Writing with proper pace – avoiding the thin and stretched problem

I posted the other day about the way authors can write quickly and well – it boils down to having good concepts for content, then being able to translate that content into a linear thread. But that isn’t the only issue authors have to tackle when it comes to speed.

A writer rag-tagging at Gandalf's coat-tails...
A writer rag-tagging at Gandalf’s coat-tails…

The other one is pace. A story – or, for that matter, an article or piece of non-fiction – can be brilliantly conceived and well written, but still run too slowly to keep reader interest. The example that always springs to mind when I think of this problem is Harry Turtledove’s ‘World War’ series, an alternate history saga in which lizard-like aliens crash the Second World War and force both Allies and Axis to co-operate.

I chugged my way through the first of these but didn’t bother with the rest. Why? Turtledove is an excellent writer; there’s nothing wrong with his ideas, characterisation or anything else. But the pace was glacial. There was a mis-match, to my mind, between the drama of the story concept and the speed at which that drama was laid out. The peaks – the elements that hold reader interest – were too far-spread.

It would have worked, I think, as a book about a quarter of the length – and maybe the whole ‘World War’ saga could have been reduced to a couple of modest volumes on that basis.

The inverse problem is when the book is too thin for the subject – when it charges, helter-skelter, into the concept it’s conveying without pause for breath. I always thought Dan Brown’s The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said) veered into that territory – though, for all the faults I can find with Brown, there’s little doubt about his mastery of pace.

That also happens in non-fiction; I’ve chopped my way through history books where the author has clearly got rather carried away with their research and subject matter, and where the publisher hasn’t felt able to deal with the problem.

Though sometimes they do – I recall, years ago, a historian complaining to me that the publisher had required them to cut out about a third of their book. On my own experience, I know that publishers don’t do that gratuitously.

It’s a bit like the effects of Tolkien’s ring: The Ring didn’t give extra life – it stretched out the life its bearer had. ‘Thin and stretched,’ Bilbo explained to Gandalf at one point. And that, it seems to me, is true of writing too. The length has to fit the concept.

So what’s the answer? There’s no single ‘ideal’ length; different concepts will have different natural paces to them. The trick is finding them. One rule of thumb, though, is not to try to write to an ambitious word length – too often, authors go for ‘scale’ and the bragging rights of being able to say they just published a 1000 page book, when the content doesn’t match up.

Symptoms of the problem in fiction include stalling – dredging for what comes next, or including scenes that don’t advance the character arc and plot. Or, in non-fiction, it can include sections that don’t strictly relate to the main subject matter.

All these things have to be watched for. And don’t forget – word-count isn’t a goal; it’s a tool for measuring.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


14 thoughts on “Writing with proper pace – avoiding the thin and stretched problem

  1. It’s interesting you mentioned Tolkien, because I am most conflicted about his writing when it comes to this topic. My husband reads the Lord of the Rings trilogy — in its entirety — once a year, but so far I’ve been unable to slog through even the first book just once. I find the pace painful and am annoyed by all the songs and tangents and lineages of the swords. But my husband says it’s exactly the completeness of the world Tolkien has created that makes the books so real to him. So … would you please settle our little domestic dispute, Matthew? Should Tolkien’s editor have trimmed the book to one neat-and-lean tome? Or is the work perfect as it is? An exasperated wife in central Minnesota eagerly awaits your response. 🙂

    1. I am a colossal Tolkien fan myself, though it’s over a decade since I last read the trilogy. But equally, as a writer, I can’t believe how Tolkien totally overturned all the usual forms and got away with it. My take is that you are both right – a paradox that I think I can explain, but it’ll probably take a couple of blog posts to do it! Too much to put into a comment. What I can say here is that Tolkien himself always complained that LOTR was “too short”!🙂 And I recall a very interesting discussion with Phillipa Boyens, one of the movie script-writers, on the issues they had adapting the book, which simply wasn’t paced or structured to suit a movie.

      The fact is that Rayner Unwin was leery about actually publishing LOTR, for precisely the reasons you raise – pace, structure & scale. Tolkien produced LOTR as a single volume, divided into six books. Allen & Unwin published it as a trilogy to spread the commercial risk in the mid-1950s, and their assessment proved basically correct – it was produced in a succession of low-run editions for about a decade. Then, suddenly, it took off – this on the back of a US edition issued without permission, but legally because of the way copyright law worked. Tolkien produced the second edition (which is the one we know today) for the US market, and it took off like a rocket. The question is why. Watch this space!

      1. I am bowled over by your response, Matthew — in the best possible sense! I had no idea you’d have such deep knowledge of the subject (you’ve *met* Phillipa Boyens?!). I will share your wise and fair perspective with my husband, and perhaps we will finally lay the matter to rest, with the compromise that we’re both right. But if you do care to write further on the topic I would be delighted to read your thoughts. Thank you so much, Matthew … and thank you in advance!

  2. I’m wrestling with exactly this problem in a client’s book I’m editing. She started a pretty decent story with great characters and a romance but has just kept on writing instead of bringing it to an ending. 340,000 words later and it is swerving into mystery now, and how the hell am I going to carve it up into 3 or even 4 separate books! Thin and stretched I will be before this one’s done!

    1. Urgh! If the author’s even mixed up genres and run to 55% the length of LOTR, it sounds a bit as if they were writing ‘for entertainment’ rather than to build a structured work that others might like… Sounds harsh but I have to say it… Is there a character arc or something, or does it just sort of blunge along slightly aimlessly like real life?

      1. I’m still ploughing my way through it! I’m hoping that by the time I reach the end I’ll have some idea of how to shape it, but at present I’m only 1/3 of the way along.

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