I just had a nice conversation (well, email volley anyway) about my book Into the Fire, and it got me thinking. One of the items my friend brought up was the pacing and character development. He felt that the beginning could have been more swiftly paced, and that the reader knew almost nothing about the physical appearance, mannerisms, and jobs of the main characters.
I think all the observations stem from the same elements in my writing. I intentionally wrote the book in a particular style. I decided on a third person, non-omnicient point of view. We see all that we see from the main character’s point of view, but as if we were watching him rather than him telling us the story. I also decided I wanted to tell the tale in the form of the actions of the people involved and rely as little as possible on explaining those actions other than by other people’s reactions to what was occurring, being said, or being observed.
This is a story telling style that is different than many I have read (and, thus, part of why I wanted to try it), and it is also not a style that has always been around. I came to it from a series of lectures by James Hynes (I have them on DVD, Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques, and well worth giving a look). He explores various techniques used by writers, many of which I had heard of before, and points out how different ones can be used for different purposes.
I made my choices to try to exemplify show, don’t tell, and it worked very well for me as a writer. But not, obviously, for all my readers. But the comments made me think about how writing has evolved over time. My own recent reading (many of them first time reads for me) has included:
- A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
- Red Harvest, By Dashiell Hammett
- The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler
- Fer-de-Lance, by Rex Stout
And reading older works such as these made me think of other things I have read in the past. Nineteenth century English literature, for example, reads very differently than a current Michael Connelly Harry Bosch novel. Even the old masters in the detective/mystery genre, in which I would certainly include Hammett, Chandler, and Stout, read quite differently from modern works by the current masters of the field. And it is not just the diction or idioms of the times, nor the pacing, nor even the point of view that changed, though there are certainly differences in all three. But the differences I am struck by are more than those. They are in the way the author tells the story.
As an example, nineteenth century English literature, such as what we see with Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, is much more slowly paced. It takes its time to build a story, and it is all about giving a feeling of the place of the characters, both in physical location and in social class. The tension is a different kind of tension altogether than most modern story telling. The flow has a distinctly different feel. Not really so much better or worse than modern work, but very much different. Long, descriptive scenes of rooms, locations, or even a garden or mode of dress dominate. I think, in part, that is because people of that era had never seen those things. Extensive description takes the place of having seen movies, television, or you-tube videos in our modern era.
Not everyone likes the pacing in older works. But not everyone likes the pacing in more modern works, either. I have heard complaints about violence, sex, profanity, and so forth regarding modern novels. And there is certainly more of all three, and more graphic versions of all three, in things written today. I use the word pacing here, perhaps mistakenly but certainly intentionally, because all three (violence, sex, profanity) can give a more frenetic sense of pace than appears in much earlier works. The placid has been replaced by the panicked. Again, not good or bad, but different.
I wonder whether our increased pace of technology, and media, have impacted our writing, and to what degrees. Is the advent of email, texting, and the 6 second sound byte moving our writing in a particular direction as well? Perhaps. Or, I suppose, definitely, but what that direction might be, and what future literary efforts might look like is unclear, at least to me. Again, not good nor bad, but different.
We have evolved in many areas, and continue to do so. I wonder what will writing look like in another twenty, fifty, or one hundred years?