Pacing vs. exposition

I’m a little over a third of the way into Dan Wells’ new cyberpunk YA thriller, “Bluescreen”, and I have to admit it’s taken me this long to really get into the plot. As I told my wife last night when I put the book aside, “It’s starting to get good!”

But thinking back, at no time to this point have I ever thought, “This is boring.” It’s not a boring book, though so far I would have to say it’s moving slowly. There’s a reason for that, though, and that’s the key.

Bluescreen is, as I mentioned, is set in a cyberpunk sci-fi, near-future world–one that grows out of our current society and circumstances, but is quite different in many ways. Everyone, especially teenagers, is online pretty much all the time, and are connected through cybernetic appliances that project data directly into your eyes via implants. The main character is in constant communication with her group of friends, even though they’re spread over much of the world. She goes to school virtually much of the time, and participates in a virtual reality game.

Society itself has changed greatly. The proliferation of worker drones has pushed much of the world into poverty. Large corporations have gained power, world and local governments have lost power, and criminal gangs keep the peace in their districts.

This is a lot to take in.

Whether there’s a better approach or not, I can’t say, but Wells decided to take things a little slow and give us slices of his characters’ lives in order to introduce his world solidly before turning up the heat. There are a few conflicts introduced along the way, but nothing that really (for me at least) grabs the reader until much of the story is already told.

I think it works because the learning curve is so steep. He throws a lot of terms and slang at the readers, and quite a few characters. It takes a while to get it all straight. As it was, when one of the characters broke one of her cybernetic appendages I first thought it was a different one just because I’d forgotten what it was called.

At the same time, the stuff he’s introducing you to is interesting. It’s an excellent example of show, don’t tell, but as a result she spends a lot of time showing what all this tech is and does under normal circumstances so you don’t get overwhelmed with learning the setting and the following the plot at the same time.

So what have I learned from Wells so far?

  1. Don’t overwhelm your reader. He could have moved things along faster, but chose to give the reader time to get “up to speed” first.
  2. Lack of plot/exciting action does not equal boring. If the setting and/or the characters are interesting and handled well your readers will forgive a lack of forward motion–not indefinitely, but for longer than you might think. These are, after all, YA readers he’s writing for!
  3. Sometimes you really have to set the stage to achieve the desired effect. When the main plot hits (“Yo, drop the plot, man!”) you are now ready to appreciate the stakes. I’m not sure I would have understood that so well earlier on in the story, but when things do get exciting it’s definitely a “Whoa, duuuuude, this is heavy!” moment.

There are, of course, some pitfalls to this slower pacing, as well:

  1. You could lose readers. Not everyone will find all of this exposition and ground-work interesting, and they may wander off before the plot starts to pick up.
  2. Inadvertent promises may come back to bite you. If you take a long time setting things up your readers, suspicious as they are, might start looking for (and finding) promises you never intended to make, and therefore you may completely miss keeping them because you didn’t know about them.
  3. Turning up the heat may overwhelm your reader. The reader, if they’ve made it that far, may actually like a slower pace. If you suddenly grab them by the nose and yank them through the rest of the story in a flurry of action they may resent it unless you really pay off well everything you’ve set up, making the “whiplash” worth it.

Now, I’ve read enough Dan Wells books by now to trust him. I’m sure the pacing will work out. But as new authors, we might not receive the benefit of the doubt from our readers. We may need to pay careful attention to the right balance between communicating needed information and moving the story forward. And as with pretty much everything to do with writing, that takes practice.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom is a Utah transplant, works for a regional bank, and spends his lunch hours working on his latest novel. His wife, three kids, and four pets find him amusing and somewhat useful, so they keep him around.