Life in the fast lane? … Or not

Ferrari imageI’m not referring to authors here. The last time authors lived life in the fast lane may well have been back in 1920s Paris.

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?


  1. Nicola Layouni on June 13, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Hey, Kimberly. 🙂 Speaking as both a reader and a writer, I think there’s room for both styles. It all depends on the mood of the reader. Sometimes you wanna grab a quick bite whilst on the move. Other times, it’s nice to sit down at the table and take your time. (Yes. I AM hungry, actually! 🙂 )

    As you know, my scribblings are of the ‘tortoise’ variety. I like to show the reader around the world I’ve created, let them live it and breathe it with my character. But that’s not to say I don’t press my foot down hard on the gas when the story merits it.

    Imo, the best thing we can do as writers is write the story the way it plays in our heads. Listen to crit partners and beta readers, by all means. Consider their comments, but make your own decisions.

    As much as I admire/fangirl other authors, I would never try to imitate their styles. That would be a TOTAL disaster. It’d be like trying to speak with a fake accent for the rest of your life. Impossible. And the reader would know.

    Always stay true to you. That’s my advice if anyone wants it! 🙂

    • kimberlysullivan on June 16, 2014 at 8:22 am

      Great comments, Nicola. Good description about your writing – you have so much action and heart-jolting moments, yet I like it that you slow down and allow us to gain insight into your characters so that we really care about them.

      I agree that there’s room for both types of stories, but I see there’s a lot of pressure on authors to write in a certain style today, and it’s not necessarily the one I enjoy reading… : )

  2. Julia on June 14, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    I agree with you.
    I am now hooked by Doris Lessing’s “Love, again”.
    The characters are so intriguing. She delves into their psychology and I can’t get enough of this novel. It is not a fast pace. Who cares about the pace when the characters enthrall us?

    • kimberlysullivan on June 16, 2014 at 8:24 am

      Couldn’t agree more, Julia. When you walk away from a book with real insight into the character and his or her world, it stays with you for a long time after the last page has been read.

  3. evelyneholingue on June 15, 2014 at 1:19 am

    Excellent post and question. Like Nicola I think there is room for both. It is however true that fast-paced novels have been on the rise and that editors reject manuscripts that can be perceived as slow while they are simply more quiet.
    As a reader I like both. Incidentally, the writers you mention are also among my favorite. Like you I appreciate the slow development of their fictional characters and a huge part of the pleasure I have to read them is to discover these characters.
    In childrend and YA literature we are seeing the same. Some editors prefer plot driven stories while others favor character driven.
    Ideally a great book combines an intriguing plot with well fleshed characters.
    One of the best I read recently, if not the best, is The Goldfinch.
    Some readers found it too long. I love the way Dona Tartt took her time to take us into the world of her characters.
    Another for YA is Ask the Passengers by one of my favorite writers for young adults, A.S. King.
    There is no exciting action in this book but a smart, thoughtful book about a girl questioning her sexuality.
    I took also my time to reply and I do apologize for this long answer. But the topic called for feedack.

    • kimberlysullivan on June 16, 2014 at 8:29 am

      Fabulous comments, Evelyne. Thanks for bringing in the YA perspective, too. I’m not as knowledgeable as I should be in this area. One the one hand, I see so many exciting books in this genre that my sons read today, and that weren’t around when I was their age. On the other hand, we often read older children’s books, and I see these are often books that require more sustained concentration, more character development, often less action, etc. But I don’t know enough about the category to know if this is only an impression. Thanks for weighing in! Long answers and reflections are ALWAYS welcome. I learn so much from all of you.

Leave a Comment