Tag Archives: Characters

Narrative Pace: Too Much Information

Even a thriller can drag.

Knowing how much information to provide is one of the skills a writer hones to get really good at his or her craft. A love scene may require a different set of data—light, scent, the nuances of sound, the shape and degree of moisture present in a human eye. A torture-style interrogation may also use light, stink, noise, and the amount of white showing in a human eye, not to mention the beads of sweat. However, not only is the choice of details different in the two scenes but also the choice of words. Furthermore, the rate, number, and length of words controls the pace—scene by scene and chapter by chapter.

The Slog

For example, a scene in which the gumshoe is cornered by a dangerous thug and his two wing men:

Heroguy eased himself back into the Herman Miller Aeron chair Magda had given him as a little joke last Secretaries Day.

“True Black,” she had said, referring to the proprietary color of the ergonomic chair, a private dig at his preference for public radio in the afternoon.

There was going to be nothing ergonomic about the chair today. He could tell by the size of the fists balled up in the coat pockets of Mutt and Jeff.

“Nice view,” Badman said. He waved vaguely at the open door, and Mutt strolled over and closed it while his boss stood tensely looking out the window at the ninth floor view of the Miracle Mile. Mutt rejoined Jeff and the two of them settled their hind ends on the dusty surface of Magda’s credenza. Heroguy thought of all the fine whiskeys stored in that improvised seating and how much he was going to need a Scotch when this was all over. Mutt and Jeff looked at Badman for some direction, then seeing that they would not be needed immediately, they began examining the various objects in the room. The unused vintage coat rack kept for effect, the mini-fridge, the sharp edge of the tape dispenser.

“I like it.”

“I suppose you do.”

“What can I do for you?”

“The question is, what am I going to do to you?”

“I dunno. I need a little more information on that. For example, what do I have that you want, and how bad do you want it?”

“I think you know,” he said, and Heroguy did. He knew it all, and he was counting on there being more than a single helping left in the Scotch bottle. Badman turned to his bat boys. “Beat it out of him.”

Ugh! Wit aimed at a public radio audience. The problems pile up from the beginning: Heroguy should be thinking fast and furious about how to defend himself and what he can learn from this encounter. He should be on heightened alert because he is about to get beaten to a pulp. (The scene continues with a brutal assault upon Heroguy that leaves him scarred and humorless. The leisurely comedy is an inappropriate lead up.) The writer may be developing his character by building his radio leanings and relationship with his secretary into the scene, but this is sooooo not the time. The details are mostly random, as is the movement of the chess pieces around the room. The repartee is imitative of noir cinema dialog, but here it just feels like the racehorses have lined up at the gate and started to graze. Good films don’t have bad dialog for the same reason good novels don’t, but with this difference—an actor can sometimes infuse meaningless speech with subtext using face and voice and body language. In novels, dialog and its accompanying cues must be precise in order for the reader to supply the mental imagery that brings a character in a scene to life.

Stepping Up the Narrative Pace

[Move details desccribing  Magda and her reasons for giving Heroguy an ergonomic chair to some earlier, more appropriate character building scene.]

Heroguy eased himself back into his chair.

There was going to be nothing ergonomic about the chair today. He could tell by the size of the fists balled up in the coat pockets of Mutt and Jeff.

“Nice view,” Badman said and settled his hind end on the liquor cabinet, his back to the window. Heroguy thought of all the fine whiskeys stored in that improvised seating and how much he was going to need a Scotch when this was all over.

“I like it.”

“I suppose you do.”

He turned to his bat boys. “Beat it out of him.” Meaning, everything he wanted to know.

All the aimless wandering is gone. Badman’s character is sharpened by making his position the anchor and giving his placement a bit of subtext—he sits with his back to the window, so that his comment on the view refers to his being able to watch the forthcoming beating. He is laconic (though not quite the silent type—he does engage the protagonist) and goes directly to his business. His thugs are shadowy and undefined—mere fists in pockets with no details to distract the reader from the nature of the threat. Heroguy’s wry humor is preserved without the cumbersome brand names and inside jokes.  Badman sits on a liquor cabinet instead of the pointlessly pretentious credenza, a perfectly fine word that will nevertheless make the reader hesitate.

Narrative Pace and Point of View

One further refinement would increase the immediacy of the action and more closely identify the reader with our Heroguy: Make the POV first person.

“Nice view,” Badman said and settled his hind end on my liquor cabinet, his back to the window. I thought of all the fine whiskeys stored in that improvised seating and how much I was going to need a Scotch when this was all over.

This is not a generalization. First person POV is for when you want the reader to be the protagonist.


By extension, the practice of not cluttering up scenes with unimportant movement and detail should be applied to the book as a whole. How important is it that Heroguy’s chair is a Herman Miller and was a gift from Magda? It may be very important (only the author knows), but in weighing whether to build a whole scene around the origins of Heroguy’s chair, the author should consider whether Heroguy’s character and his relationship with Magda have already been pretty well defined—is the scene redundant? And can Magda afford to buy a Herman Miller chair on her salary? Does she like her boss that much? Does she often make exorbitant sacrifices for him? Is the author deliberately targeting a niche audience? Does the brand of chair somehow tie into the resolution of the mystery? Or is this level of detail, however funny or sublimely described or minutely researched, a drag on a story that should simply crack on?

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Style Sheet: A Key Writers’ Tool

Keeping a style sheet as you write will save headaches for everybody later on.

Writing is often an impulsive task, and momentum should not be sacrificed to detail if the result is inspirational derailment. At some point, however, you will reread what you’ve written. You will revise. The moment is yours to choose, but you will make choices about this and that. Record those decisions.

A sharp editor will compile a style sheet if you don’t provide one. It will list names of people and places, dates and chronologies, brands of significant objects, preferred spellings, the special treatment of anything.

Here is an example:

My Style Sheet

style sheet

If you look carefully, you will see that certain details raise questions. Sid’s last name doesn’t match the rest of his family. Probably the writer changed the family name but missed Sid because he is only mentioned once. Karrie was 8 when she gave birth to Sid and 13 when she had Henry. This is because in the first draft Karrie was 48, like her husband, but in the second draft the author decided that she needed to be younger, which means Henry should have been made younger too, but the revision slipped between the cracks. The problem is compounded because Sid was moved from younger son to older son to explain the father-son issues between Henry and Carl.

All sorts of details become easier to keep track off with a style sheet. Henry’s Tacoma is frequently mentioned—a kind of defining trait. This is an indication to the editor that the Tacoma deserves heightened attention—its color, model year, dings and scratches, or anything that might come up later. For example, if the dent on the rear quarter was caused by a collision on the driver’s side, it doesn’t make sense for it to be on the left side. If Trixie is only 4 months pregnant, she should not be stumbling off curbs yet; if we meet her 8 months later and she is about to give birth, there is clearly a problem with the chronology. If the writer had to look up the spelling/styling of a brand name, chances are the editor will have to look it up too. If you have to look it up twice, you have your style sheet to refer to.

Story development means errors are almost inevitable. Maintaining a style sheet will help you keep track of all the changes you make. And your editor will love you if you provide a copy of your style sheet with the manuscript. It will save the editor time (and you money).

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