by | Sep 25, 2016 | KJ Howe, The Writer's Life | 8 comments

by KJ Howe

The craft of writing is fascinating, at times unfathomable, but when writers hone their skills, the story shines through with no distractions.  Readers lose themselves in the fascinating web the writer spins, soaking in page after page in an alternate world.  Think of quality craft as freshly cleaned glass that showcases the scenery and action on the other side of a window.  And consider poor craft as smudges, cracks, and fingerprints all over that glass, distracting from what readers want to enjoy–your characters and story.

Given that the Rogue Women Writers write international thrillers, one of the key elements of craft is pacing.  The story must churn at an exciting pace that grabs readers.  When you drill down, what exactly does pacing mean?

*The rhythm or underlying beat of your story.
*The rate at which your novel unfolds–talented writers can manipulate time in readers’ minds.
*The way writers structure their novels to engage reader’s feelings, eliciting different emotions at different times.

Pacing is a nebulous concept that requires intuition and a keen sense of perception.  There is no surefire formula to determine the perfect pace.  A combination of a natural ear and plenty of practice at conveying what that nature ear “hears” is necessary in developing your writing voice.  And faster isn’t always better.  Vary the pace and give readers time to develop their emotional response.  Pacing is not measured in how many events you can cram into a novel.  Rather, it is measured in the reader’s emotional involvement in your characters.

If you’d like to analyze your pacing, try doing the following:

*Check the left margin of your text.  Do yo have a variety of paragraph lengths?  Is there enough white space or is the page smattered in ink?  If your narrative is too dense, break up paragraphs or add in dialogue.
*Be sure you don’t have repetitive sentence structures.  A quick way to breathe life into your story is to vary your sentences lengths.
*Read your novel out loud.  Does it sound slow, heavy, and overly description to your ear, or is the description so light that you aren’t sure where the characters are?  Adjust as necessary.

Once you decide whether you need to slow down or speed up your pace, you’re ready to tackle rewrites.

Slowing Down

Too many fast-paced scenes will leave your reader breathless, exhausted.  You need to build in breaks to create a different mood.  Transition readers to a calmer place so they can regroup for the next tense scene.

Another reason to slow down is to intensify the emotional impact of a scene.  Fight scenes are a great example.  Time dilates as the antagonist launches his first punch.  The actual moment before the punch isn’t longer or shorter than any other moment, but it seems to go on forever because your character is so focused on waiting for the impact.  This is the time to use your senses, including details about what your character is smelling, feeling, and tasting during these dramatic moments.  Milk every ounce of tension.  Need to slow things down?  Try these tips:

*Use longer sentences and paragraphs.
*Include a dash of passive tense.  Warning:  do not overdo.
*Focus on flow and rhythm, rather than speed.
*Add descriptions steeped in sensory input, rich in texture and sound.  Create a powerful setting where readers can lose themselves.
*Choose soft-sounding, mellow verbs like saunter, undulate, meander to create tranquility for the reader.
*Switch to a new viewpoint.  This slows the pacing because readers are faced with a new set of possibilities and a fresh situation through new eyes.

Creating Whiplash

Thrillers are known for their page-turning prose.  If you feel your novel needs a kick-start, here are a few techniques to try:

*Increase the amount of dialogue, as this creates white space on the page.
*Write lean, sparse prose.  Avoid adjectives, adverbs, and long sentences.  Short words convey tension.
*Add in harsh words to create a staccato rhythm.
*Use sentence fragments to create a sense of urgency. Focus on the mood you want to create.
*Give your character tunnel vision, shutting out everything but the imminent threat.

You can also increase the pacing of your novel through plot devices:  using red herrings to create false leads, supporting the main threat with a number of smaller threats that can be resolved, including a time constraint (two minutes to diffuse a bomb), increasing your protagonist’s obstacles, raising the stakes, killing off secondary characters.

Pacing issues are systemic, meaning they affect the entire book, so take your time and focus on fixing them.  Readers won’t continue turning pages if the pacing is off, whether too fast or too slow.  Too fast, and you lose emotional connectivity with the reader.  Too slow, and you might bore them, make them restless.  One of the best ways to develop an ear for pacing is to read voraciously with a keen eye as to your reaction to other books’ pacing.  Then internalize what you have learned and apply it to your book.

Talented author Lee Child shares the following advice on pacing:  make the fast parts slow and the slow parts fast.  Advice from a pro that we should all live by.  Thanks for joining us today.  Would love to hear how a book’s pacing affecting your impression of the read.

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  1. Gayle Lynds

    You've packed an incredible amount of first-rate advice into one post, KJ. Fabulous insight and practical ways to improve one's writing. Thank you!

  2. Karna Bodman

    What a terrific summary of writing points, K. J. Pacing is indeed so important, and your suggestion about reading the work out loud is always a great idea to see if the dialogue sounds "real" or "contrived." I am getting a good insight into your writing style from you new novel, THE FREEDOM BROKER — I was able to snag an advance copy…it's a great thriller, and I hope many other readers will pre-order this great story!

  3. KJ Howe

    Thanks for the kind words about the article, Gayle. I love studying the craft of writing, a lifelong journey.

  4. KJ Howe

    Thanks, Karna, so pleased you are enjoying THE FREEDOM BROKER. I'm going through final edits now, and I'm still learning a ton. Craft needs to be honed and honed. That's what I love about writing. We never stop learning.

  5. Beth

    Love this article. So many books have a few smudges and cracks. Practice in writing as well as reading are our biggest tools!! I love this line, KJ: Pacing is a nebulous concept that requires intuition and a keen sense of perception.

    Sometimes we forget there is an element of talent as well…and often, that's how the good ones rise to the top. Just an edge, the ability to see the story playing out–almost like a movie. 🙂

    Have a great week.

  6. rjh

    What a great collection of practical tips, delivered at break neck speed. Invaluable advice. The number one reason I loose interest in a book is that it is too slow. Pacing is so crucial to success.

  7. Jamie Freveletti

    Love these tips. The idea of leaving white space is a great way to explain it. I'll be using these!

  8. Chris Goff

    I just finished my revision for RED SKY, the second in my new thriller series and pacing was something I had to focus on. Making sure to start slow and build. Loved these tips, too. Thanks, K.J.