Story Pace

by Chris McMahon

I have been re-reading George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series recently.

On the first read I can recall being terribly frustrated by the lack of pace – and by how thin the progress of the storyline was stretched between the huge number of PoV characters. Talking to others I am not alone there.

Part of the reason for the re-read was inspired by my lack of reading material, partly by GRRMs reading at Worldcon. Wow! It made me realise how beautiful his prose was, by turns powerful, detailed and poetic. Hearing it in his own voice made me reevaluate what I was taking from the read – or looking for.

Wiser on the second read, I decided to enjoy the writing for what it was and treat each chapter more or less as a short story – contained within itself. It’s a lot less frustrating that way (I would have loved to read a book on Daenerys all by herself – who can’t like an underdog? Or a dragon for that matter:)).

It’s also led me back to something I’ve wondered at for a while. Why is it the stories with an extremely long story arc, with a  tortuously slow pace (well to me anyway) are so successful? Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series comes to mind, as well as David Eddings. I gave up on both of these authors because of the lack of pace. Although I also had the sense that Eddings was deliberately padding, while I was also frustrated with Jordan’s characterisation.  I would put GRRMs storycraft and characterisation in a far superior class to both.

OK. I like action – but then again I’m a die-hard David Gemmell fan, and he never cluttered either his prose or his storylines. I guess that people also have different levels of tolerance for the delay to resolution.

What is it about these longer story arcs that creates such success? Do people just love to be immersed into that world come what may and don’t care about the pace? I’d love to know!

17 comments

  1. You are so singing my song. I have been complaining about over-long books for a while now.

    I think a lot of authors will get readers hooked because they release the first few books in rapid sucession and their readers don’t have time to consider how long and drawn out the story is getting because by the time one book is finished the new one is out. Then they screw up and don’t produce anything for five or six years(Hullo George!) and the fans do a re-read and realise that nothing bloody happens for books and books at a time(Well obviously things happen, but nothing that pushes the plot forward).

    This is what happened with me and Robert Jordan. I read the first five books rapidly all in one hit, but then realised that there was no way the story was going to end anytime soon and that I didn’t really like any of the characters and promptly sold the lot.

    I agree with you about Eddings with his second series(The Malloreon). The story was a four book idea stretched out to five. I didn’t stop reading him though until his third series and I finally realised he was telling the exact same story for the third time running.

    1. Hi, Brendan. It’s frustrating isn’t it? Often what draws you in is the promise of the story. They have the hook, but its the story you sense that could develop that draws you into the story. That happened with me for Joe Abercrombie. Now his work does move along – and he can write – but the his stories most certainly don’t end up in the place I thought they would. Part of what made his books a good read for me at the start was the excitement of where the charactes would end up. I have have since learnt that he likes to take them different places. I would certainly not call it heroic fiction, that’s for sure. Makes me wonder why some people want to write in the genre at all.

  2. Chris, for me it is the story and the people I connect with. I read really fast, so I guess I skim read. With something like GRRM I’m not taking a leisurely stroll through the book. I have very little free time. I want a story to deliver narratively speaking. So if his language was lovely, I didn’t notice.

    In fact, if I stop and notice lovely language, it means the story hasn’t held me.

    1. Hi, Rowena. Were you frustrated by the pace though? By how the story is stretched over so many characters? I would think this means it does not deliver in the Narrative sense, but I’m curious if you liked it or not.

    2. I hear some people skim in other ways by just reading the chapters that focus on the characters they like. Luckily George labels his change of POV to make it easy to do.

  3. I wasn’t frustrated with the pace until I found out that it was more than the three books I had. 😉

    Mr. Martin will be at Bubonicon. I’ll be sitting at the registration table during his reading-block. (I’ll also be sitting there during the science talk, sigh.)

    1. Hi, Synova. Yep – that’s the clincher isn’t it? When I dropped the series way back when, I guess in the back of my mind was the idea that if I ever returned to it, the darned books would all be written by then. Well it’s been a few years – and there is only one more book out!!

      Rough luck on missing his reading. But there is bound to be something else just as good going on. Maybe you will stumble across the next GRRM – one who can actually bring his books out yearly? No – that universe would just be too bizarre:)

  4. I don’t mind a story stretched over a long time, so much, but I have troubles when it stretches over too many characters. I get invested in characters when I read, and it’s a funny line for me between “okay, a few different characters, but I kind of like them, and I’m willing to follow along” and “what the heck? Am I reading an army here? When am I going to find out about character X, the one I really loved so much 800 pages ago?”

    Which is why, although I thought A Game of Thrones was fantastic, I quit somewhere in the second book. He’d left all these characters I loved in these tenuous situations, and then practically ignored them. And so I left it.

    On the other hand, I blew through King Rolen’s Kin last summer/fall while recovering from surgery. Several viewpoint characters, yes, but I liked them all and the story moved between the characters briskly enough that I never felt as if anyone’s story got ‘lost’ to me.

    So, I guess I really need to keep up with the characters I’m emotionally involved with, and that’s hard in a series with these epic story arcs and huge casts.

    1. HI, Ellyll. Yes GRMMs series does really push the boundary. When thing that griped me was that he used the same device a little too often – always ending the chapter either handing on a thread, or in the middle of a new piece of action. I know that is a valid thing to do, but used too often or mechanically leaves me feeling like the author has no respect for me as a reader. There needs to be a balance with that. I suspect his background in screenwriting has left its mark in a little too much formula in his structure.

    2. It seems to me that(going out on a limb here) that most people writing multi-book series(more than 4 books)either don’t start with a clear idea of where their books are going, or get so caught up in each individual character’s ongoing history, that they forget they are supposed to be telling “a story” and not just a sequence of events.

      The only more that 5-book-single-story series I can think of that hasn’t lost its way half-way through is Stephen Donaldson’s Gap books.

  5. Yeah, what everyone said.

    If a problem requires a long series, I like the ones that show progress on the main plot, and wrap up major sub-plots at the end of each book so that I feel like an end has been reached.

    1. Hi, Pam. Yes, there is nothing worse than going through all that – reading through all the plotlines – only to find that the story is not wrapped up. For me that’s the ultimate betrayal. It’s a deal-breaker. If an author does this to me then I don’t go back.

      A nasty dent also appears on the nearby wall:) It’s bigger if it’s hardcover.

  6. Hi Chris,

    I am a slow reader, and I like authors who reward careful reading with beautiful prose BUT, when I look at the Wheel of Time series, and I think how long it would take me to read, it makes me shudder.

    I think you were right when you talked about the reader wanting to return to something familiar. When an author has established a world and it’s rules, and readers like it, they’ll want to go back again and again. Perhaps the story isn’t so important as revisiting the characters and their magical world. I think Harry Potter was a bit like this.

    1. Hi, Chris. I think that’s the guts of it – there is a spectrum here. On the one side people want story progress, on the other people are comfortable going along for the ride and maybe not all that fussed where the story ends up. I like to make a strong link with a character, but I also like a good story arc – that resolves well (hey, call me old-fashioned).

      I guess the challenge as a writer is to cater to both. But life was not meant to be easy:)

  7. My guess at why the never-ending fantasy is so popular is that a largish set of people like the notion of going to this other place, being immersed in it, and not feeling like they’re going to be asked to leave any time soon.

    My theory, to go along with my guess, is that this set of people overlaps significantly with the set of people who can read a book a bit at a time without experiencing undue discomfort.

    I read several of Robert Jordan’s books and enjoyed them a great deal until book 5 or so when I realized that I’d seen how various plot elements were obviously supposed to tie back together and it was clear they weren’t… and wouldn’t be any time soon. IIRC the last straw was a volume that had a preface with “my” particular favorite group of adventurers in it that then never again appeared, not once, as the book followed others.

    It makes sense to me, though, why readers like a long and rather rambling tale.

    1. Synova, so true. Reading fantasy is like taking a holiday in another place and time. Well put.

      To answer Chris, yes I did get frustrated with the pacing in GRRM’s latest book.

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