I like fast-paced, page-turner novels. They pique my curiosity and force me to keep reading so that I can learn the secret or the answer or the perpetrator or the outcome. Will he survive, do they fall in love, will she choose the best job, can they make the rent, will he catch the thief? Questions drive a story forward and keep a reader turning pages.
I’ve even written about creating a fast pace in fiction as an important technique to learn (see “Picking Up The Pace”), and I haven’t changed my mind. However I have been reminded that a fast pace should not be the goal of a story but rather a means.
Acclaimed agent and writing instructor Donald Maass, in his new book Writing 21st Century Fiction has this to say:
Clever twists and turns are only momentarily attention-grabbing. Relentless forward-driving action, high tension, and cliffhangers do serve to keep readers’ eyeballs on the page but don’t necessarily engage their hearts. . . How then can commercial novelists construct plots that have true power? (emphasis mine)
How indeed! First, I think it’s important to see pace for what it is–a means by which to keep readers engaged. Sadly, it seems as if a host of contemporary writers–novelists and script writers–are under the delusion that keeping readers (or viewers) glued to their seats for a prerequisite period of time qualifies a story as good.
Seat belts do that. So do roller coasters. But rides in cars and trips to amusement parks are generally forgettable.
Good stories definitely keep a reader’s interest, but there’s more. Good stories prompt the reader to think about the characters when away from the book. Good stories prompt the reader to mull over the outcome of the story once he finishes.
In other words, there has to be more than pages whipping by like telephone poles seen through the window of a speeding car. A good story is more than one long chase, more than a ticking time bomb.
Good stories are not easily mistaken for a different title. They have a uniqueness about them, though they may still include the tropes of their genre.
What is it, then, that makes the difference? Maass again:
The characters who resonate most widely today don’t merely reflect our times, they reflect ourselves. That’s true whether we’re talking about genre fare, historicals, satire, or serious literary stuff. Revealing human truths means transcending tropes, peering into the past with fresh eyes, unearthing all that is hidden, and moving beyond what is easy and comfortable to write what is hard and even painful to face.
In short, the writer being authentic and individual and fearless makes the difference. But we’ll need to explore what that means in greater depth another time. For today, the take-home would be this: pace is a tool to use. It should serve the story and not rule the story.