Instead, I’m interested in novel pacing. As authors, we all know how crucial it is to find the ‘hook’ – that situation that will compel our readers to continue reading after those first pages, fully invested in the fate of our protagonist.
It seems to me that this hook is expected to be reintroduced again and again throughout the modern story in order to maintain our readers’ (apparently) short attention spans.
Today, a writer constantly hears advice such as ‘each chapter must contain clear tension’, ‘each chapter must end in a cliffhanger that will force your reader to keep turning the page’, ‘don’t weigh down your reader with too much internal thought or back story, focus on action and dialogue.’
While much of this advice is useful to writers, it does make me wonder about the quality of books following this advice too closely. I often grow frustrated with novels paced too quickly, often with superficial characters. They seem more similar to … well… television shows or movies rather than books. I read them, I finish them, but nothing remains in my memory of the story, unlike great books, where scenes or images or snatches of dialogue remain lodged in my brain for years to come.
I point this out because I’ve been thinking a lot about contemporary authors I like, and how their books delve deep down into the psychology of the characters, often introducing tension in small drops. In my mind, this is much more powerful because the reader has time to become invested in the character.
Currently, I’m reading Jane Smiley’s Private Life. I’m only two-thirds through, but I think it’s brilliant. The protagonist is observant, yet passive, but as a reader I’m fascinated by her life and the slow train wreck I know the author is setting up for me as the protagonist begins to question her marriage. Since I’m on Goodreads (and love it), I was noticing how many one and two-star reviews for the book criticized the pacing, the lack of tension, etc. I see much of the same criticism for other authors I love – Sue Miller, Meg Wolitzer, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates – who dig deep into the psychology of their characters and don’t necessarily focus on quick pacing.
What do you think, readers and writers? Do you think there’s more pressure today to write shorter, snappier novels with lots of tension and page-turners? Or do you think there are plenty of options for both fast lane and slow lane writers and readers?