The pause that refreshes

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When I first started writing, back when I was a teenager, I kept a writer’s notebook. It was one of my most cherished possessions. Every morning, while I was sitting in home room at Model High School, I would scribble in it, describing the little realizations and epiphanies I had experienced about my writing process. It was a lovely way to get my brain unclogged before I did my actual fiction writing, later in the day. It felt so good, so cathartic, to look inside my own head and psychoanalyze my writing habits, to examine my hang-ups and see what was holding me back. I haven’t done that kind of thing in a long time, but I might start doing that here — sometimes.

Here’s something I’ve pondered lately as I’ve hammered away on my new novel: it’s critical for a story to have a middle. I’ve always felt this pressure (I’m not sure exactly where the pressure comes from) to make the story move as fast as possible. I have this miserable, oppressive, overwhelming fear that I’m going to bore the reader — and all the people I come in contact with in everyday life, for that matter — so I feel this intense need to rush through the story quickly, quickly, quickly. (Also: when I was younger, I remember reading the reviews on the back covers of my favorite novels. They were loaded with phrases like “fast paced” and “page turner” and “breakneck speed.”)

Yes, it’s a valid concern. The whole point of writing fiction is to entertain people. Thus, you should try not to put your reader to sleep. It’s perfectly logical.

But I’ve realized recently that, even though a speedy pace is important, pauses are also just as important. When you’re reading a story, you need little “slow” moments, especially in the middle, that allow you to process the information you’ve learned so far. Without these pauses, the ending seems to come too quickly. It’s abrupt and premature. You hit the end of the story feeling as if you’re just crashed into a brick wall at 60 miles per hour.

Here’s something else I was thinking about the other day: when you take a long road trip, you need to pull over at a rest stop every few hours to get out of the car, stretch your legs, empty your bladder, and eat overpriced crackers from a vending machine while grumpy families stand around you, arguing about maps. The same principle holds true in a story. Occasionally, the reader should just be allowed to stop and chill — but not for too long.

I’m almost finished with the first draft of my new book. It’s not incredibly long, but it’s longer than my last book, Under the Electric Sun. In chapters 3, 4, and 5 of the new one, the reader is simply allowed to hang out with the characters. I do introduce a few important items in these chapters, things that will pop up again near the end of the story … but, overall, there isn’t much “plot stuff” happening in this middle section. (I did stuff a lot of jokes and gags into these chapters to keep the reader awake, though.)

My author/blogger friend Victoria Grefer mentioned this idea the other day, although she was making a different point. She was saying you should never overdo it and let the story come to a standstill. She said something important should always be happening, even in those slow moments. And I agree with her.

I decided to write about it here because the topic was already rolling around in my head. If you’d like to read Ms. Grefer’s post, you can click here.

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As always, you can click here to download a copy of my book, Under the Electric Sun.

(I decided to discard all the illustrations and give the book a new cover. The image above is no longer in the book.)

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34 thoughts on “The pause that refreshes

  1. French composer Claude Debussy said, “Music is the space between the notes.”
    http://www.missminimalist.com/2010/10/the-space-between-the-notes/
    You might enjoy this posting by a person with the same idea. Not that yours isn’t original, It just rang the memory bell when I read your post.
    I feel that if you eat a chocolate bon bon too quickly, you will not get the pleasure from it. Reading is like eating chocolate, it is a pleasure not a race.
    Nice posting, I liked your take on it.

  2. I agree pacing is so important, it is a challenge! I am lucky that I write little children’s books, they can be as little as 20 pages! I enjoy the way your illustrations are so bright and warm feeling, too. I love middle and high schoolers but would not be so great at writing to that audience!

      • Hi Matt 🙂 thank you. I’m doing great just working really hard so I haven’t been able to write as much lately. I didn’t find out about the secret city till recently Im not sure how I managed to miss this as a kid.

      • Hey Rebel. I know what you mean. The mill I work in usually makes us work seven days a week in the summer. I’m not looking forward to that. What kind of work do you do?

  3. Perfectly said, Matthew. The lesson I had to learn to “cause the pause” was not to rush from a scene too quickly.
    blessings ~ maxi

  4. Thanks for sharing the link to this post with me, Matthew! I agree with you that it is important to give readers time to digest the story — and to bond with the characters — in order to enhance the impact of the story’s ending. Great post!

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