Writing and Shit – part 37 – Writing, fast and slow

Cast your mind back to the recent and the twenty year-old books I asked you to pick out and read – it’s very likely that within the first five or ten pages of the recent one more takes place, and what does happens is faster.

Scenes in movies have become shorter, scenes in stories have followed.

Often all the viewer needs to understand is that Ah, it’s this scene – it’s shaky cigarette – seen it before. Cool – what’s next?

It’s a generalisation, but I think it holds true.

Quicker scenes are particularly in Netflix series. If you would like examples, check out Maniac or Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.


One of the ways stories and novels have changed most in the last hundred and fifty years is their approach to action.

In a Victorian novel, even swift actions could take dozens or even hundreds of words to describe. They were not only described in terms of physical choreograph, they were moralised, explained. The reader’s reaction was built in. The soundtrack was audible.

As the carriage rounded the corner onto the bottom of Regent Street, the merciless leader of the anarchist movement stuck his blunderbuss out of the window, took deadly aim at his unwitting and innocent target, then let fly the barrel’s contents with a sharp report that immediately drew the attention of the many ladies and gentlemen then present in the vicinity.

This is a Victorianized version of a sentence I have used often when I’m teaching genre writing. It’s quoted in a brilliant book by Geoffrey O’Brien called Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of the Noir.


I learned a vast amount about the pace of writing from O’Brien.

Here’s what he has to say:

With stripped-down syntax and a vocabulary reduced to basics, [Dashiell] Hammett found original ways to convey a sense of physical and temporal immediacy. This prose mirrors the reality of duration, and consequently Hammett rarely dilates an instant of consciousness. His characters, caught up in the pace of the book, literally do not have time to think; they can only act.

By contrast, a Victorian writer like H. Rider Haggard, in all his forty-odd novels of physical adventure, was incapable of suggesting the feel of an action scene simply because his prose could not move fast enough. By unburdening himself of syntactical luggage, Hammett approximated actual tempo, as in this passage from Red Harvest: “Another car came around the limousine and charged us. Out of it, gunfire.” Haggard would have needed at least half a page to say that, by which time (in Hammett’s terms) the car would have been and gone.

The sentence deserves to be picked out –

Out of it, gunfire.

Sentences as elegant as this come along very rarely. It is astonishing for what it gets done and all it leaves out.

I’ve been talking about different kinds of story-time. The story-time of Dashiell Hammett is a vast acceleration from that of my invented Victorian novelist. It is also a non-moralised and non-explained time. Actions are shown, morals are never told.


(I wrote this before self-isolating slowed everyone down. Books are being read in houses with closed doors – almost certainly with more attention than they were two months before this started.)

Society is becoming more impatient. We have less time to take things in. We want labour-saving devices, or apps, to do things for us. If shorthand versions are available, we will choose them over version that laboriously take us through every nuance.

This, at least, is one way of looking at the way story-time has developed. That everything is done faster to avoid annoying readers who are increasingly unwilling to stick around.

(All this from someone who wrote a novel called Patience. Which co-incidentally is now available as an ebook for £2.50.)

I would say two things to this tendency.

First, I think that while there is a general acceleration in how stories are told, there is also a reaction to this. Some recent books, for example Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or George R.R.Martin’s Game of Thrones Series or Richard House’s The Kills, make a virtue out of stretching time, the readerly experience of time, to an extreme distension. This isn’t something new, although I think it’s something modern. One of the points of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – a book about aging – is that it takes so long to read that, looking back after finishing it, the reader feels that they have moved on from one time of life to another.

The second thing I’d say is that impatience with slowness isn’t new. Even Henry James’s contemporary readers (1870s to 1910s), those alive to buy his books the day they came out, often complained about how dense and slow they were.

Henry James is one of my very favourite writers, but I am very conscious that for lots of open-minded, enthusiastic readers he has become unreadable. His sentences, going back to what I said about syntax, are long, contain more than one sub-clause, digress, leave out words you might expect to find, and are generally – for lots of readers – a struggle that drives them near demented, and is certainly no great pleasure. Because Henry James faced this criticism himself, and answered it, I think it’s fair to assume he wrote exactly as he did for a good reason – or for several good reasons.

What reading Henry James does is force you into an extremely slow and intricate story-time. Yes, James says, you can look at things quickly and glibly, but if you want to see what’s really going on, you have to live with stuff for a long time, go away from it and forget it, and then return to it, to investigate it as closely and tenderly and yes, slowly, as the thing requires.

To which the majority of people will answer, I don’t have time for that. In other words, Your story-time is one I can’t slow down enough to enter. Give me car plus gunfire, I’ll do the rest, thank you very much.

This I completely understand. But I think Henry James, to give him one final word (there was, for James, always another last and final word) would say something like this –

The car and the gunfire are thoughtless action, and life – I hope – is not all thoughtless action. Things happen because people make them happen, and they do that for reasons which are far longer standing and far deeper than the abruptness in which they may terminate. Where people end up, and what they end up doing there, is very much due to where they come from and what, there, was done to them.

Exercise: Write about an action that takes less than a second, and write about it in one sentence that is below ten words long. Then rewrite that action in a paragraph of one hundred words that moralises the action. Now do the reverse, write a brief action in a medium-sized paragraph. Then reduce it to the smallest number of words you can. At which end of this spectrum do you feel comfortable? What’s your preferred story time, within the sentence?

Stay safe.

One thought on “Writing and Shit – part 37 – Writing, fast and slow

  1. Pingback: Writing and Shit – part 36 – The Haunted Scene, or Better than Movies | tobylitt

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