Monday Motivation: The bigger the story, the slower the telling
I’m now onto the sixteenth CJ Box novel which documents the adventures of his Wyoming game and fisheries warden, Joe Pickett. Why have I become so addicted to the series? Well, they’re well written (barring the odd overused cliché – and specifically Box’s favourite, “he rolled his eyes”), the stakes are high and the tension extraordinary.
Of course they follow a pattern – although it’s by no means formulaic. But what is common to all of the stories I’ve read so far is that the last third of each book, more or less, is an uninterrupted helter-skelter race to the climax.
But I’m giving the wrong impression. It’s not a race at all. Because what Box does, as the tension and the jeopardy grows, is slow the narrative down. Frequently, those final chapters track the action second by second, so, while the pace of the telling is frenetic, time passes glacially.
Let’s take just a paragraph or three from Endangered, one his most recent novels. It concerns a newly-released convict who has been given the task of killing a comatose girl in hospital before she wakes to give evidence against his brother. He assumes the guise of a janitor to evade hospital security.
“He leaned his mop handle against the foot of the girl’s bed and bent to retrieve the ceramic knife. He fixed his eyes on her exposed white throat.
“He started to hitch up his pant leg when he sensed a presence behind him. He rose quickly and reached for the mop handle to look the part when he felt a heavy blow on the right side of his head that disoriented him and made him let go of the mop.
“Suddenly, roughly, he was physically turned around and shoved into the hallway. He ran into his cart and it rolled away. He tried to turn his head to see who was behind him, but another sharp blow created an explosion of stars in his eyes…”
His unknown assailant runs him out onto a balcony.
“The railing didn’t stop his momentum and he was lifted up and over it, and he couldn’t see or feel a thing for several seconds as he dropped through the air.
“Then he did.”
The final minute of the would-be killer’s life takes two minutes to tell on the page.
So what is the significance of this? Well, let’s consider what beginner writers frequently do. They set up a big dramatic moment – and then throw it away in a sentence or two.
Think of this sequence of scenes:
The young wife finds a long blonde hair on the shoulder of her husband’s lounge suit. She has a conversation with her neighbour who innocently asks whether the woman who visited her flat the day before was her sister? Then there’s the scene in his office when her husband passes by the boss’s new secretary, and they exchange a significant glance. There’s the scene of the wife meticulously sorting through her husband’s laundry, sniffing to see if she can detect another woman’s scent…
We’re waiting for it now. The writer has carefully prepared the way for the big confrontation between wife and husband in which either she sets a trap for him, or in which she accuses him outright of betraying her.
But then this is what happens:
“She heard his footsteps approaching up the garden path. She met him in the hallway. Boiling, she told him she’d had enough of his infidelities and that he should pack his bags and go. Then she retreated to the laundry, slammed the door behind her and burst into tears.”
There. Done. Eight pages of intricate preparation – and then four lines of fizzle.
I’ve come across this phenomenon so often in writers’ work that I’ve realized that there is something about complex emotional – and physical – outbursts that we shy away from.
The secret is contained in those last hundred pages of a CJ Box novel. When you’ve whipped up our curiosity, when you’ve set the stage for the final series of cataclysmic denouements, when your hero’s in a snowmobile spinning down a precipitous slope in a nigh-futile effort to outrun an avalanche…
Don’t speed things up – slow them down. Tell your story second by second. Give yourself time to dip into the maelstrom of your protagonist’s feelings and thoughts. Describe the reflection of the snowmobile’s headlight in the eyes of startled elk as your guy whooshes past it. Give us a sense of moonlight flickering as clouds scud across its face…
Whether the action occurs at the start or the end of your story, or anywhere in between, the more frantic the action, the bigger the emotions, the higher the stakes – the slower your story. It’s as simple as that. Do it right, and you too might have a fan just like me reading seventeen of your novels on the trot…
Fact is, I’m not sure what I’m going to do when I’ve read the next Joe Pickett novel, called Vicious Circle – because it’s the last one in the series. I see, though, that the next has already been written and is due to appear on Amazon on March 20, 2018. Thank goodness.
PS Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog post ‘Nine tips for literary conflict‘