Yeah, I’ve gone all zen on you.
Recently I read a post on Absolute Write in which a writer asked for advice about doing more showing and how to avoid “rushing” through the story. What intrigued me was that the person asking the question, whether she realized it or not, had already figured out the answer. To slow down a story’s pace, show more than you tell. To show more than you tell, slow down the story’s pace.
It made me think of a recent NPR segment on why time seems to go so quickly as we get older. They float several scientific reasons for why things move slowly when we’re young and quickly when we’re old, but the one that stuck in my brain was this: we’re recording less detail as we get older. Like recording a TV show on an old VHS player, our brains are capable of high resolution memory recording, which takes up a lot of tape, and low resolution memory recording, which takes up less tape.
When we’re little, we tend to record in high resolution, because we’re experiencing things for the first time. As a three-year-old, we may be accurately recording our birthday party for the first time. The feel of the rubber band holding the party hat on our head. The smell of candles smoldering on a cake, maybe even the strange waxy ghost of those candles in a bite of chocolate frosting. It’s the first time! We record everything, so the theory goes, hence it seems to take a long time.
Flash forward to your forty-third birthday party and you’ve been through this routine so many times that you’re barely recording the experience at all. Singing, cake, candles, all in a quick rush of the familiar. Time flies. This is true with a vengeance for the daily tasks of our adult lives. Weeks pass in a blur as we spend eight hours a day sitting in the same office, staring at the same computer.
Fiction works the same way. To slow down the pace of the reading, record at a high resolution. To get more detail, slow down. If your writing feels rushed or the room your characters are in seems like a white box, it’s because you as the writer aren’t letting your characters be in the moment. Maybe you’re rushing to get to the next scene. Use the zen technique of presence. Pretend you’re experiencing the thing for the first time, even if you’ve imagined the scene a million times. Be in the moment. Look around as you write the scene.
And don’t just look, use all five senses. Is there a snag on the plastic fork to scratch at your character’s lip with every bit of birthday cake? Is the girlfriend of your character’s brother playing footsie with the wrong brother under the table? On purpose? On accident? Is there a cloud of cloying bathroom deodorizer wafting down the hallway to ruin the smell of beef bourguignon? Are Grandma’s dentures a little loose and prone to clack when she talks?
Writing affords an opportunity that life never does: a pause button and a rewind button. You can stop the action, go back, re-experience, re-live the scene at a slower pace.