Friday, March 4, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

By now I should be feeling very mellow, and I'll still have almost a week to enjoy in Ireland.  Since, as I said last week, I'm not sure about what Internet connections I may have, I'm writing and posting these ahead.  I choose to believe that it is a benevolent universe and I will be having a wonderful time and not thinking about all the things I left waiting for me on my desk.

As I mentioned last time, the pace of things in Ireland is (or was, the last time I looked) simply different. Case in point: I was staying in a bed and breakfast last time with a lovely young couple who were musicians from Texas. They were scheduled for a radio interview in Cork City, about an hour away, and they were running late--and being American, they were anxious.  The landlady said, "sure and they'll wait for you, won't they?  You're the show, after all."

As writers we worry a lot about pacing. As mystery writers there are those who insist that we have to have a body in the first chapter and introduce all the major characters immediately, which is not always easy. Then if we get past that, we have to worry about building suspense gradually, taking two steps forward and one step back. Once at a writers conference I saw a visual representation of this:  the suspense is a straight line with an upward slope, but your story is an oscillating line that winds itself over and under the first line.

I'm not going to compare American, English and Irish writers and their use of pacing--I simply haven't read broadly enough (although I'll try to correct some of that). But I might suggest that we American writers are a bit more rushed.  And I blame television.

My generation was the first for whom television was a significant presence in our lives, and that applied to a higher degree to children, who don't know enough about the world to judge critically. For a time there was a concern that watching violent television shows--like all those westerns with people shooting each other--would make us more violent.  Maybe that idea was debunked when our most vocal representatives became hippies and tried to stop a war. Anyway, I can safely say that I am anything but violent.

But back in the day, shows were rigidly structured with commercial breaks every fifteen minutes. The result was that you had four discrete segments for any one-hour show (the longer ones were mostly dramas, as I remember), and you had to have a crescendo, a cliff-hanger, right before the commercial, so your audience wouldn't wander away looking for a sandwich and never come back. I could probably draw a picture of that too, if I were so inspired.

It's not the same any more. For one thing, there are more frequent commercials (and longer commercial breaks), at slightly more erratic intervals, so it's harder to build to a mini-climax. The final segment is now reduced to ten minutes maximum, and sometimes I'm watching a show and know the ending is going to be rushed because that's just not long enough to wrap up all the loose ends.

It has been a slow and subtle evolution, that kind of sneaked up on us. You recognize it when you see reruns of older shows, because you become aware of the fade-to-black moment that signalled the commercial in the old days, and there's a peculiar flatness when the next scene shows up immediately.  In addition, the new commercials are often thrown in awkwardly, with no regard to the plot. It's hard to stay engaged in the story, although luckily we're probably watching the old shows because we've seen them before.

Why are we as Americans in such a hurry? It's not a new phenomenon. As a genealogist I've long been aware that we are an impatient people.  Our earliest ancestors settled in a new world, and within a generation they began to feel crowded and started moving westward.  And they did it again, and again. Luckily we have a large country, and it took a while until they hit the Pacific Ocean and ran out of room. But that restlessness, that urgency, has been part of who we are for a long time.

Does that spill over to our writing style? Are we capable of enjoying a story that evolves slowly, one where we can get to know the characters? Or must we have action, action, action immediately?  Bang, you're dead--and you have 223 pages to figure out whodunnit and why?

Did I mention that Ireland has a very low murder rate? The local police may wonder why this strange American is asking them odd questions, but I hope they'll have the time to answer.


Pauline Alldred said...

I hope you're having a wonderful time in Ireland and are able to relax. It is strange that we make it a rule in America to write so the reader has a "quick read." Whatever happened to sinking into an imaginary world and experiencing it as the characters do?

Sandra Parshall said...

Pauline, I'm with you on that. A "quick read" is by definition something that feels dashed off. I prefer to savor a story and its characters.

Diane said...

I started reading adult mysteries when I was 10. I didn't 'discover' Nancy Drew until about 12, and quickly tired of the stories. I could read one in an afternoon. I wanted more, longer and more involved stories. You're right - people are in a rush. However, think how much change came in the 20th century compared to other centuries. Even the changes were outmoded relatively quickly, and the pace just picked up. Today you can buy a newly developed/designed object and it's already outmoded. It's not just reading, tv shows and movies. It's everything.

Kaye George said...

I hope you're having a lovely time in Ireland, if you're not back already! My favorite writers will always be Dickens and Dostoyevsky. I love a sentence that goes on for a page and a half! A long, relaxed, meandering sentence. You can't write those now.