Monday, September 15, 2008

Pace Yourself

When someone talks about a book they love, how do they describe it? A page turner? Impossible to put down? Gripping? Thrilling? They probably wouldn't praise it's slowness or meandering way of storytelling. Whether it's mysteries, romance, or literary fiction, pacing plays a huge role in the success of a novel.

At every writing conference I've been too, there has been a panel about pacing. Thriller writers, agents and reviewers talk and preach about ways to pick up the pace of a story. Add a time constraint. Raise the stakes. Make it seem impossible for the protagonist to triumph. I agree that if you do all of these things you will have a "thriller that's impossible to put down." But is it always necessary? Does the protagonist always need to race against time?

I bring this up because I'm currently reading NOTHING TO LOSE by, Lee Child. For those of you who aren't familiar with his work, this NYT bestselling author is known for his suspense and intriguing series protagonist, Jack Reacher. His novels are mysteries, but they are often referred to as thrillers because they're so suspenseful. But this book is different. The story unfolds slowly and Lee takes the time to describe Reacher shaving, eating, thinking. His motivations for investigating suspicious activities in this small Colorado town stem from pure "curiosity". It's not about life and death. His motivations aren't personal (at least not in the beginning). And yet, he executes the story in such an intriguing way, that it is still "impossible to put down."

Throughout the book I have wondered if a newbie author could get away with such a thing. Because it's a Reacher novel, and I love Reacher novels, I've stuck with the slower pace and let myself be pulled into the story. But if it was an author I was unfamiliar with, would I have put it down 50 pages in? Possibly.

I always respect authors taking risks in their work, but if they want to be successful, I think it's smart to take those risks after they've established a loyal audience. The Reacher fans of this world aren't going anywhere and Lee can afford to try new things. But with newer authors, I think it's better to go with the pace you've established in previous books. If you're first book was a gripping, race against time, you better stick with that pace in the second.

It just goes to show you that there are no hard and fast rules in the world of fiction. While I usually want fast pace books that raise my heart rate and make me question how a protagonist could ever get out alive, I happen to be enjoying the slower pace of this book. The plot and characters are intriguing and as the book moves on, the pace definitely picks up. To me, the gripping part stems from Reacher's curiosity. His drive to uncover the truth carries over to readers and we try to solve the mystery along side him. At this point, I haven't really feared for his life, though maybe that's because Reacher is very capable in the survival department. Like Reacher, I simply want to know the secrets of this small town and that want will keep me reading until the very end.

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