Monday, December 6, 2010

Patterson's Pacing and Less than Purple Prose

One of the criteria for writing for young adults seems to be a fast pace. Events need to happen and happen quickly with very little down time in between the action sequences. (At least that’s what I’ve read and been taught in my toddler-aged career of writing for kids.)

The pace – or the speed with which the reader moves through the story – needs to be rapid. Long periods of contemplation, descriptions of static scenes, or rambling soliloquies are all verboten unless you have a VERY good reason that your story can’t exist without them.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to like description. (I like to write it as well as read it.) I’m in love with the adjective. I drool over a well-turned metaphor and smile slyly when sighting a singular simile. I bat my eyes at visceral descriptions that make me smell and feel, as well as see, the characters and setting.

Alas – I read “adult” fiction for those things. I’m not saying that all YA authors avoid similes and descriptors; however, I do think you are much more likely to find even the humble adjective used (overused?) when reading a novel written for a more adult  (less young) audience.

This week’s book that has me thinking about pacing and description? James Patterson’s third episode in the Maximum Ride series: Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports. Patterson has over 140 million books in print in forty languages. He’s right up there with Mr. King as a top-seller worldwide. He knows how to put a plot together and has the fast-paced crime novel market pretty much cornered for the adult book-buying crowd. He took his rapid-fire plots for his crime novels and skinnied them down – sped them up – for his first series for younger audiences.

These novels aren’t short – no. This one weighs in at a hefty 405 pages (paperback). But the pacing and writing style are such that I can sit down and read one in only a couple of hours. (Granted, I read like a crazed biblio-maniac hopped up on chocolate covered espresso beans…but even a normal YA reader could whip through one of these in an afternoon.)

So here is what I’ve observed about how these books move so quickly for the reader.

1.      Short (and I mean SHORT) chapters. 133 of them. Most of them max out at 3 pages long. They start part way down one page and cover maybe another page and a half – leaving lots of white space at both the beginning and the end of each chapter. All that white spaces does a few things: Pulls the reader forward (leap-frogging over the blank stuff to get on with the story) and forces the reader to literally turn pages quickly. The faster you turn pages, the faster you get to page 405, right

2.      A plethora of dialog. Patterson’s action is conveyed, in many cases, through the first person narration of Max, or…the smokin’ fast dialog between the kids who make up the “Flock.” (Yeah…flock. Think a gang of good kids who can fly. With wings. Like birds. Apparently, Patterson decided younger readers need a little fantasy in their thrillers.)

3.      And tons of dialog leads to very short paragraphs. The pages are chopped up into one or two or three line paragraphs. Even those that aren’t dialog are short. Again, let me point out how that creates white space for the reader and keeps your eye moving along.

4.      Finally – there may be a lot of chapters and a lot of dialog, but there is a decided dearth of adjectives and description. In fact, there are so few, that it sort of turns me off of the books altogether. For someone like me who enjoys the way a juicy description can make me feel, the stark style of Patterson’s stories is sort of … well… annoying, actually. In fact, I was so distressed by his lack of description, I started counting adjectives.

(Go ahead. Roll your eyes. If you’ve read much of this blog, you should already know I’m a geek! Get over it!)

# of Adjs.
New, experimental, limited
Cool, another, send
Bird, lousy, blue-uniformed

You may want to call me a geek, but you have to admit – not the juiciest of word choices, huh? I mean, seriously. If you are only going to use 3 adjectives on a page, couldn’t one of them be something other than cool or new?

But I digress. Patterson is such a prolific writer and sells so many gazillions of books, that his formula – short paragraphs, short chapters, tons of dialog and a (sigh) shortage of description – certainly works for him.

Perhaps we writers should take a page from his book. Literally. Here’s a challenge: Write a page of fiction with no paragraph longer than 3 lines and with no more than 5 adjectives on the whole page. Or take one of your works in progress and pull up a random page. Take a look at how chopping out some non-vital descriptors and adding some white space might change the pace.

Go forth, ye writers, and quicken your pace. But don’t forget to tell your story along the way!


  1. I'm guilty of lack of description in my writing; I have to go back over and continually add to my writing.

  2. LOVE this post. As an educator, it certainly makes you think a lot about what to recommend to kids and why. Like you, I like description and LOVE creative use of literary devices. I savor great sentences. Also, as a teacher, I have my students comment on their favorite sentence of the week. They love doing it and it makes them more aware of what makes great writing.

    Again, loved the post, will be back, hope you visit me again soon too!

    All the best and happy holidays,
    Meryl Jaffe PhD

  3. Nice Post, m'dear! I know you LOVE your descriptions (thank goodness, because I would write only in dialogue if I could!)! I particularly enjoyed the graphic of the # of adjectives per page - is "send" an adjective?

  4. Send was an adjective as in "click the send button". Crazy, right? And I'm definitely a geek. But you already knew that. :)

  5. Yes! I really dislike when a book is slow, because when there is alot of time with no action, you set the book down. It's like a very slow, heavy river current, and it pulls you away from the book. The only reason I stuck with a couple books like that were because they were from some of my most favorite series'

  6. I must say I like a fast paced book. I like dialogue and as a children book writer I don't like my stories being bogged down with a whole lot of description. But I agree there should be a balance.

  7. Jmcmanusdesigns -- have you read the YA books by Patterson? I saw recently that they are also marketing and selling graphic novel versions of the Maximum Ride series.