Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Anyone who's been reading the blog will know that THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO was just about my favorite book last year.  From the first chapter, Patrick Ness hooks you in and doesn't let go.  It's breathless.  Yet, he never once sacrifices character development to keep up his brutal pace.  All his characters are so well developed that, despite moving at breakneck speeds, when stuff happens to them, it resonates on the deepest emotional levels.  It's brilliant.

Not to say that all books have to move so quickly.  Every book needs to find the pace that works best for it.  For example, GOING BOVINE had a leisurely pace.  Sure, we knew Cam was dying and his magic bracelet kept reminding him of that, but Libba Bray took her time developing the story.  There were pit stops for self-reflection.  And that easy pace worked really well for it.  This was a journey to the end of Cam's life, and Bray was going to take it as slowly as she needed.  Never once did it drag, though.  She did the reverse of Ness:  she didn't sacrifice pacing for character development.

Those books are two amazing examples of how pacing and character development go hand in hand.  I know a lot of writing books say to start in the middle of the action, and that's okay, but it has to be grounded in character.  Conversely, if you start with nothing BUT character, people will get bored quickly.

For examples of both done the WRONG way, I'm turning to television.

Two new shows that I was extremely excited about are failing in different ways:

FLASH FORWARD is a show about a blackout that allowed everyone in the world to see approximately three minutes of their future.  The show has been moving toward that future at a snails pace.  It's spent so much time trying to make us care about the characters that the pace is painful and it's become so divorced from its own premise that I stopped caring about the characters.  Now, don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great character types.  There's a man who knows that his future is to die, one who knows he's going to lose his family and start drinking again, one who finds the daughter he thought dead, two who find each other and fall in love.  These characters have the makings of amazing stories.  But they sacrificed their pacing in order to force these characters down my throat.

V is the other show.  Its sins are completely opposite.  It's moving so quickly that the characters have turned from law abiding citizens (a priest, an FBI agent, and an alien--sounds like a bad joke) into terrorists and then freedom fighters, before I can come to care about any of them.  At this point, the characters are only faces.  They could all die and there would be no emotional resonance.  This show has completely tossed aside character to make way for plot.  Maybe the hope is that if they move fast enough, no one will notice that all the characters are flat.  They're cutouts.  And, again, that's sad, because the premise of aliens pretending to be friendly but secretly infiltrating our society, is a good one.

My agent is fond of telling me to make certain that every scene has a purpose.  Plot and pacing and character are all intertwined.  The characters in V are doing things ONLY to drive the story along.  Their actions do nothing to show us who they are as characters.  The characters in FLASHFORWARD do things that have nothing to do with the plot.  Their actions only show us who they are, but they do nothing to further the story.  The best stories marry the two. Each scene drives the story. Every characters' action shows who they are.

Moving on!  Tomorrow night I'm going to see KICK-ASS, so I'll probably talk about that.  Until then, what are some books or movies or shows that you think marry pacing and plot and character really well?

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