Yesterday, there was work to do—there’s always work to do, something to write, something to read—but, after brunch, Cathy said, “Why don’t you just rest?” I gave her my standard answer, “I’ve got so much I need to get done.” Her response? “Sometimes, it’s okay to not do anything.”
So it is in the stories we tell. There comes a time when it’s okay for our characters to rest; it’s fine for us to allow them a few moments of pause.
Here, then, are three ways we can think about what we can accomplish by slowing the narrative pace.
1. We can use a pause to go inside a character’s consciousness. We can find out what that character is making out of everything that’s been happening in the story. It’s one thing to be able to string together a sequence of causally related events in a narrative. It’s quite another to make clear to the reader why that narrative chain matters. One way we make a story matter to a reader is by making it matter to a character. Too often these days, I see a narrative more interested in speeding along than it is in exploring its main character’s interiority. It’s okay to slow down, particularly in the wake of a major turning point in the story.
2. We can pause to sketch in the relevant back story. What do we need to know from the past in order to fully appreciate the events of the present? If the exposition is truly important to the way a character processes what’s currently happening, a pause to summarize what took place before the story opened won’t sacrifice any of narrative tension. In fact, the well-chosen, and smartly placed back story will serve to heighten the significance of the narrative.
3. We can pause to dramatize the landscape. Often the emotional impact of a narrative projects outward to the physical world. Think of the snow falling at the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” What’s outside a character can contain what’s inside that character. Letting the character look away from him or herself for a moment can more sharply express the significant impact of the narrative. Such a pause, if it comes at the end of a story, can also heighten the tension. A decision is about to be made, but the reader doesn’t know what the character’s choice might be. The story has the reader at the cliff’s edge. A pause to look away to the landscape can hold the reader in suspense before finally moving to the story’s end.
Yesterday, I listened to Cathy. “Let’s just kick back for an hour,” she said. So we did. I reclined in a chair by the window. She stretched out on the couch. It was a cold day with light snow in the forecast. “Let’s just close our eyes,” she said. And just like that, I was dozing, completely relaxed, content to not be thinking about work.
Almost exactly an hour later, Cathy’s phone began to buzz, and we both woke. It was her daughter calling just to chat, and while they did, I turned to the window and saw that the snow had come—a fine snow drifting down, just a touch of white on our patio and on the grass. It was a pretty snow, and I felt at ease as I watched it. I was inside with Cathy and our ginger cat, Stella. I was in a house filled with peace and love, and I was thankful that Cathy had insisted I take the time to appreciate that fact.