Tuesday 30 July 2019

Time and Space Versus Fast Pace and Tension

Creating a good sense of time and place slows the text down.  The young adult has a need for fast pace. How can this dilemma be solved?

Some useful texts:

1.      Filmic qualities / real-time / mind-reading in: 

1.      John Marsden: When the War began

2.       Bryony Pearce: Angel’s Fury.

3.       Susan Price: A Sterkarm Kiss

4.       Philip Pullman: The Amber Spyglass

5.       Philip Pullman: The Tiger in the Well

2.      Tension, Pace and High Stakes in:

1.       Melvin Burgess:  The Hit

2.       Teri Terry: Slated

3.       Sara Grant: Dark Parties

4.      Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games  


Film qualities, real-time and mind-reading

We have a lot of “real time” in YA novels.  The reader is taken right into the middle of the story. We become very close to the protagonist and their friends. This is harder to do in films. This slows the narrative down.
What about the “car chase” and the excitement between the crisis and the resolution? And the need for pace?  
How can we satisfy both needs at once?


John Marsden: Tomorrow, When the War Began.

“As with the radio, so with the Land Rover. I revved it so hard and dropped the clutch so roughly that Kevin, who was now sitting down, hit his head and hurt it, nearly dropping Millie, whom he was still nursing. The Landie kangaroo-hopped a few metres and stalled. I could hear Grandma’s voice saying ‘More haste less speed’. I took a deep breath and tried again, more calmly.  This time was better. We went out the gate and down the road with me saying to Homer, ‘I forgot to check the chooks.’
‘OK Ellie,” he said, “it’ll be cool. We’ll work it out.” But he didn’t look at me, just sat forward on the seat, peering anxiously through the windscreen. (58)  

Both the premise and the theme are HUGE.  Real time is used. We are in Ellie’s head. We have movement – they are going on a journey – hinting at a car chase.  The tension is high.

Bryony Pearce: Angel’s Fury.

“’You’re here to get better.’  Her voice was exasperated.
            ‘You need to focus on your health, not on boys.’
I dug my toes into wet gravel.  I know.’
Mum touched my chin. ‘I know you know, pumpkin, but please be careful.  That lad is older than you. You haven’t had much experience with that sport of thing and now isn’t the time. When you’re well you’ll meet someone.’
I ducked away. ‘He’s hardly spoken to me, Mum. And he wouldn’t be interested anyway.’ Angrily I gestured, taking in my cheap clothes, lazy hair and pallid complexion.
Mum shook her head again, slowly, and her mouth turned down. ‘I don’t want you to get hurt.’
I moved to follow Dad. ‘No one’s going to get hurt.’”  (79)

Again, both the premise and the theme are huge. The dialogue is in real time. We understand Carrie’s emotional state as we see her dig her toes into wet gravel. The tension between Cassie and her parents drive the scene. We sense a potential love interest which adds to tension.  

Susan Price A Sterkarm Kiss

“Windsor came through the crowd, gesturing to Per to follow him. Per looked about, collected his cousins and parents, and followed Windsor. They pushed their way through the crowds of gaping Sterkarms and Grannams, towards the further end of the Elf-Palace. There was the altar, with splendid shields displaying family badges- made of more flowers! And there, waiting, was Grannam who called himself “Lord Brackenhill”, with women and soldiers gathered around him. And a priest.
Perhaps it was the sight of the priest – a rare sight in border lands- that made Per, for the first time that day, feel alarm. Wed! Why was he getting wed?
He calmed himself by reflecting that it was only a wedding. He and his wife might get on, even though she was a Grannam, once she was away from her family. Who knew? And if they didn’t, well there was plenty of other company at the tower. Get a couple of sons on her, and, after that, he wouldn’t have to see her much.
A girl stood before the altar. That would be his bride. His pulse quickened as he walked towards his first sight of her. Would he be bedded that night with a beauty or-?
He stepped into his place beside her. She didn’t look up- indeed she lowered her head still further in a properly modest way. That wasn’t promising.” (57)

Note, this is one fifth of the book in. There is no dialogue here. There is a filmic introduction – can you follow what the camera sees? Then we are inside Per’s head. He muses about the forthcoming wedding. The author deliberately stops us seeing the girl he is to marry. There are high stakes for protagonist; she is in love with Per.     

Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass

“She looked back to remind him of it now. She was Roger’s Lyra, full of grace and daring; she didn’t need to creep along like an insect.
But the little boy’s whispering voice said, “Lyra, be careful – remember you en’t dead like us –“
And it seemed to happen so slowly, but there was nothing she could do; her weight shifted, the stones moved under her feet, and helplessly she began to slide. In the first moment it was annoying, and then it was comic: she thought how silly! But she utterly failed to hold on to anything, as the stones rumbled and tumbled beneath her, as she slid down towards the edge, gathering speed, the horror of it slammed into her. She was going to fall. There was nothing to stop her. It was already too late.”  (378)

Tension is caused as Lyra and Will are in the land of the dead and they have had to leave their daemons behind. We are inside Lyra’s head at the beginning. We see her emotional bond with Roger.  Roger is believable. See some indications of age and class. Then the scene becomes filmic as Lyra starts tumbling. It all happens in real time. More drama also in their predicament: they are in a frightening place and are also challenging a corrupt authority.    

Philip Pullman’s The Tiger in the Well

“’Yes,’ said Sally. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘I am under instruction to give this into your hands, miss.’
He held out the envelope. Sally saw a red legal seal on it. Automatically she took it from him. It’s very hard not to take things people hand you; politeness is an easy thing to take advantage of.
The man doffed his hat again, and turned to go.
‘Wait, please,’ she said. ‘Who are you and what’s this?’
‘It’s fully explained inside,’ he said. ‘As for me, I’m a process-server, miss. I’ve done my duty, and I must be on my way, else I shall miss my train. Beautiful weather for the time of year …’
With a nervous little smile, he turned and set off back up the garden. Ellie, after a troubled glance at Sally, hastened after him.
Harriet, disappointed in the visitor’s poor taste, turned back to Bruin and the honey. Sally sat down. She was conscious that she might have made a mistake in accepting the envelope so tamely: couldn’t you refuse to accept a summons, or something?  
She tore open the thick paper and pulled out a long, carefully folded document. The Royal Arms was embossed at the top, and paragraph after paragraph of legal copperplate stretched out below.” (6)

The story is gripping throughout. Sally has her identity stolen, not cloned which is what we normally mean by identity being stolen. She has her identity taken away from her. There is a short scene full of tension here. We watch Sally have the conversation with the caller. We also watch the reaction of the two other people. We watch her open the document. The scene reveals that she is being sued for divorce form a marriage that never was. A very high concept shown in real time.      

Tension, Pace and High Stakes  

Scenes with pace, tension and high stakes can combine with scenes set in real time that also show a character’s inner thoughts. We can have both emotional closeness and fast pace. Some texts make a particular feature of this. We call them “High Concept”. Many describe a “near future” tending towards a dystopia. High Concepts can be in individual scenes and / or part of the whole plot.    

Melvin Burgess’ The Hit

‘Death’ is a euthanasia drug, offering one week of high quality life followed by death. There is no antidote. The story starts ‘media res’ with a great deal of tension – has rock star Jimmy Earle taken ‘Death’? The protagonist also takes the drug. There are lots of twists and turns and also real pictures of Manchester. A close third person narrative is used so we are often in Adam’s head.   

Teri Terry’s Slated

There is a high concept here; young offenders’ brains are wiped. They are not allowed to feel discontented. However Kyla begins to remember snippets she shouldn’t be able to. At the beginning, she leaves the unit where she was rehabilitated and goes through several crises.  Terry builds her world with plenty of attention to detail. The stakes get higher as Kyla gradually finds out more.     

Sara Grant’s Dark Parties

Here we have a near future concept: people live under the protectosphere as the world beyond it is supposed to be dangerous. Despite the setting, the adolescents behave as those we meet today. The mystery about Neva’s grandmother drives the tension. The pace quickens as she escapes from the protectosphere. The car chase is in exactly the right place.     

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

Here is a near future with high stakes; young people must kill or get killed in an extreme reality TV game show.  The story is from the point of view of Katniss Everdeen. She is already a risk-taker – she hunts illegally. Pace and high stakes are created through the games. Yet we are also shown strong relationships with her mother and sister and with two possible love interests. Unprecedented, the rules of the game are changed to allow two survivors. 

Conflict solved?

Slower scenes can be lifted by there being high stakes associated with it. This plot point often reflects the over-arching theme and premise of the novel. High concept novels will still show emotional closeness – using all of the tactics we looked at last time. These two distinct types really meet in the middle. Is there really any difference between the two in terms of narrative content?


Checklist for creating a real world in your novel:  Twenty Questions

Look at this in other novels as well as your own.
  1. What has the writer done here to include a sense of time and space?  
2.      In which ways does this piece of prose resemble a novel rather than an epic story?
3.      How close is the time / space image to real time?
4.      Which bits of the scene are left to the reader’s imagination?
5.      What makes the space concrete here?
6.      Has the writer taken short cuts?
7.      How does this time / space frame impinge on the characters?
8.      Which voices are there in this extract?
9.      Which narrative techniques are used?
10.  How do we recognize different characters from what they say?
11.  Is there an authorial voice?
12.  Does the writer use the senses?
13.  Whose point of view is s/he showing?
14.  How do they show that point of view? 
15.  Does the author step in?     
16.  Can you spot places where the writer goes down deep?  
17.  Where are they more on the surface?
18.  How does the writer use dialogue? 
19.  How is this similar to and different from a film?
20.  What is the balance of exposition, description, dialogue, action, and inner monologue? Does this feel about right and why or why not?  

How does your novel shape up?   

  1. Are your stakes high enough?
  2. Is there enough tension and pace?
  3. Are you nevertheless maintaining character closeness?
Rewrite a couple of scenes with this in mind.   


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