I’m sure you’ve “been there…done that.” You’re reading a novel that seemed interesting, but somewhere around the middle it began to drag. When a short story, novella, or novel slows down and then sputters to a halt—readers lose interest and often fail to continue reading. Literary agents and acquiring editors for publishing firms are even more likely to put a story aside and send a canned rejection, without ever seeing the wonderful writing that follows. But intensifying the pace of a scene, or an entire story, is often an easy thing to do if you know how.
Regardless of the genre in which you’re writing, it’s first helpful to break down the chore of creating an effective pace for your story into three steps: Planning (before you start to write), Writing, and Revising. Here is a summary of some of the best tips I know, which I shared with my students at The Writer’s Center in the Washington, DC area this past Saturday. Some tips may initially seem unrelated to the structure and pace of a story—but they all have an effect on how the reader views the progress of the story. You probably won’t use all of them, but I hope you’ll find at least a few that will help you pick up the pace in your stories, and hold your readers’ interest to The End.
The Planning Stage:
1) Before starting to write, determine the genre, sub-genre, mood and style of your story. In short, know what you’re writing. It’s not just a story.
2) Give yourself a target word length, or at least a range. (For a novel, 80,000 words is a safe range in today’s publishing world.)
3) If you are a “plotter,” review your plot outline (synopsis) for key climax scenes. If you are a “pantser,” remember that you will need to include these dramatic high moments throughout your story. Don’t just save all the drama for a big splashy scene near the end.
4) Determine your launch pad. Where should the story start? (An active, visual scene at a moment that establishes the central conflict is always a good choice.)
5) Choose “movers & shakers” for characters. (i.e., those who are most involved, not mere onlookers or an inactive narrator)
- Avoid repetition like the plague. (Words, phrases, incidents, dialogue…must be varied.) Do a “Find” to search for overused words and phrases. Cut and tighten your prose.
- Move the plot toward resolution in virtually every scene. Throw out scenes that fail to build toward the final climax scenes.
- Dual-purpose your scenes whenever you can. If you are writing a scene for the purpose of character development, or to show setting detail, allow your characters to continue interacting throughout. Never stop the action to deliver information.
- Minimize or simplify dialogue tags. (Use “said,” action, or speech-style to identify speakers if possible, rather than relying on colorful tags like ‘he pontificated’, ‘she wailed miserably’, ‘Gerald muttered worriedly’.)
- Make the most of emotion. Readers are more forgiving of a slowly developing plot if emotion and tension constantly tug at the characters…and therefore, at the reader.
- Add a ticking clock. (How many minutes before the train crashes, the bomb goes off, or the business deal becomes irreversible?)
- Let the characters fail—then try, try, try again.
- Plant surprises, secrets, and unexpected twists. You’ll never bore your readers.
- Hold back information…but not too long.
- Search out any word usage that interrupts the flow of reading.
- Look for overly detailed setting descriptions that stop the story’s progress.
- Notice any scenes that are too similar, and cut them.
- Delete empty scenes—the trip across town, a chat over tea that reveals nothing new.
- Clean out clutter words/phrases (going to, starting to, thought about, to-be forms, would, etc.)
- Remove your travelogues! Reserve for your holiday newsletter.
- Does your plot move forward in a cause & effect pattern? It should.
- Is what happens logical/believable, given the fictional world you’ve created?
- Make sure your characters recognize the cost for failing or succeeding.
First-aid for Submissions (Because pacing may be the reason for rejections):
If an agent or publisher likes some elements of your story but ultimately rejects it, the reason might be a weak opening or dismal pacing. Try giving your manuscript a fresh eye. Ask yourself:
- Do you deliver a hook that can’t be ignored on the first pages?
- Does the story begin with an active, vivid scene?
- Have you moved all backstory from the opening to the middle of the story?
- How far into the book is the Central Conflict revealed? Can you move it up to the first chapter? The first two pages? To page 1? Is the conflict important enough to carry the whole story?
- ake things worse for your characters, and/or make those challenging events happen at closer intervals.
Whatever form of fiction you are writing, constantly look for ways to keep the pacing brisk. This is what makes readers keep turning pages.
If you’re curious as to how this works…here are two of my novels that, hopefully, will give you a sense of brisk pacing, even though they are historical fiction, which is generally thought of as a more leisurely paced type of novel. Above all…enjoy your writing time! Kathryn
The Wild Princess: A Novel of Queen Victoria’s Daughters https://www.amazon.com/dp/B007679UQA/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1#nav-subnav
Alicia Street is a USA TODAY bestselling author and Daphne Award-winner often writing in collaboration with her husband, Roy, as well as on solo projects. She spent many years as a dancer, choreographer and teacher. A compulsive reader of every genre, she also loves watching old black-and-white movies and inventing new recipes for soups.