Details, Description and Pacing in Fiction (or How to Striptease, Not Bore People with Helicopters)

I've been thinking a bit about pacing in fiction lately.

Partly, that's because of things I've been reading. I'm currently finishing a long book that has a short book inside it, struggling to get out. I swear, 500 words to describe a man abseiling down a cliff, when two paragraphs, at most, would have been plenty.

And then there was the book submitted to me for review recently. I declined it, after reading the first few chapters. Not only were the sentences long and rambling, but the chapters were long and rambling. It purported to be a book about a group of gamers who discover that the game they're doing so well in is training them to fight in an interstellar war (kind of a Last Starfighter idea). So far, so good. But instead of cutting to the chase, we get the protagonist going for a surf before going off to work, and then a long scene where he and his best friend complain to each other about their employment, financial and romantic situations over the phone, and then we start into the backstory of how they met as kids, and at the point where the author began the blow-by-blow account of the friend's academic history and how it disappointed his father, I put the book down and didn't pick it up again.

I emailed the author and suggested that he should cut heavily, and his response was that he had known about the problem for some time but was anxious to move on to the next book, so he encouraged me to "push through" the slow first five chapters, because they do set up important stuff...

Sorry, my friend, but that's not how this thing works.

Your first couple of chapters are what will be in your sample on Amazon. They are your third opportunity to hook people, after your cover and your blurb. Like many other people, I filter books at each of those stages.

Amateurish cover? Author doesn't care enough. Next.

Grammatical errors in the blurb, or it's a confusing mess? I assume the book will be the same. Next.

Sample chapters don't hook me so that I will lay my money down to read the rest? I will not lay my money down to read the rest.

Now, I'm on record complaining about books that are all sizzle and no sausage, too, so I'll point out that I'm looking for a balance. I don't, personally, love books that are just like action movies, that begin page 1 with someone being shot at and progress by means of chases and explosions to a huge chase and an enormous explosion, without stopping for character development along the way. At the same time, I don't love books that are all about getting ready to do something, or trying to decide to do something, or the minute details of doing something that might have been interesting if it hadn't been described so exhaustively.

Take the book I'm reading now, for example. It's Declare, by Tim Powers. In other words, it's a book that was up for four or five major awards that I'll never be nominated for, written by a better writer than I'll ever be, so I can criticize it by name and not worry about hurting someone else's career.

The characters in Declare can't just get into a helicopter and fly somewhere. They get into a specific model of helicopter, and we have to hear not only what kind of engine it has, but what the rotor blades are made of. He's obviously done a ton of research to get so many details right, but the thing is that as far as I'm concerned, I don't care if the details are right. I don't need the details. Guy gets into a helicopter, that's all I'm looking for. Tell me the rotors are made of wood if they explode and splinters go everywhere. They don't explode? Splinters don't go everywhere? I don't care what they're made of, then.

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I'm not a highly detail-oriented person, as you may have guessed (despite my obsessive spotting of proofreading errors). People who go into excessive detail irritate me. I once worked with a man who would never give me a straight answer to any question, but would instead go into a lot of background detail which I was, presumably, somehow supposed to extract an answer from. "Yes," I'd say, "but [original question]?" And then he'd do it again. Drove me absolutely nuts.

Partly, then, this is a personality thing. I would suggest, though, that for maximum audience appeal, we writers need to write enough detail that the detail-oriented don't leave unsatisfied, and not so much that the people like me get bored and skip. How do we do that? (And I say "we," because I know I tend to the extreme of not enough detail.)

My novel Realmgolds is about political maneuverings. It has a very high proportion of speeches and conversations to gunshots (though there are certainly gunshots). Several reviews, though, have mentioned its "fast pace". How do I achieve that effect (which, incidentally, I didn't know I'd achieved until people told me)? Simple.

I write short chapters.

Very few of my chapters are in excess of 3000 words. Some are much shorter. Yet something important always happens in each chapter.

If you're worried that your story is dragging, or might drag because it's about people talking instead of shooting, shorten your chapters, while making sure that something significant happens in each one. This will give your readers a sense of forward momentum, because finishing a chapter is like walking through a door into another room.

I was working on a YA novel a while ago (which I abandoned, in the event), and I deliberately kept it pacey by aiming for chapters of roughly 1000 words. It was great discipline.

Also, write short sentences. I used to use a lot of semicolons in my writing. My rule of thumb now is that if a sentence is long enough to need a semicolon, it's long enough to use two sentences. "Say one thing per sentence" is another good rule of thumb.

So how do I keep that from becoming choppy and losing any depth? Here are a couple of strategies (which I'm still working on).

Firstly, when a new person, or a new significant thing, or a new significant idea comes into shot, linger the camera on it a bit so that the audience can tell they should pay attention to it. Spend a sentence or two giving a couple of key pieces of description of the person, thing or idea. Roger Zelazny, one of the most evocative writers who ever lived, had a simple method for this (I remember reading or hearing somewhere, though I've sadly forgotten where). He would give a character a couple of "tags" when they were first introduced, the two or three things you would instantly notice, and refer back to them when the character returned, so even his minor characters are easy to remember.

It's just two or three things, though. And it works the same for setting details, significant objects or key concepts. Some things, of course, can't be conveyed in two or three tags, but if you can do it that way, my vote is that you do. We don't need a character's entire backstory the moment they appear. Striptease your readers with significant details, preferably as and when they become significant, though you can foreshadow a bit if it's not at the expense of getting on with telling the story.

Picking just two or three things is a creative limitation. It encourages you to pick the most telling details, the things that make this character or setting item unusual or interesting or memorable or different from what you could see walking down the main street of your town. It also keeps the momentum going.

The other thing to remember is this: if you're watching a movie, and the camera lingers on, let's say, a knife on a kitchen bench, you can be confident that someone is going to pick up that knife later and at the very least wave it around, if not stick it in someone. As a general thing, the camera doesn't linger for no particular reason. Same with description. If I get a description of something in a book, I'll expect it to be relevant to the plot, characterization or setting, ideally more than one of those, and if it turns out not to be relevant (and if detail after detail turns out not to be relevant), I'll become vexed very quickly. I only have so much working memory to devote to your book. Don't fill it up with things I won't need later.

You can still have quieter moments of character reflection, still have the occasional brief passage of evocative description. But in a world where your reader can download any of 30 million other books in the next 30 seconds, boring them with your book is a really bad move.

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