Jan 17, 2011

Words in Progress

Writing is a learning process, one that never ends.  As I finish the book I'm reading (The Bottoms by Joe R Lansdale - great book, I like the way he structured it, the way he makes the people sound like they're from the location and time set in the narrative, the effect of history on the story and our world, just go down to the bookstore and get your own copy to read), I am reminded about a lesson on pace in a story.  

If you want to slow things down in your story, add memories of your characters - when they look back to tell something to us, it provides a pause in the overall story.  To speed things up, drop the chatter.

When you listen to a storyteller, try to notice how they go round-about to stretch the story telling time.  They'll add flourishes and what may seem at first to be unnecessary events and embellishments.  But if they're good, at the end you won't be able to decide what really should have been left out of the story.

Like this scene from a short story I wrote titled "Lifeblood".

     On the street, partying was muted by the cold January air.  Still, as he turned off Rampart there was a crowd packed so tightly it spilled into the intersection.  A large boned black woman screamed into the face of a drunken white man. 
     Like everyone else, the tension held him there.
     "You lousy son-of-a-bitch, you better apologize 'fore I show the whole world how little you have, you freaking wimp!  You owe me and I'm going to get it!"
     "C'mon darling, now..." the man said as he took a hold of her shoulder.
     "Don't you 'darling' me!"  The woman slapped him hard enough to turn his head.  His eyes locked with the dark man in the cloud of smoke that looked like it was reflecting the lowest red light of the lamps.
     "You pay attention to me when I talk to you!"  The woman was hopping from foot to foot.  The man kept staring off to the side and she could not contain her indignation any longer; the second slap did not even jar him, but his cheek immediately flushed deep red with anger and his eyes took on the look of a crazy man.  He doubled his fist and swung at her head.  But he was not from the street like her.  She easily dodged his drunken swing and sent him sprawling with a right hook.  The crowd cheered and swayed in the direction of the fight.  A hole opened in the crush and the dark man threw his spent cigarette down as he squeezed through.

Everyone who reads "Lifeblood" and gets back to me about it remembers this scene. Was it unnecessary or did it control the pace without letting-up on the tension?  I like to think it did the latter, and created a threshold in the story where the main character was prevented from just running to the next point in the story.