How to set the pace of your novel: Lessons from Shirley Jackson

Welcome to episode 3, writers. Today, we explore the writing style of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’. Written in 1959, this chilling gothic story takes place over a single week in rural 1950s America. It is considered one of the best literary ghost stories published during the 20th century and, to date, it has been adapted into two feature films, a televised series, and a play.
In today’s reading, I’m only going as far as the introduction to each of the main characters, which includes the House itself because we’ll be focusing on the narrative structure and how this sets the tone and pace for the novel overall.
As you listen to the reading, I’d like you to think about how the sentences have been constructed, and how these change for each of the characters.
Are you ready? Then, let’s begin.
— Close Reading
There are a number of paths we could have taken today for our close reading. The opening paragraph alone could serve as the focus for the episode. As I read and re-read it, I found something new each time. Today, we’ll look at how the sentences have been constructed to release a steady flow of both curiosity and fear in the reader. We’ll also look again at some character tags and their function in the story.
As you read the story, you can feel a sense that everyone is being watched, observed, assessed; like a breeze passing ever so slightly down your spine. How? The story is told in the third person omniscient narrative, that is, all-seeing and all-knowing. While the narration is outside of any character, the narrator can access the consciousness of more than one character and relay this to the reader.
The opening line presents us with a fact; that “no living organism [could] continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality” and the text reads as scientific certainty; one that has been tried and tested over time. This also sets the themes of science and the supernatural, the rational and the irrational, that runs through the novel via Dr Montague and Eleanor.
As we progress the reading, we learn that the house has maintained its hold for almost a hundred years and will continue to do so, irrespective of who comes visiting. We’re already starting to feel the weighted impressions of the house. Let’s look at the sentences again:
  • ‘Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.’
Jackson has presented the structure of the house as a long-standing, firm, and unmoving entity. That the house is ‘not sane’ is matter-of-fact and blunt and this is unsettling. Hill House is not only the name of the estate but the presence that continues to reside there. The House retains darkness within itself; contains it. While reading aloud, I could fully appreciate the pace of the narrative and how this is controlled through punctuation; the periods (or full stops), the commas, the semi-colons.
The descriptive language that follows and the use of adverbs juxtapose the sense of order with a sense of fear.
  • ‘Walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut;’
Think about a house that is presented as civilised, yet is not sane. When I first read ‘sensibly’, I thought that this was to signify that the house was in order. On completing the reading, I realised that it also meant that there is good sense in keeping the doors closed.
  • ‘Whatever walked there, walked alone.’
These five words never fail to send a chill through me. There is a presence that alludes to the supernatural and it is isolated. The house has agency but is not explicitly human. The implication of ‘whatever’ unsettles the reader and the closing word, alone, carries the weight of finality. The intent here is to unsettle the reader, to stir a fear within them. Read or listen to the passage again, letting the words and punctuation really sink in.
In the paragraphs that follow, Jackson quickly and effortlessly establishes her key characters. First, we meet The House and the Doctor, then our three volunteers, Eleanor, Theodora, and Luke. Only the House knows what truly lies ahead for them because it has been here before.
With a few short paragraphs, we are presented with the hopes, ambitions, and goals of Dr John Montague – the leader of the expedition to Hill House, and the catalyst for this story. For Doctor Montague, not John, Hill House is the opportunity he has been searching for to redeem his career and legitimise years of research in ‘an honestly haunted house’ and he is not going to let it pass. The repetition of John’s title as Doctor enhances his sense of authority and the ‘air of respectability’ that he so desperately clings to and borrows from his education. Through his meticulous process of elimination for suitable volunteers, Dr Montague approaches each step of bringing his plans to fruition with a calculated hopefulness that reads almost as mania. The doctor is going to Hill House with something to prove. For me, this sets me on alert that he is, in fact, underprepared for what awaits him.
We then have Eleanor Vance, the sheltered and introverted protagonist who appears to have the strongest connection to Hill House, and who is also the most vulnerable. Eleanor is desperate to leave her current life and her overbearing sister behind after the death of her mother; so much so that she throws caution to the wind in her desire to become truly independent and to discover herself by responding to the doctor’s invitation. Like the doctor, we are provided greater detail into this character’s back-story with the account of her feelings towards her family members and her paranormal experience. This, for me, is deliberately done. With more detail to work with, you become invested in those characters without realising it.
After Eleanor, we have the modern, confident, and independent Theodora, identified as Theo, and we are not given her last name. Theo sketches and has a shop and a roommate, and considers the supernatural humourous. She is presented as the polar opposite to Eleanor, shedding light on everything she has that Eleanor doesn’t and this will prove telling in later chapters.
Our group of volunteers ends with Luke, who is presented as a liar, a thief, and a charmer who stands to inherit Hill House. He is brought into the group at the request of his aunt to keep him out of trouble and yet he somehow still manages to cause it, again as later chapters will reveal.
Notice how each character has his or her own character traits, motivations, and vocabulary assigned to them. Each character will react to Hill House in his or her own way as the story continues. As a reader, you will make your own assumptions against each character; as a writer, you may recognise that the wheels have been set in motion for the volunteer who will be contained within the darkness of the House.
If you’d be interested in exploring this chapter, or the novel as a whole, in more detail, just let me know.
Today’s Exercise
If you are already working on your own story, revisit a paragraph or chapter and take a fresh look at how you punctuate your sentences. This might seem like a strange task for me to set you but, having listened to the pace of this story, I feel like this is an important exercise for writers to take on.
If, however, you’re confident in the pace of your narrative, you could try this exercise instead:
Place yourself within the novel as a last-minute addition to the group of volunteers and write an introduction for your character into the story. End the sequence at your arrival to Hill House and your character’s first impression on seeing it.
Consider preparing the following before you start writing: what is your character back-story and how will this have gotten you onto the doctor’s radar as a potential volunteer? What motivates you to accept the Call to Action?

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