Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Slow, Slow, Quick, Quick, Slow?

Down on Porthmeor Beach in St Ives last weekend the surfers were struggling to catch the waves. They were small and irregular - the surf was elsewhere. When the surf is good the surfers paddle their boards way out into the bay and wait to catch a wave. The really good surfers ride the wave for a while then drop back off it just before it breaks, so they don't get either caught up in the surf or washed far onto the beach - it's a long struggle through the waves to get out to the point where you started from.

It's beautiful to watch the good surfers. They have a rhythm and fluidity in the way they ride the waves. Short stories can read like a series of waves coming into the shore, each wave starting small then building up into a crescendo. A good short story will have a series of those waves running throughout the narrative, each wave separated rather than crashing into each other all in one whoosh, then leaving the surfer stranded without impetus.

It can be summarised in one word: pace.

You need the slow build up, then the crescendo - a moment of drama or tension. Then another slow build up, then another moment of tension, and so on. Sometimes the crescendos might be close together, sometimes further apart - you don't want the rhythm to be too regular or it'll become predictable. But that's the basic principle: slow build up; moment of drama; slow build up; moment of drama etc. Or, slow, slow, quick! quick! slow.

But - and this is where it gets complicated - you want the drama to be part of the slow bit. Imagine your character is going to open a box that may (or may not) contain a poisonous snake. They would slowly approach the box. They might listen for hissing. They might try the weight of the box. They might put on gloves. They might slide their hands over the box. They might imagine what will happen when they open the box and the snake flies out...

All this is slowly building up to the moment of drama when - quick! quick! the lid of the box flips open and the character sees: nothing. Tension drops, and we're back to slow, slow again.

What it isn't is slow, slow as we hear about the character's bus ride into town and how rude the conductor was to them because they didn't have the right change, and then they trod in a puddle on the way to the office, and the receptionist blathered on about what they'd done that weekend, and then they got to their office, scanned the threatening letter attached to the box and quickly flipped open the lid to discover a king cobra. Which bit them.

For the surfers, choosing the wave to ride is part of the skill. Choosing where to go slow and where to go fast is part of the skill of being a writer.

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