Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Respecting Red Lights

I dated this girl for a while who had a thing about red lights. She HATED red lights. She would sit at red lights and rant and rave about the damn red light. To her, every red light was basically a personal insult leveled by the state's transportation gods against her. She often tried to calculate how much of her life she would spend sitting at red lights, assuming 1 minute per red light, and X number of red lights a day, multiplied by weeks and years, and holy cow, before I knew it, she had thrown away whole YEARS of her life because of red lights.

In novels, we don't really bother with red lights. Or cat naps. Or TV time, reading time, eating, sleeping, and the 90% of every waking hour that's just a yawn of time. This is why novels will never be like real life—real life doesn't have the advantage of an editor. I might be bored out of my gourd for the next four hours, but no editor is going to highlight this morning and delete it, saying, "C'mon, Jon, are you really moving the story forward here? I mean, what are you doing exactly?"

(But oh, how I wish for such an editor sometimes.)

A novel is a collection of moments, and if it's handled well, you hardly realize that the writer has strung together six or ten or twenty minutes from a single day and turned it into a cohesive narrative. You know what I really admire? Writers who can blink by a whole day or whole month with hardly a bump in the narrative.

I got dinged last night in my writer's group because I botched an important minute. It was a meeting between two characters, and although the actual time sequence is less than a minute, it's a very important minute. These characters will spend the rest of the story getting to know each other and developing a relationship. You can't really afford to blow these scenes.

But, see, I'm always concerned with pacing. I don't like red lights in my manuscript, sitting there sucking up time and insulting my readers. The problem is the natural tension between characterization and pacing. A very fast-paced novel tends to have less character, and writers who spend pages developing characters are less concerned with writing a bullet.

When I was thinking about fixing this particular scene, I went back to that minute and realized my problem: I hadn't fully inhabited the moment. Not in my head. Not really. I basically wanted to move past it, to go down the stairs, into the basement, not to linger there at the doorway while they make that first contact.

I have to remind myself that sometimes it's OK to slow down, to linger. If a moment is important enough to include in the story—more important than all the other moments that surround it—I should respect it enough to give it life. I never really said this to my girlfriend (she was kind of volatile), but if there's a good song on the radio, and it's a nice day with the windows down, I sometimes like red lights. They give me time to think.


Mark Terry said...

My Derek Stillwater novels are guns-a'blazin' fast. But still, I sometimes intentionally slow things down, give Derek a chance to take a breath. It may also be a sort of calm before the storm.

In The Serpent's Kiss, for example, despite the terrorist giving them 4-hour deadlines between attacks, at one point Derek and Jill Church go to a restaurant and get some food. He's been running all day, there's an apparent lull in the action, he needs a break, they go to the Motor City Grill in the Fisher Building in downtown Detroit and talk. The clock's still ticking, but it made sense in the novel that they couldn't run full-tilt the entire time, they needed to take stock of the situation at some point.

And, then, of course, all hell broke loose shortly afterward.

E. Flanigan said...

Wow, this is so true ... in writing and in life. If you're not fully present in the moment, life — and books — can end up like a race to the finish.

When I write, I tend to have the opposite problem. I am so IN THE MOMENT that I can lose momentum altogether. A group of scenes with no forward motion, or at the very least, motion that is not organic to the story because it seems externally positioned.

LurkerMonkey said...


I sometimes forget to include those meals ... by the way, I grew up just outside Detroit. I remember the Fisher Building ...

I was thinking a little bit about Dan Brown when I was writing this. I wouldn't say character is one of his strong suits, but pacing definitely is. HIs books are like falling down a hill—you barely notice the characters anyway. It's a bit like your speed ball analogy ...

LurkerMonkey said...


It's interesting how the things we often need to work on in our writing are the same things we need to work on in real life ... I think most people who know me well would say I'm not especially good at dwelling in the moment in life either, that I live a little bit in my head.

Melanie Avila said...

I love this post. I understand exactly what you're saying about needing to cut the slow bits, but as you also say, some of those moments need to be included. My opening scene starts with that "normalness" being shattered, so I need to etablish it in one or two sentences.

I have a couple scenes that seem slow and unimportant but they play into the plot later in the story. At the time it just seems like a mother and daughter passing time, but it's all foreshadowing baby.

LurkerMonkey said...


In my current book, I actually took time building the world ... and I was surprised when readers responded favorably. Up until then, I'd always started with a bang.

Melanie Avila said...

That's wonderful to have your hard work validated. Not everything has to start hard and fast.