Monday, April 09, 2007

The Down Side of Fast Pacing

While I admit I get bored easily these days myself, I’m beginning to wonder if the trend toward a faster and faster pace isn’t killing storytelling. These thoughts were provoked by two related experiences this past week. First, I read Len Deighton’s BERLIN GAME. Then I watched the movie NO WAY OUT. Both the book and the movie were made in the Eighties, and both were highly successful in their day. Yet I doubt either one would do as well now. Why? Pacing.

I took BERLIN GAME to Florida with me. I was already so far into the main book I’m currently reading (Charles McCarry’s TEARS OF AUTUMN) that I was afraid it wouldn’t last the trip. I’ll be honest: if I hadn’t been stuck in an airport and then on a plane, I might have given up on BERLIN GAME. The beginning is soooo sloooow. But by the middle of the book I was having a hard time putting it down, and I finally stayed up until two o’clock the other night finishing it. These days, it’s rare for me even to reach the end of a book; for me to stay up to finish one is incredible.

Then, Saturday night, we watched NO WAY OUT. I remembered that film (I first saw it in 1991) as being incredibly intense. But this time as I sat watching the beginning, I found myself thinking, This is slow. Once the trap began to close around the hero, I again found the film gripping. So why did a film that I found completely absorbing in 1991 now strike me as slow to get started? Because I’ve become so accustomed to fast pacing that I’m out of the habit of allowing a story to develop naturally.

It seems to me that as writers succumb more and more to the pressure to turn out fast-paced books and movies that are full of action from the get-go, the general public is losing the patience to sit through the kind of build up scenes typically required to lay a solid groundwork for the emotional investment that lets us really care about a story’s characters. The second half of NO WAY OUT wouldn’t be nearly as powerful without that first hour that lays out the situation and introduces the main characters and makes us care about them, just as BERLIN GAME’s gripping finale would have been impossible without that slow, layer by layer build up.

I generally find today’s “action” movies dreadfully boring. They rip along at a spanking pace, blowing things up while people chase back and forth and shoot at each other. Who really cares? Not me. All too often, today’s storytellers simply don’t dare to take the time to actually develop a STORY. Character development slows down pacing, and fewer and fewer people have the taste for it these days. We become accustomed to what we watch and what we read. And I don’t think I like where this trend is going.

Oddly enough, I was on the verge of putting down TEARS OF AUTUMN before I went to Florida. Now I find that this book, too—originally written, again, in the Eighties—has caught me. And I find myself wondering if this is why I so seldom finish books these days: the fast-paced ones eventually lose me because they lack the true character and story development required to “hold” me, while the more solid books lose me even sooner because by comparison their beginnings seem too slow.

Storytelling has always evolved. Never having been a fan of Dickens, I’m certainly glad we’ve moved on from the Victorian version of storytelling. But I do like Twain and Dumas, and I’ve probably read the ILIAD five times. I wonder if there’s anything being written today that will be read and reread a century in the future, let alone two thousand years from now?


Márcio Walter Machado said...

hello there, I'm Márcio from Brazil and I'm about to finish reading "what angels fear", boy! it's a great piece of work! I wanted to congratulate you on that.

cs harris said...

Thanks, Marcio! It's always so wonderful to hear that someone enjoys my books.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Do fast pacing, character development and empathy need to be exclusive of one another? I cast my mind back to the best work of the Black Mask/Chandler school of thriller writing, written before I was born but which I read avidly as a teenager, and have to say no.
My publisher asks for action in the westerns he publishes today and, I agree, some of the writers do seem to skimp in areas where the best don't, or won't. So I do recognize the trend you deplore.

Steve Malley said...

I think a lot about what people in the future will remember from today.

Hemingway and Fitzgerald will pass the 200 year test easily (crazy to think their work is almost 90 already...), but two thousand?

I imagine some time traveler whispering the news in Homer's ear. He runs off, begging just one more rewrite.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think you're right about the steadily eroding patience of the reading and viewing public. Now everything is YouTube. Get it quick, get it over in a moment. The pace of life is simply too fast, although we are the ones who are making it this way for ourselves. Just don't tell me that in 2000 years the Da Vinci Code will be the best remembered book of today.

cs harris said...

You're right, Chap; I think character development can occur in the best fast-paced books, but without a master's touch it will inevitably slow a book down some. And Steve, I love the image of Homer running off screaming, "Wait!" As for DVC, Charles, I'm afraid with all those millions of copies out there, if anything survives 2000 yrs, that'll be it.