Today, I welcome a very special guest: author Max Gladstone, whose first novel, Three Parts Dead, is out today from Tor Books. What makes Max so special? Well, in addition to be incredibly talented, thoughtful, and intelligent (read the post) Max is also my very first fan. Yep. He showed up with his Mom at my first book signing fifteen years ago. He was shy and quiet, but so excited to have read my book and to have a chance to meet me in person. He came to subsequent signings and mentioned to me on more than one occasion that he wanted to be an author some day. Well, here he is, and the reading world is in for a treat. Welcome, Max. So good to see you here.
“Love, Silence, and Pacing” by Max Gladstone
Musicians make love with silence. Melodies and harmonies excite the active mind, but there’s no feeling for a chorister quite like the moment when the choir stops singing and the hall air holds first the note, then the hole left as the note fades.
Silence relaxes tension, yes, but it can also build. John Cage made an entire piece out of the tension of silence. Sure, 4:43 feels like a joke when described, but when performed it can fill an attentive (and unfamiliar) audience with expectation. Until the audience gets the joke, that is, after which point they shift in their seats and glance at their watches (though maybe the seat-shifting and watch-glancing is part of the piece, too).
There’s a dangerous tendency when writing fiction where stuff happens—people get stabbed, chase one another through rain-slick alleys, betray, discover, make love, throw rings into Mount Doom—to fill the story with stuff that happens. Our hero just outran the cops and took shelter in a tenement, but now the tenement’s burning down, but when she escapes the fire she’s held up in an alleyway by a gangster to whom she owes money. One crisis gives way to another without pause and without fail. Endless arpeggios trill along.
There’s nothing wrong with such a sequence, or with stepping up tension, or ‘raising the stakes’ in workshopese. Raymond Chandler was once asked what he did when he felt his story was lagging, and he said: “I bring in a man with a gun.” (There’s a wonderful egregious example of this in The Big Sleep.) But lag isn’t the only pacing problem. A story can also be so swift the reader cannot find her feet, so swift that characters do not grow or reflect: they stagger from emergency to emergency, flailing in all directions like they’re under attack from a swarm of bees. Chandler brought in his men with guns, but he also had a fine instinct for scenes where Marlowe wanders the streets of Los Angeles, ponders chess problems in his apartment, stops into a bar for a drink: for scenes when characters breathe, and appreciate the chaos growing around them.
These rests, these pauses, are not moments of recovery. They are an opportunity for reader and character to take stock of the pain they’ve crawled through, and the pain yet to come—or to build anticipation of a victory, or a love affair, or a brutal betrayal. Events become real in reflection upon them.
Silence is the gateway to consequence. Newlyweds feel their transformation not on the wedding night, but the next morning, when they sit at breakfast alone and feel the world settle around them. After the One Ring falls into the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo sees a vision of Sauron’s empire collapsing, followed by a scene break (that purist silence of white space and uncreated words), followed by a tender moment of Frodo and Sam talking, alone at the end of the world, the rest after the ultimate crescendo. Once Ben and Elaine flee the wedding in The Graduate, they sit on a bus bound to anywhere, and do not talk, and the smiles slip from their faces: the consequences of their actions coalesce, and they become afraid.
Working on my books Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise, an editor or friend would occasionally tell me they felt a scene wasn’t consequential enough, that it felt anticlimactic. At first such comments stepped me back: the points they called out felt like serious confrontations, battles and revelations an entire book in the making. How could I make them more consequential?
But when I re-read the scenes in question, took their pulse and compared them to the rest of the book, I realized that often, caught up in the passion of finishing a book, I’d drive too hard toward the end, leaving out the fractional beats for characters to react, or to appreciate the new dangers they faced. The emotional universe of the book broke, and tension drained from the scene. Returning to the page, I drew out those moments, gave the moments space to breathe. The revised scenes felt better, and readers agreed: if anything, the new chapters felt faster, though I’d added material.
Writing’s intensely personal, and your mileage may vary. Perhaps you’re a natural with silence; perhaps you never push too hard, and risk overstimulating yourself or your reader. But if you feel your greatest pyrotechnics fail to impress, maybe the problem isn’t that your writing isn’t strong enough, or fast enough. Try working like a musician: make love with silence, and space, and see how that changes the feeling of the scene.