Readers need breathers. Why? Breathers give the reader a chance to stop and meditate. A breather allows a reprieve from the primary action of the novel. A breather slows the pace. Sometimes, you have to do that. Going at breakneck speed from page 1 to page 400 is generally not advisable.
A breather may take the form of a subplot (see Day 10), but it may also be something smaller. In The Year of Fog, Abby is a photographer. Her search for the missing child is broken up with brief episodes about photography and memory. While Abby’s work is not a major subplot to the novel, the brief chapters–only a few paragraphs each–dealing with photography serve to allow the reader to take a break from the intense search; they allow the reader to breathe. Ideally, your breathers will be thematically consistent with the central question. Abby wants to find Emma, the girl who went missing on the beach, but she can’t remember enough of what happened that day to piece the puzzle together. Her work as a photographer is grounded in image, a form of recorded memory. So even when we’re taking a break from the search, we’re reminded of it.
Haruki Murakami is the master of the breather. His novels are spacious because the plot is not entirely the thing. He meanders, he philosophizes, he reminisces. In all of Murakami’s novels, the narrative breaks away from the main story line and comes back, again and again and again.
Take The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In a suburb of Tokyo, Toru Okada is on the hunt for his wife’s missing cat. Simple enough: a search. There is great potential in a search. But the stakes of the search multiply exponentially when Okada begins searching for his wife as well. From the publisher’s description:
As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute, a malevolent politician, a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old girl, and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria.
Is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle a mystery? Is it a political novel? Is it a love story? Is it a picaresque? Is it a fantasy? It is all of these things. Few writers have what it takes to pull off such a feat, but Murakami does it elegantly, enticingly, and beautifully. His novel is an intricately patterned masterpiece. The moment you think you might be losing the thread, he pulls you back.
I encourage you to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. You should also pick up The Death of a Beekeeper, another masterfully patterned work of fiction. Gustafsson’s book is a novella, very short, and yet within its sparse pages one finds numerous subjects, arranged in a series of notebooks.
I would love to see these two novels laid out in pieces on the floor. It must have been quite a task, figuring out which pieces went where. The arrangement of each work—Murakami’s vast, sprawling novel and Gustafsson’s small, exquisite novella–creates moments of intense suspense, while allowing for stretches of thoughtful repose. Just when you think you’ve had enough suspense, the narrative moves into a slower phase; just when you think you’ve had enough philosophy, we return to the suspenseful plot.
Today, think of a way to let your book breathe. One place to begin is your protagonist’s profession. In Homing Instincts, by Karen Guzman, Seth Hingham is a wildlife biologist. His appreciation for a knowledge of the natural world gives readers a break from the main action: his attempt to put his life back together after his divorce and his father’s death.
What is your protagonist’s profession? Today, think about how the profession connects thematically with the main storyline of your novel.
Now, write, 1600 words about what your character does for a living. Use the language of the profession. If you don’t know it, do research!
For an in-depth exploration of breathers, pacing, structure, and plot, get The Paperclip Method: The No-Outline Novel Workbook.