Timing Is Everything

     We’ve had enough politics and current events for now. Let’s talk fiction.

     If you undertake to write suspense or thriller fiction, you will come to grips with the problem of timing: in your staging of the conflicts, in your characterizations of the antagonists, and above all in the selection and narration of events as the story approaches its climax. That sort of fiction depends more greatly upon good timing than any other variety.

     There’s no Procrustean formula for making timing decisions, though there is a useful guideline: Don’t keep the reader waiting pointlessly. Once you’ve introduced events and characters that make it possible for the reader to sense that the climax is drawing near, it becomes important not to create new side trails or to linger in those that you’ve already inserted. Also, the closer you come to the big event, the faster you must tell the story. Once the reader has the scent, he’s going to want to run, not walk toward it.

     Some writers are famous for their skill at handling fictional timing. Stephen King is notably good at it. His novels Pet Sematary and Needful Things are practically tutorials in how it’s done. By contrast, Tom Clancy often had problems getting the timing right. An example is his novel The Sum of All Fears, where Clancy’s desire to prolong the build-up overcame his narrative sense. Well, we all have our strengths and weaknesses.

     Care in handling timing is principally a consideration at novel-length. It seldom raises its head in short stories, though a “long” story – i.e., a novelette or novella – will sometimes present timing decisions. My original fantasy novelette “The Warm Lands,” which became the opening segment of the novel of the same name, faced me with a timing decision I originally flubbed. An editor who critiqued it called me on it and showed me how to fix it.

     Be aware that your timing decisions will be disputed no matter how carefully you address them. They engender more dissent among readers than most other auctorial choices. Just because you think you got it right doesn’t mean all of them will agree. This is especially likely when your book has one foot in a genre with characteristic, quasi-mandatory patterns running through it. Sometimes one of those patterns will clash with the timing appropriate to your climax.

     For example, my romance novel Antiquities had critical timing requirements, owing to its culminating events and its position in the larger Onteora Canon. I got very mixed feedback about those decisions. A fair number of readers were so deeply absorbed by the romantic-musical plot thread that they completely rejected the climactic events. The most common rebuke I received from them was that “it shortened the story.” Well, yes, it did, but death is like that.

     I’m grappling with timing questions now. The novel-under-construction, which is in essence a romance, embeds an ugly conflict whose resolution dominates the second half of the story. My awareness that the climax is gradually coming into view is compelling me to narrate faster and faster. The need has forced me to review and re-review the book from end to end, out of my worries that I haven’t quite got it right. Of course, the reader will be the ultimate judge.

     What tales have you read where the author’s timing decisions struck you as particularly important – whether or not you think they were made appropriately? When you’d finished it, were you satisfied by how the author timed the story? Discuss!


  1. Ayn Rand probably dragged out the narrative of Atlas Shrugged primarily for the sake of proportion. A good part of that was three entanglements (hard to call those intellectual fulfillments romances) between Dagny and ever more powerful titans, Francisco, Hank, and Galt. See, that way John Galt’s  43 page monologue, laying out her view of the way things ought to be, didn’t take up one seventh of the novel she could have otherwise written. It only took up about a twenty-fifth.

    So, IMHO, her viewed purpose in life dictated her timing, no?

    Well, she got out what she wanted to say; it certainly struck a chord with a large audience, particularly libertarians, so one cannot criticize her for it as she succeeded wildly.

    However — here I stick in another form of criticism, gratis — sadly, her view appears to have given clear consciences to those who succeeded by any means necessary so that they remain sanguine about using their wealth to eliminate the middle class and from there much more.  Would those with more humility be half so successful in imparting some of that to those who think they know it all. And the timing for that is now.

  2. Timing is indeed vital.

    That’s why I prefer vehicles with timing chains, rather than timing belts. Less likely to fail catastrophically.

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