As an author, I have endless thoughts on the writing process. If I’m not writing, I’m probably thinking about writing, and after the majority of feedback on my novel, Merona Grant and the Lost Tomb of Golgotha, praised the story for being well paced, hardly ever dragging at nearly 100k words, I was surprised at the praise, and thought it might be helpful to start sharing some of my thoughts, tips, and tricks on writing which I’ve learned along my author journey.
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The Art of Pacing Your Novel
Pacing a novel is a tricky thing. There are many techniques to getting it just right, and many ways it can go wrong. Lots of advice tells writers to cut, cut, cut, but if a story is hacked to its bare minimum just to pick up the pace, it can often leave things feeling rushed and underdeveloped.
On the reverse side, bogging a story down in too much detail will slow things to a crawl, running the risk of leaving your reader so bored they lose all interest in ever picking the book up again.
So how do you keep those pages turning, while still leaving time to rest and get to know the world and characters you’ve worked so hard to build?
First up are my 5 Tips for Picking up the Pace. If you find yourself having problems with keeping things moving along at a good speed in your story, these tips might be just what you need.
#1: Short Chapters
This might be a tip you’ve heard before, and perhaps chosen to ignore, but the benefits of shorter chapters, in my mind, far outweigh the disadvantages.
Yes, some writers and readers do like longer, meaty chapters, and for them it would be easy enough to read one, two, or three short chapters in a row to satisfy their reading needs, but for those that don’t, long chapters will only serve to exhaust them, or discourage them from even starting a new chapter if they know life’s hectic demands won’t give them time to finish in one short sitting.
Try to find a balance between too long and too short, so that the reader has time to get invested, but is always left wanting more. My chapters tend to run somewhere between 1k minimum and around 4k maximum, but only if needed. Find the balance that works for you, if you like longer chapters, try to keep them as short as you can stand to cater to the majority of readers with limited time or attention spans.
Cliffhangers are a tried and true method of leaving your reader wanting more, and I’ve absolutely utilized them, but be careful to do it in the right way.
Contriving a cliffhanger by tacking on a door creeping open, or a sound of footsteps at the end of your chapter, only for it to be nothing more than a friend stopping by to say hello, will likely leave your reader disappointed, or even irritated.
I’d suggest taking an already exciting scene that builds to an exciting event, and breaking it in the middle or at the start of the action to increase tension. This should rarely leave your reader disappointed, because you’ve already completed the scene to a satisfactory and exciting conclusion.
The villain drawing a knife is the start of an action scene, and allowing your chapter to end just before the action picks up will definitely get your reader turning the page.
My only other warning is not to overuse cliffhangers. Like all good tricks, they can be overdone, and if every chapter is ending on a cliffhanger, your reader is going to quickly get cliffhanger fatigue to the point they might put the book down anyway. You don’t want to force them to keep reading, you want to invite them to keep reading.
Keeping your cliffhangers limited to under 50% of chapters is probably a good rule of thumb.
Another tip for using cliffhangers more effectively is to space them out more at the start of your book, adding more as the story goes along and the action picks up, then packing them tighter together for your denouement. If your cliffhangers are picking up in frequency as the plot progresses, this will create an ever-growing sense of urgency to the story.
#3: Chapter Titles with a Hook
If you only number your chapters you might be missing out on a key way to get those pages turning.
A chapter title with an exciting pull, the promise of action, the setup of mystery or a looming threat, are all good things to aim for when titling your chapter.
Even the name of a key character we’ve been hearing about but have yet to meet can have the same draw. The story has already set the stage and built anticipation for the impending encounter, and as soon as a reader sees that chapter title, they will struggle to resist the urge to keep reading. Just be sure the next chapter pays off the promise your title just made.
Of course, be careful that your chapter titles aren’t turning into spoilers. You want the reader to think they know what is going to happen next, but surprise them with how you handle it, or turn things on their head without being disingenuous.
Of course, chapter titles aren’t always easy to come up with, and that might be why some writers choose to avoid them, but who ever said writing was easy? Challenge yourself to start titling your chapters with something that hooks, because you just might be missing out on a great way to draw your reader forward.
#4: Multi-purpose Scenes
Every scene in your story should be achieving something:
- Moving the plot forward
- Developing characters
- Foreshadowing a coming event
- Building the world
- Heightening the stakes
But if you can make your scenes accomplish two, or three, or even four things at a time, that will help even a long story feel packed full, exciting, and fast-paced. Every page will have so much going on, the reader should rarely, if ever, feel bored.
An action sequence, for example, can and should be so much more than just exciting, explosive entertainment. It can develop characters by showing their fighting styles, bravery or cowardice in the face of danger, while also growing relationships or character bonds through adversity, or heightening the stakes with a major setback.
A dialogue-heavy scene can build or establish character dynamics and motivations, while also forwarding the plot.
If the scene is only doing one thing at a time, is it really doing its job?
Look at every scene carefully to make sure it’s doing all it can for your story, and if you can combine the foreshadowing from one scene to be part of another plot or character-driven event, don’t hesitate to do it.
#5: Skip the Filler
If your character is hiking a mountain for hours, or awaiting a call that doesn’t come for a week, or your detective’s case goes cold for months, these are all good places to utilize a jump in time to maintain the tension your character is feeling, without bogging the story down in days of filler. Jump into a scene and let the reader know it’s been hours, days, or weeks and the characters are growing anxious before the story picks up again with the next significant event.
As with everything, though, be sure not to overuse this trick, as it can result in a massive loss in urgency for your story and leave your reader wondering why everyone keeps sitting on their hands and doing seemingly nothing for weeks at a time.
Try to be pointed and particular in the chunks of time you skip, using it for specific plotting purposes only and, if possible, find ways to cut out the weeks of filler altogether. It’s fiction, it’s okay if your character’s day to day is a little more interesting than us ordinary mortals.
Now, even though all these tips for picking up the pace in your story are important to keep in mind, you still need to slow down sometimes, and it’s important to know how and when to do that. Here are my final 3 Tips for Slowing the Pace.
#1: Don’t Rush the Important Stuff
This seems an obvious statement to make, but a lot of stories can tend to rush through integral moments. One of the biggest ways a story can feel rushed, is if important events are summarized, or hurried through. If something is filler, summarize by all means, but try never to do this with plot or character relevant events.
Even if the events are happening one after another at a breakneck speed, you can still slow the pace by going into extra detail when and where it matters.
Only you as a writer can know what events are most paramount to your story, so be sure to give every plot point its due consideration for how it will affect your story and its characters.
#2: Clear Motivations
If there is one important thing that should never be rushed, it is the motivation behind your character’s actions. Your character should be driving the story, and though it might seem obvious that your hero would join the fight against the aliens, because it’s the right thing to do, the reader still needs to know their personal motivation for making such a life-altering choice, especially if they’ve shown reluctance to do so before this point.
Pausing to let your character get a little introspective will give them depth and help readers relate to and understand them, which, in the end, might be the only reason your reader keeps reading.
#3: Slow Down, like a Roller-Coaster
When you hear that a story was a roller-coaster ride, it automatically sounds like it was fast, exhilarating, non-stop excitement, but all roller-coasters have slow, nerve-racking climbs before the drop, and if you want each thrilling fall to have more impact, you want to slow down a bit to properly build to that climax.
If your story is a suspense or relies on a lot of tension, then you are going to need to hold back on the shock moments. Tension can’t be built if endless action or jumps are being thrown at the audience, so if you want to push your reader to the edge of their seat, you are going to have to hold off on the startling moments.
Find the exciting drops in your roller-coaster ride of a story and slow down a bit to build suspense or intrigue during each climb to them. You want to build toward the action; even if they are a surprise to the reader, there should be some foreshadowing to properly set them up.
To conclude, my final tip for pacing your novel, is to…
Know Your Genre
Every genre has an expected pacing, some are faster, and action driven, some slower and more character/emotion driven. Your readers will have expectations and preferences that made them choose this particular book in its particular genre, so try not to disappoint the promise your genre makes. Go too fast in a romance and your readers might feel cheated out of the slow burn they were hoping for. Go too slow in a thriller, and it will probably get your book labeled “boring” before it’s tossed aside and never finished.
Study the pacing of classic, popular, or favorite movies and books in your genre, so you know the kind of speed that is expected by your readers.
Of course there are many more things that go into finding the right pacing for your story, but these are just a few tricks that have helped me in my own writing, so I hope these tips helped give you some ideas to think about when writing and pacing your own novels, as well as ways to improve the things you might be struggling with.