I’m delighted today to welcome the lovely Katherine Langrish to the blog, who has kindly offered to share some insights about how she tackles the tricky subject of narrative pacing.
Pacing your Narrative: Speeding Up and Going Slow
Here’s an example of poor pacing and irrelevant detail, taken from a very early draft of my first book ‘Troll Fell’, Chapter 1, page 1:
Peer Ulfsson, standing miserably at his father’s funeral, knew that he was the unhappiest boy in the world.
His mother had died when he was too small to remember her; his father had never remarried, so he had no brothers or sisters. But it hadn’t mattered, because he and his father were so close. They lived cosily in a tiny house near the marketplace in Hammerhaven, a tiny town on the fjord. His father had built it himself. It had a thatched roof that nearly touched the ground, and only one room, which they shared with several chickens and Peer’s beloved dog Loki…
And I went on (and on), explaining how Peer’s father died and left him an orphan.
Nearly everything was wrong with that passage. For a start, it’s all telling, not showing: and in the pluperfect, too – a tense to avoid. Mainly, though, the story is dead in its tracks. Nothing is happening. I’m faffing about explaining Peer’s family background, and the name of his town – and the hugely important word “funeral” is being ignored. It reads as though I’m making notes to myself. I’m neglecting the ‘live’ action for the sake of barely relevant stuff that happened in the past.
There was no point in describing Peer’s old house, since none of the action ever takes place there. What was needed was to make the most of Peer’s tragic situation by presenting it dramatically. So I got on with the action and let the back story emerge bit by bit, as and when necessary. I concentrated on the flames of the pyre, the boy’s grief, the wind, the cluster of neighbours – setting the scene for the arrival of wicked Uncle Baldur. All of that back story was pared down and compressed:
A small body bumped Peer’s legs. He reached down. His dog Loki leaned against him, a rough flea-bitten brown mongrel – all the family Peer had left.
The last six words do the job. They tell us Peer is alone in the world, without lengthy explanations as to why he hasn’t got any brothers or sisters – and, crucially, without interrupting the flow of the narrative.
Authors have power over time. Don’t write about the hours/days in your character’s lives when nothing much happens. You can ‘fast forward’ or skip over the boring bits. Don’t spend pages on waking up, washing, eating breakfast, catching the bus to school etc. Begin at the moment when the bus crashes, or the terrorists burst into the school hall, or the bully spits in the nervous hero’s face. A chapter can end with the characters in one place and time (a bedroom, evening) and the next chapter can begin somewhere else (a school playground, lunchtime) without any need for a ‘linking’ passage explaining what happened in the hours between, or how the characters got here. Readers will assume continuity.
On the other hand, when something exciting ishappening, take time to explore it in depth. In my second book, ‘Troll Mill’, there’s a scene where the hero, Peer, confronts a pair of disgusting goblin-like creatures called the lubbers, who have kidnapped two babies. He’s trying to bargain with them to hand back the youngest baby, Ran, in exchange for blankets:
“Both babies, or no blankets.” Peer’s voice shook with tension. He took a step forward.
“All right, all right!” the first lubber screamed. Without warning it tossed Ran into the air and dived for the blankets.
So now I’ve got a baby flying through the air. Clearly Peer has to catch her. I could simply have written:
Without even thinking, Peer snatched Ran out of the air. The impact pushed him off balance, and he fell backwards into the mill pond with a terrific splash.
But that would be selling the moment short. Though in real time it would all happen very quickly, I can take my time writing about it:
Peer saw Ran arcing towards him, her arms flying wide, her head tipping back. He seemed to stare for hours into her wide eyes. At the edge of sight he saw Gudrun turn, her mouth opening in terror; he saw Hilde lunge forward, she was yards out of reach. His own arms came up. He plucked Ran out of the air. Trying to protect her from the impact, he reeled, and then was falling, falling slowly backwards, the baby clutched to his chest. He still had time to see everything as he fell: Gudrun and Hilde screaming, the lubbers grovelling for the blankets, Loki barking, the Nis jumping about. He fell through a layer of white mist, and all the people on the bank faded like phantoms. Then the millpond hit him in the back.
Falling into the millpond, in the world of this book, is even more dangerous because it’s inhabited by the sinister water spirit Granny Greenteeth. Peer’s impulsive action may cost him his life. I didn’t want to rush the moment; I wanted to give him, and the reader, enough time to think about it.
About the Author
Katherine Langrish is a British author of fantasy for children and young adults. She is best known for her Troll Trilogy: ‘Troll Fell‘, ‘Troll Mill‘ and ‘Troll Blood‘ (HarperCollins) which was recommended in the ‘Top 160 Books for Boys’ compiled by the British School Library Association. An (abridged) omnibus edition is now available, entitled ‘West of the Moon‘.
Katherine has also written ‘Dark Angels’ and ‘Forsaken’. Dark Angels was one of the United States Board on Books for Young People’s Outstanding International Books 2011 (under its US title ‘The Shadow Hunt’).
Katherine blogs at ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’.