Your Narrator’s Pace Impacts Romance, Tension & Plot: Teaching by Example with Beauty by Robin McKinley
The narrator’s pace affects everything in the story.
McKinley understood this and respected Beauty as a character. Because of this, she let narrator Beauty pace the story in a manner that aligns with her personality: slow and deliberate.
But slow and deliberate does not equal an unpleasant read. There is a purpose to using a slower pace.
Thankfully, there are certain authorial techniques that help keep that slow pace fresh and balanced.
In today’s post, we’ll examine how narrator Beauty’s pace affects how the reader sees her romance with the Beast unfold (and what exactly makes their romance work), why McKinley incorporated so much tension into the story, and why the plot’s timed structure appears inconsistent.
*This review contains spoilers for the purposes of helping aspiring authors master writing craft.*
Now-story Beauty is a dreamer yet a realist. The limitations she imposes on herself, from her false self-belief, encourage the pragmatic side of her personality to come forth.
This practical side of her does not let her rush into things without first thoroughly evaluating them. That side of her must examine what the dreamer side of her lets her even consider—that something deeper than friendship with the Beast is even possible.
Beauty’s evaluation takes most of the story but finally leads to their happily-ever-after.
As Beauty is also the narrator, she tells the details of their romance in the same way she arrived at her now-story decision. Narrator Beauty’s slow and methodical perspective translates to a slow and methodical telling and subsequent unfolding of now-story Beauty’s romance.
Their Internal Cross-Compatibility
Beauty and the Beast’s romance works because they are cross-compatible at the core of who they are as characters. This cross-compatibility is especially important because both of them have a positive-change character arc.
What each person needs to learn is found inside the other character. When Beauty and the Beast meet each other’s need, they witness that quality in action (from the receiving end) and learn it is possible to change for the better.
In other words, iron sharpening iron.
Beauty is drawn to the Beast’s authority because she wrongly believes she is inferior and cannot take responsibility for the direction of her life.
Her weakness is ministered to by the Beast’s declaration that she is mistress of him and the castle. He gives her the keys to the kingdom.
The Beast is drawn to Beauty’s lack of judgment because he wrongly believes he will never be freely loved, much less accepted, by a woman because of his hideous appearance, no matter how civil he acts.
His weakness is ministered to by Beauty’s selfless friendship and eventual love for him.
But it is not a perfect symbiosis of cross-compatibility. When both Beauty and the Beast try to move past their weaknesses, their attempts usually create conflict because each is trying to leave behind something familiar and move into something new and unknown.
A key example is Beauty’s survival instincts, which dictate her refusal to even touch the Beast. When she acts on her natural reaction (to a monster), she prevents a deepening of their relationship. She must choose to trust his word that she won’t be harmed, which will let them move forward together in growth.
A Note about Their Age
Due to the length of the enchantment, the Beast is significantly older than Beauty. McKinley smoothly handled this by having narrator Beauty mention early on her own parents’ age difference and total love.
The time span between the characters’ ages is surprising but not appalling due to their incredible connection and the historical time period, when large age gaps were normal.
Pacing & Tension:
Narrator Beauty’s pace is slow and deliberate. It is not dry or heavy because the dreamer side of her personality brings vibrant life to her words, which are tempered by her pragmatic nature. Her words are thorough but always have purpose.
This slower pace is appropriate for the preservation of the traditional fairy tale style and is achieved through narrator Beauty’s high degree of internal narration and the use of long sequel/reaction units* that allow now-story Beauty to process her thoughts.
On a smaller scale, narrator Beauty’s use of complicated sentence structures and rich description slows the reader’s eye, helping facilitate the luxurious feel of the story.
While the pace is slower, it never feels slow because McKinley is a master of balance. She understood Beauty’s methodical nature and knew she would need to incorporate specific techniques to keep the story compelling and moving forward.
*Note: The two units of a Scene are the “scene/action” unit and the “sequel/reaction” unit.
Dialogue Creates Momentum
McKinley had narrator Beauty alternate now-story conversations with long sections of her internal narration, which speeds up the story’s pace.
Narrator Beauty relays now-story characters’ dialogue through her dreamer yet pragmatic perspective; the characters’ dialogue aligns with their personalities but is always trim and easy to absorb.
To be clear, narrator Beauty does not impose her personality on the other characters, creating multiple facets of her own voice. Every character is allowed to be him- or herself.
Rather, it is the manner in how narrator Beauty filters those conversations that creates the easy pace in the conversations.
Tension, or the Potential for Conflict
By incorporating tension into the story, McKinley accomplished two tasks at once.
She capitalized on the emotional connection she encourages between the reader and the story’s characters. The reader wants to know if what was introduced into the story is actually going to happen. Tension urges the invested reader onward.
McKinley also needed to compensate for narrator Beauty’s slower pace and the story’s isolated setting with only one other visible character in residence. If she hadn’t used tension, the story would be rather flat and out of balance.
She utilized narrator Beauty to foreshadow a variety of things, hinting at what may come. The potential for conflict is everywhere, from the subtle foreboding of the north, to the oddly creature-free forest mere paces from her home, to the enchantment affecting Beauty, and her ever-tentative relationship with the Beast.
McKinley used deadlines, or “ticking clocks,” in several places. Beauty’s family has to relocate somewhere shortly after their father’s financial ruin. The Beast gives her father one week before someone has to go live at the castle. When Beauty is allowed to visit her family, the Beast will die if she doesn’t return to the castle.
She also employed dramatic irony, cluing in the reader before now-story Beauty has her own conscious revelations. She achieved this through narrator Beauty’s matured perspective on matters and using Greatheart as a gimmick of principle.
Note: McKinley recognized that too much tension could cause the reader to weary so she interspersed the story with appropriately-timed lightheartedness from Greatheart, Lydia, and Bessie.
Plot & Scene:
McKinley did an excellent job in constructing the story’s plot. Every subsequent plot point is logical, increases in stakes, and is well paced.
She also constructed Scenes properly. As narrator Beauty is a thorough narrator, there is a tendency towards long, insightful sequel/reaction units when now-story Beauty processes events.
These are appropriately utilized to their advantage, considering the story’s literal context (a young woman’s life is uprooted, not once, but twice, when she learns her father will die at the hand of a beast if she does not “sacrifice” herself).
The Plot's Breakdown
The story’s events are outlined as follows, per the 2005 MMPB edition. At first glance, it may seem the story’s key points occur too early, too closely, or even too far apart from multiple industry guidelines.
However, that’s not the case considering the context of the story.
Narrator Beauty must show now-story Beauty’s thorough processing of various life-altering events before she can move on in the story. This is where those long sequel/reaction units come into play, which alter the plot's timing.
If narrator Beauty doesn’t show these lengthy reaction units, now-story Beauty’s character arc progression will come across as rushed and unrealistic (because of who Beauty is as a character). As such, this story’s timing of plot points is very fitting.
Inciting Incident (4%) [page 13]: Beauty’s father incurs financial devastation. Key Event (28%) [page 91]: The Beast requires her father to surrender one of his daughters, in exchange for his own life.
First Plot Point (28%) [page 94]: Beauty decides she will go in place of her father.
First Pinch Point (46%) [page 146]: Beauty meets the Beast and learns of his intentions to marry.
MidPoint (50%) [page 162]: Beauty decides the only problem with the place is the silence and “invites” birds to come to the animal-free castle grounds.
Second Pinch Point (61%) [page 199]: Greatheart meets the Beast and touches his knee.
Third Plot Point (67%) [page 218]: After fainting, Beauty loses it at being caught and held by the Beast.
Climax Begins (81%) [page 264]: After seeing Robbie’s whereabouts in a magical mirror, Beauty is allowed to return home to tell Grace he is alive. (He is Grace’s fiancé and had set sail on one of her father’s ships.)
Climactic Moment (99%) [page 322]: After seeing herself next to the beautiful man, Beauty realizes physical appearance has little merit in her worth, as she sees her internal self as who she really is. She agrees to marry the man.
Many interesting story effects can be created from the narrator alone. Consider how his, her, or its personality would affect the translation of various story components, such as two characters’ romance.
Is the narrator clipped? If so, the romance will unfold in an abbreviated style. Does the narrator place more value on a story’s exploding action? Then the romance will unfold quickly and casually.
The key is knowing when, as the author, to step in and help the narrator create balance for an engaging story.
What strengths and weaknesses does your narrator have? How might you need to compensate for those to maintain balance in your story?