What Sleeping With Jane Eyre Taught Me About Pacing

From Jane Friedman:

I’ve been sleeping with Jane Eyre, lately—courtesy of The Sleepy Bookshelf, a podcast designed to help me snooze.

Except it’s been keeping me awake.

I’ve loved this classic since childhood, every reread captivating me as if for the first time.

But it soon became clear that I was sharing my bed not so much with Jane, as with Charlotte Brontë herself. Listening to the novel has been showing me things I had missed on the page—the first-person narrative drawing me in so close I could almost believe it was memoir—and night after night I’ve been reveling in a writing-craft class led by the venerated author.

One such class addresses a storytelling weakness that shows up a lot in my writing and editing practice: high-tension scenes that rush to their finish with the speed of a bullet train.

Brontë’s talent for keeping readers on tenterhooks reminds me of Matthew Dicks and his hourglass technique, which he shares in Storyworthy (entire book, so good!).

Going too fast is one of the biggest mistakes storytellers make, Dicks says. When you arrive at the moment readers have been waiting for, “It’s time to slow things down. Grind them to a halt when possible.”

Consider the properties of an hourglass: the upper chamber containing story still to be told. No grain of sand before its time. All flowing inexorably to the same destination.

In one of my favorite scenes (spoilers ahead), Jane Eyre returns to Thornfield Hall after a year of yearning, desperate to clap eyes on her great love, Mr. Rochester, whom she fled upon learning at the altar that he was already married.

As she approaches the Hall, I itch to press fast-forward. Would he be there? Would they helplessly reunite, or would her moral restraint prevail? Had I been turning pages, I’d be reading very fast indeed—which is what readers do when narrative tension flames through the roof. How else to defend against an author’s merciless manipulation?

But because I was forced to listen and wait, I caught Brontë in the act of tipping the hourglass—again and again.

She sends Jane on four separate journeys to find Mr. Rochester, starting with a 36-hour coach ride from her home to Rochester Inn—ample time for reader anxiety to flare. Rather than simply asking the innkeeper for news of her lost love, Jane prolongs hope by walking the remaining two miles to the Hall.

It is a walk designed to drive the reader to the edge of endurance.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman