8 Key Ways to Edit Suspense & Pace into Your Finished Manuscript

Jordan Dane

If you’ve made it through your first draft of a novel and want to edit for suspense and pace to give your book a page-turner feel, below are questions to ask yourself.
1.) Did you begin your story at the right point? Opening in the middle of action is an attention getter, but don’t spoil it with excessive back story. You can also add an element of mystery or intrigue to your opener that will draw readers in if action doesn’t exactly fit your story, but remember that less is more. You’ll always have the opportunity to weave in back story if it’s necessary as the story progresses. It might be helpful to ask yourself if the start of your book is the last possible moment before your main character’s life is changed. Change is an excellent starting point. I sometimes start the story where I think it should, then consider adding either an inciting incident by way of Prologue or a standalone jumpstart to the story that precedes where I began.
2.) Have you picked the right setting for your story? I love an evocative atmosphere or setting that adds intrigue to stories. A plot set in West Texas would have a different tone than one set in New York City, for example. Pick which might make your novel work best and do your research. If your book feels flat after it’s written, it may not be an easy fix to move the story setting, but it can make a big difference and really enhance your book.
3.) Are your subplots helping or hurting you? Subplots can be used like good harmony when it comes to ramping up the stakes. A cold case murder mystery can add a smoldering element of suspense that builds and can add unexpected twists at the end. And while the main plot is slowing down to give the reader a breather, a subplot can be just the right element to infuse a page turning feel. Subplots can also feed off the energy building in the main plot to give a rush to the reader. So be the maestro of your own orchestra of tension.
4.) Do you have flashbacks that work or drag down the pace? Flashbacks can be tricky. We’ve all read books where flashbacks drive the novel and do it effectively, but make sure yours have a purpose and build on the tension of the main plot going forward. Flashbacks aren’t just another way to sneak in back story. Give the reader insight into the main plot with an effective and brief look into the motivation of the characters, if the flashbacks are necessary.
5.) What is your black moment, when does it occur, and does it create a major reversal or dark moment for your characters to deal with? Whether you’re writing action blockbuster movie-type books or family dramas, black moments (where all seems lost) are vital for an emotional story. If you write the black moment too soon, you have a long way to go toward the end that can slow the pace. I tend to write mine midway or 3/4 through, depending on the plot. It’s also important to make sure the dark moment itself is a twist or your protagonist learns something major that he/she figures out to turn the tide in their favor. The darker the moment, the bigger the triumph.
6.) Do you use foreshadowing to your advantage or is it a detriment that deflates your tension? The right balance of foreshadowing can add a sense of pace to your story. It can propel your storyline from scene to scene, but too much can burst the bubble of any mystery and telegraph your punches. Sometimes I look at my scene endings and see if I can stop them sooner at a more critical suspense moment. Or I split up an action scene at the bottom of a chapter and carry it over to the top of the next chapter. This simple idea of splitting scenes or cutting them off at a more appropriate spot can add a sense of pace, without any major rewrites.
7.) Have you been patient enough to hold back your twists and vital information that can kick start an exciting ending? It is really hard to be patient when it comes toward the end of your book. But holding off for the big reveal for as long as possible, can save an ending. Savor the clues too and reveal them at the last possible moment. Readers will appreciate it.
8.) Are your stakes high enough? Don’t be afraid to punish your characters for failure. That’s your job as an author, to raise the stakes and abuse your characters because they can take it. They have a starring role in your book for a reason. Let them show their stuff.
Please share your tricks of the trade on adding suspense and tension to your first draft. What would you add to this list? What’s worked for you?

23 thoughts on “8 Key Ways to Edit Suspense & Pace into Your Finished Manuscript

  1. Great tips, Jordan. I especially endorse #1. I’ve heard many agents and editors say the biggest fault of new writers is they start the story in the wrong place. And Kurt Vonnegut’s rule #5 for creative writing says it all: “Start as close to the end as possible.”

  2. I love this post, Jordan. So much good stuff. I’ve noticed with my first three books that it was difficult to find my balance. My publisher wanted me to stick to about 75,000 words. I didn’t think this would be as hard as it was, but I had so much more to say. It was a test of developing a novel that seemed suspenseful but not rushed, if that makes sense. And I love subplots which made it even harder to wrap things up. I’m happy about how they turned out for the most part, but still miss the 26,000 words they cut from book one. I know a little bit more now about how I write and will take all that with me into my next novel. I guess that’s what learning curves are all about.

    • Subplots add word count. If you’re targeting 75, 000 words, that would be the first are to minimize or tighten. But I would hate cutting out 26, 000 words arbitrarily too, Jillian. I feel your pain. My scenes usually contain 1-3 plot points to move the story. To cut scenes would kill me. It’s better to go into a book targeting 75, 000 words and add to it, than it would be to cut it after. But yes, you’ve learned a lot, I’m sure. Wow.

  3. Good tips all. Especially the first one. It’s a variation on the advice: “Get into a scene as late as possible and get out of a scene as early as possible.”

    I am doing a MS critique right now and the writer starts an early chapter with a cop getting a phone call to go to a murder scene. We have to endure the call, the guy getting out of bed, thinking about what he might see before we actually get there. I suggested the writer start with the cop looking down at the body. (She could always drop a line or two thinking BACK on the morning if she needs it.)

    One of the worst mistakes we can make (and even us veterans do it) is “throat-clearing.” Gotta get to the point of your scene and keep the suspense going!

    • Thanks, Kris. I’ve heard that referred to as ELLE- Enter late, leave early. The mind fills in the gap of plot movement without the words of a mire linear plot. The TV show Law & Order is a great example of ELLE.

  4. When I signed with an agent, she terrified me by suggesting that I revise the first chapter to start later in the story. After a brief panic, I rewrote the opening. And yes, it worked much better!

  5. Great advice!! The “Black Moment” is especially important, I think. It goes back at least as far as all those Greek mythological heroes who must journey through the underworld.

    • Hi Sechin. That’s a plot template called the Hero’s Journey. On my website at JordanDane.com, I also have a FOR WRITERS resource page that has the 9-act screenplay summary, the one used for many action blockbuster movies. It’s good to be aware of structure, but beginning authors must be cautious of stories becoming formulaic.

      Thanks for your comment. I can’t wait to read your next book.

  6. Excellent advice! #1 is something I know well, yet seem to ignore in every first draft. I “start at the very beginning” and only in the rewrite do I recognize there’s a much better place to start. lol!

    • That’s what rewrites are for. The fact that you realize the problem & know how to fix it, that’s the real gem. Good for you, Carol.

  7. All great tips, thanks. I HATE flashbacks! Every beginner’s book or contest entry I read has flashbacks that stop the forward momentum dead. It doesn’t matter if they are witty or entertaining. The material required can be lightly inserted into dialogue instead. Keep the story moving forward.

    That said, I need to take heed of your advice to start the story in the right place and cut the first few pages of my unsold mystery. The heroine finds a body on page three, but until the police arrive, her only dialogue is with herself. I’m thinking of starting the new scene with the detective’s interview.

    • Flashbacks are really tricky. I used them in my first YA ( In the Arns of Stone Angels) to shed light on how my teen girl fell in love with the boy she reported as the killer AND layer in clues to the cold case murder mystery. But too many slow pace for sure.

      Start with the body. Then pick a POV. Sounds good.

  8. http://www.storyfix.com
    Get Larry’s book on Story Structure. seriously. I’ve read a LOT of big name writers who suffer from hit and MISS due to either ignorance of structure or they’re in denial of it.

    great stories observe the structure whether or not they were conscious of it–and stories that get hung up, don’t get started..are DULL, not compelling, don’t make sense–suffer from breaking the story structure physics.

  9. I was a professional writer for more than 20 years in newspapers and magazines. Now I write for pleasure, but plan for more adventurous fiction and non-fiction writing when I retire from my day job in the coming year. All the points you make will be very useful. I will be adding KillZone to my blog list.

  10. Congratulations, George, on your upcoming retirement. Keep in touch. We’d love to know your progress. TKZ is a great community.

Comments are closed.