Saturday, March 20, 2010

C. J. Cherryh Pacing the Floor

At the moment, I am continuing to enjoy my "author kick" as I like to call it, where I devour any and all books by a particular author that I enjoyed. For now, I'm going to focus in on two aspects of the book Hammerfall that were done very well. Pacing and Information Control.

Can anyone guess what today's topic is?

In the book, one of the larger, overhanging plots was the journey. Much like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, there is a cluster of characters that travel, and on that trip things happen that change them, change how they view their world, and also drive the plot forward.

With Hammerfall, Cherryh demonstrates how to know when to summarize a day/week/month, and when to expand out and slow down by days. The best rule of thumb: measure your tension in the scene.

The greater the tension, the longer you should stretch the moment, and the shorter your sentences should be. The less your tension, the quicker the scene should whip by, and the longer, more introspective and descriptive sentences should come into play.


There is a point in the book where the main characters are trapped in a tent, with sand storm raging all about. The days that passed lasted for almost two chapters. We felt the urgency with the short sentences, the descriptions of the danger and the animals bawling and etc. And with the insistent "voice" in his head crying for him to move onward toward the east.

However, at another point, when a long caravan is traveling across the desert for a much longer time, then the events passed rapidly. We covered the days in short paragraphs that used very little detail.

And it worked. There is no need to give me many details and information during small tension scenes that are intended as almost bridges from one moment to another. Save those for when you need to stretch out a scene and give it enough time to develop and prolong that tense moment.

Last example: For those of you old enough to remember, or at least see the re-runs, there is the show "MacGyver"

In the show, as the man tries to make these outlandish things out of duct tape, crowbars, and metal hangars, there is always a timer involved. Ever noticed how the scene leaps from the timer to his work, and it always seems to take him forever to finish his contraption?

Did it increase or decrease your feeling of tension?

But, on the other hand, when he's traveling from his home to the "secret hideout" of the villain, do they show every moment of that drive? Or just a general idea that he moved from one area to another? Why? Because there's a very low threshold of tension there, and it's best to move on quickly.

Project for the Week:

Pick out four random scenes from your latest WIP (work in progress). Rate them on their intended/needed tension from 1-10. Now, read those scenes and rate them on their actual sense of tension.

Do they match?

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