and it helps my narrative grow in an organic way that it might not have done where it not for this approach.