Last night I read a rejection letter (it wasn't mine, because I'm not cool enough to have started getting those yet), in which the agent said that novels must have "relentless pacing." I've heard the phrase before, but last night it caught my attention. What is relentless pacing? How does it work? What are its characteristics? Sure, I've studied fail cycles, etc., but I still don't have pacing anywhere close to mastered.
As it happens, I'm reading Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz, who is pretty much the master of relentless pacing, and one thing I've noticed about his book is that the action is extremely compressed. My action is often slow and spread out because I want my book to be realistic, and in reality, major events rarely happen on the same day as each other; characters usually dink around before they get around to doing things; and important discoveries usually occur over time rather than at the most convenient, interesting moment.
But let's take a look at what happens in the first 24 hours of Odd Thomas.
I MEAN IT. LOTS OF SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVEN'T READ ODD THOMAS, YOU SHOULD REALLY LEAVE THIS POST AND GO GET THE BOOK RIGHT NOW. IT'S QUITE GOOD.
AND MORE SPOILER WARNING . . .
'Nuff said? Okay, then.
In the first 24 hours of the book, Odd Thomas identifies a child killer, chases him through a house, saves another child, and turns the killer over to the cops. (That's in the first hour of his day.) Then he slings hash for several hours. Then he spots a suspicious character, breaks into his house, and discovers a portal to hell and the character's shrine to mass murderers. He reports that to the cops, and then he sees the suspicious character again and tries to chase him down, picks up his girlfriend for dinner, gets chased from a church by a rampaging poltergeist, gets engaged, tucks his girlfriend into bed, goes home to find a dead body in his apartment, disposes of the body, confronts a pack of coyotes, releases a hooker's ghost from limbo, discovers that his contact on the cop force has been shot, and finds a meditation card that is basically meant to summon the devil. In addition to this, he makes about 6 social calls, describes 6 different locales, and interacts in about 10 different major relationships (7 of them with the living, 3 with the dead). And I don't think he's even hit the 24 hour mark yet.
Now, I realize that not every book is suited to be a Dean Koontzian novel, but this is an excellent example of how time and events are tightly compressed so that bam, bam, bam. There's never a down moment.
Of course, there's a lot more to relentless pacing. There's the variety of setting and character dynamics. There's the variety in types of conflict. There are reveals that dangers were misunderstood or underestimated. There are the introductions of new dangers and new disasters. There's the overall sense that this world is alive and moving on, with or without the reader. I'll probably write more about those later as my brain works through them, but for now--compression of action. This is one of my biggest weaknesses, and Odd Thomas is a great example of how to take it to the extreme, and pull it off.