Speed in fiction and its discontents

So last week I read the finish of my short story Obolus to the writing group. The story (formerly Don’t Pay the Ferryman) is 8,000 words which took three sessions to get through. I particularly wanted feedback on the ending because while the story and character arc seemed logical, it still felt like it needed something.

The feedback was much more positive than I expected, which was great. It also confirmed that while the character arc and the resolution work, it still needs work. Specifically that it felt like I’d rushed to get to the final scene, that I need to slow it down and pace it here and there. I agree, and it should be fixable.

That got me thinking about speed in my writing more generally.

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the writing group that says I need better packing: I hit readers with a shit-ton of characters or action scenes and it’s overwhelming. Give readers time to breathe and they can absorb it better and follow the story better.

But then again, the editorial feedback on Southern Discomfort said it was too slow, paced like epic fantasy when urban fantasy requires more tension and urgency. I don’t think that’s contradictory: different stories, different lengths, different points in the tale. Having tension at the start when you’re hooking the reader doesn’t conflict with a directive to slow down later in the narrative. Plus there’s the question of the execution: one author might make a particular pacing work while other authors founder.

The book Writing the Breakout Novel, which is one of the how-to writing guides I often use, in general frowns on any break in the tension: if it’s not there, why read on? I’ve certainly seen that happen with books where the protagonist forgets the danger while they’re out dating; I don’t think I’d agree that never easing up is a good thing. In the first play I directed, the reviews from my fellow directors were that I need to change the pace and tension at times; watching it on video later, I could see they were right. I think it’s possible for characters to relax without completely forgetting the peril/mission/threat.

Pacing is also going to vary depending on the kind of story I’m writing. Mage’s Masquerade is a Regency fantasy and while I think it keeps up the tension, it’s not at the same pace as the more action-oriented The Savage Year. The threat in Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates is more subtle so the pacing is different there, too.

I don’t have a brilliant conclusion or advice here, just musing on how pacing is something I have to work on and be conscious of going forward.

#SFWApro. Covers by Ross Andru (top) and Carmine Infantino (bottom), all rights to images remain with current holder.

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Filed under Short Stories, Story Problems, Writing

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