To vary the pacing in a novel have a character tell a story

Bogart in the Maltese Falcon

I’m listening to an audiobook version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon right now.

The story is racing along with a killing, intrigue, mysterious characters all around.

When all of a sudden Sam Spade, the hard-boiled detective hero, plunges into a story about one of his cases.

It comes out of the blue, which always adds spice.

Spade recounts the story of a businessman he was hired to find, long after the guy dropped out of sight.

In essence Spade’s summary of that case is a standalone short story inserted in the novel.

It’s a great story.  The businessman, who gave no hint of anything amiss in his life, just disappeared, abandoning his wife and children, but leaving them well-fixed financially. He knocked around for a few years, then settled into another life in another town.

All that because a near-death experience had made him re-think the priorities in his life, to consider that the ordinary life of respectability he had carved out for himself was a facade.

When Spade finishes the story, he picks up where he left off and focuses again on the case of the black bird, the Maltese falcon.

But Hammett’s telling of this separate story smack dab in the middle of the main one accomplished a great deal.  By presenting it when he did and how he did, he revealed Sam Spade to the reader, showing her the sort of things that made him tick as a man.

Why this story? Why tell it at that moment? Why was it important to him?  What did it do to build suspense in the novel?

Pacing is an elusive component of a book.  Too many fast-paced scenes leave the reader out of breath, too many slow scenes put her to sleep.

If an author wants to vary the pace of the story, one thing she can do is have a character tell a story.

The Constellation Orion
The Constellation Orion

After all, this is how we communicate in real life.

The other night my wife and I were watching the stars pop out in an East Texas sky. Orion was low above the eastern horizon.

“When I was in the fifth grade,” I said to her as I looked at the constellation, “I had a teacher who loved watching the stars. When Orion was in that position,” I pointed to the combination of lights just over the treetops, “she would call me at home and say, ‘Steve, go outside and check out Orion.’ Then she would hang up, and I would go look at the stars. The next day at school we would talk about it.”

See, I just did it.  I told a story within a story.

Now back to The Maltese Falcon.


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