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Gripping, not Good

September 26th, 2010 | Posted by Brinestone in Uncategorized - (4 Comments)

First off, I knew it had been a while since I’d blogged, but I didn’t know it was over two months. I don’t think I’ve ever been that much of a blog-slacker before. The good news is that I haven’t been blogging because I’ve been doing some freelance editing and have started writing in my novel again, after about a seven-year hiatus. I wrote all the time in college, but once I met my husband, the urge to write kind of went away. I wanted to want to, but that usually wasn’t enough motivation when it came to day-to-day living. Then, almost out of the blue, I started thinking about it again and having ideas as to what would happen next, and I had to write. It’s been satisfying and fun, and I think I’m mature enough now to not really care about publishing, so long as I can say I finished the darn thing.

But that’s not the point of this post. What I really want to talk about is Hunger Games and Twilight. You know, since everyone else is talking about them. Twilight in particular has been talked to death, but I personally haven’t seen anyone discussing it from a writer’s perspective. Some people say it’s a work of genius, that the Twilight books are among the best books they’ve ever read. They stand in ridiculously long lines for the movies. They may even have posters of Edward or Jacob in their rooms, if they’re teenage girls. Others say the Twilight series is potentially dangerous to young girls. It promotes relationships with bad boys, and it portrays attraction and mystery as all there is to love. I personally fall into this camp, but that’s not what I want to talk about either.

What I want to talk about is why Stephanie Meyer is a genius. She’s obviously doing something right with her writing if such a huge number of girls and women have become such fans of hers. And what she’s powerfully good at is pacing.

Pacing is a skill writers use to keep a story rolling. Writers who are good at pacing deftly mix happy, relaxed moments with tense, page-turning moments at just the right ratios to keep readers reading but not too stressed out. They often place minor cliffhangers at the ends of chapters (like in the TV show Lost) to make sure you don’t stop at the “easy” stopping points. They don’t load down their writing with too much description or any unnecessary scenes. In other words, they keep the ball rolling, but not too fast. And Stephanie Meyer is awesome at pacing.

I noticed this when I read Twilight, specifically because as I was reading, I thought, “I’m totally not buying the romance. I don’t even like vampires. The main character is kind of annoying. So why can’t I put this book down?” I started paying attention from a writer’s perspective, and I noticed how tightly paced the book was. If nothing else, it can be unequivocally said that Twilight is gripping. It’s a page turner.

The same is true of the Hunger Games series, which is the next big thing among LDS moms (not sure how big it is outside my community). Now, the Hunger Games series did not annoy me as much as the Twilight series did. I actually liked the characters, usually liked the romance(s), and definitely found the world interesting. Again, though, I noticed as I read that Suzanne Collins was a master of pacing. You have times when Katniss is frantically fighting for her life for a day or two at a time, and at times her survival seems impossible. Then she finds a moment’s peace and even has a few happy hours with a friend or love interest, before the crazy fighting for her life begins again. Collins is mixing tension and peace, fear and warm fuzzies, romance and tragedy in order to create a book that is very difficult to put down once you’ve started it.

Reading these books and watching what works is very valuable to me as a writer. I can learn from watching what they did right in order to try to emulate it. But that isn’t what I want to talk about either.

My main point is that pacing isn’t all there is to writing. It’s a great skill, and I do think that books with extremely poor pacing will probably never become very popular. Everyone loves a page turner; it’s an amazing feeling to get totally sucked into a book. At the same time, though, there are books I’ve read that weren’t page turners, but they were still very good books. There are books I couldn’t put down at the time that weren’t very good books. A good book says something worth saying. It satisfies at the end. It contains realistic, dynamic characters who linger with you after the book ends.

I wish more readers would recognize the difference between a gripping book and a good one.