Jon Wallace write an article on Gollancz’s website on the subject of HG Well’s War of the Worlds and British invasion literature. But the topic isn’t what’s relevant here. What’s relevant is a note he made on why modern invasion literature often fails to live up to Wells’s example:
In Wells’s story, the Martians land and then sit there for awhile in their craters, leaving us to wonder why they’re here and what they want. Whereas in recent Hollywood flicks, “they’re attacking, duh, why else?”
The key here being the suspense created by having alien space-ships crashing into the country-side and then… doing nothing. That little pause in the major action can really drag a reader in. You sorta feel like you’re watching along with the characters.
That suspense creates a desire in the reader to keep reading; it pings human curiosity.
And yet, the reader doesn’t just think: “Get on with the invasion already!” Because they can’t assume that’s what’s going to happen.
And that leads me to the topic of this post: Pacing.
Pacing is that thing you do so the reader doesn’t spend the whole book wondering when shit is finally going to happen. It’s a common complaint about books that there’s nothing happening, or that it takes too long to get to the good stuff. But of course things are happening. A character angsting is a thing that happens. A character driving to the 7-11 is a thing that happens. It’s not that nothing is happening. It’s just not what the reader expects to be happening at that moment.
For me, that is a failure of pacing. Because the story isn’t keeping up with the reader’s expectations. But the great thing about pacing is that you can control those expectations to some extent. Wells chooses to slow the thing down right after a world-changing event. And it works, because when something crazy happens, it’s not unexpected for there to be some suspense before the consequences are realized.
There are a lot of books on writing out there that purport to tell you the perfect structure for a novel/screenplay/story and save you from thinking about the way your individual story could best be paced. It’s just simpler that way. And Hollywood has been eating this up for years with Save the Cat! But the truth is, every story has its own unique pacing, and the best a pre-set structure can give you is an approximation to be fiddled with until it’s exactly right.
That’s not to say that looking for a pre-made structure is wrong. But there is some value in acquiring the tools to build your own structure, instead.