by Jodie Renner, editor & author
Readers of fiction often complain that a book didn’t keep their interest, that the characters, story and/or writing just didn’t grab them. Today’s readers have shorter attention spans and so many more books to choose from. Most of them/us don’t have the time or patience for the lengthy descriptive passages, long, convoluted “literary” sentences, detailed technical explanations, author asides, soap-boxing, or the leisurely pacing of fiction of 100 years ago.
Besides, with TV, movies, and the internet, we don’t need most of the detailed descriptions of locations anymore, unlike early readers who’d perhaps never left their town, and had very few visual images of other locales to draw on. Ditto with detailed technical explanations – if readers want to know more, they can just Google the topic.
While you don’t want your story barreling along at a break-neck speed all the way through – that would be exhausting for the reader – you do want the pace to be generally brisk enough to keep the readers’ interest. As Elmore Leonard said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
Here are some concrete techniques for accelerating your narrative style at strategic spots to create those tense, fast-paced scenes.
~ Condense setup and backstory.
To increase the pace and overall tension of your story, start by cutting way back on setup and backstory. Instead, open with your protagonist in an intriguing scene with someone important in his life or to the story, with action, dialogue, and tension. Then marble in only the juiciest bits of the character’s background in tantalizing hints as you go along, rather than interrupting the story for paragraphs or pages to fill us in on the character’s life — which effectively eliminates a lot of great opportunities to incite reader curiosity and add intrigue with little hints and enticing innuendos.
~ Include hints at questions, secrets, worries, fears, indecision, or inner turmoil to every scene.
This will keep readers curious and worried, so emotionally engaged and compelled to keep turning the pages.
~ In general, develop a more direct, lean writing style.
Be ruthless with the delete button so your message and the impact of your story won’t get lost in all the clutter of superfluous words and repetitive sentences. I cover lots of specific techniques with examples for cutting down on wordiness in my book, Fire up Your Fiction.
~ Rewrite, condense, or delete chapters and scenes that drag.
Do you have slow-moving “filler” scenes, with little or no tension or change? Reduce any essentials from the scene to a paragraph or two, or even just a few sentences, and include it in another scene.
~ Keep chapters and scenes short.
This will help sustain the readers’ interest and keep them turning the pages. James Patterson is a master at short chapters, and his followers seem to really like that. Especially effective for reluctant or busy readers.
~ Start each scene or chapter as late as possible, and end it as early as possible.
Don’t open your chapters with a lengthy lead-up. Every scene and chapter should start with some kind of question, conflict, or intrigue, to arouse the curiosity of the reader and make them compelled to keep reading. And don’t tie up the events in a nice, neat little bow at the end – that will just encourage the reader to close the book rather than to keep reading in anticipation. Instead, end in uncertainty or a new challenge.
~ Limit explaining – Show, don’t tell.
Keep descriptive passages, expository passages, and ruminations, reflections and analyses to a minimum. Critical scenes need to be “shown” in real time, to make them more immediate and compelling, rather than “telling” about them after the fact. Use lots of action, dialogue, reactions, and thoughts. And keep the narration firmly in the viewpoint character’s voice – it’s really his/her thoughts, observations, and reactions to what’s going on.
~ Use summary to get past the boring bits, or skip ahead for effect.
Summarize in a sentence or two a passage of time where nothing much happens, to transition quickly from one critical scene to the next: “Three days later, he was no further ahead.” Skip past all the humdrum details and transition info, like getting from one place to another, and jump straight to the next action scene.
~ Make sure every scene has enough conflict.
In fact, every page should have some tension, even if it’s questioning, mild disagreement, doubts, or resentments simmering under the surface. Remember that conflict and tension are what drive fiction forward and keep readers turning the pages.
~ Every scene needs a change of some kind.
No scene should be static. Throw a wrench in the works, make something unexpected happen. Add new characters, new information, new challenges, new dangers. And the events of the scenes should be changing your protagonist in some way. Change produces questions, anticipation, or anxiety — just what you need to keep reader interest.
~ Use cliff-hangers.
For fast pacing and more tension and intrigue, end most scenes and chapters with unresolved issues, with some kind of twist, revelation, story question, intrigue, challenge, setback or threat. Prolonging the outcome, putting the resolution off to another chapter piques the readers’ curiosity and makes them worry, which keeps them turning the pages.
~ Employ scene cuts or jump cuts.
Create a series of short, unresolved incidents that occur in rapid succession. Stop at a critical moment and jump to a different scene, often at a different time and place, with different characters – perhaps picking up from a scene you cut short earlier. Switch chapters or scenes quickly back and forth between your protagonist and antagonist(s), or from one dicey, uncertain situation to another. And of course, don’t resolve the conflict/problem before you switch to the next one.
~ Use shorter paragraphs and more white space.
Short paragraphs and frequent paragraphing create more white space. The eye moves down the page faster, so the mind does, too. This also increases the tension, which is always a good thing in fiction.
~ Use rapid-fire dialogue, with conflict, confrontations, power struggles, suspicion.
For tense scenes, use short questions, abrupt, oblique or evasive answers, incomplete sentences, one or two-word questions and responses, and little or no description, deliberation or reflection.
~ Use powerful sentences with concrete, sensory words that evoke emotional responses.
Utilize the strongest, most concrete word you can find for the situation. Avoid vague, wishy-washy or abstract words, and unfamiliar terms the reader may have to look up. Concentrate on evocative, to-the-point verbs and nouns, and cut way back on adjectives, adverbs and prepositions.
Also, take out all unnecessary, repetitive words and those wishy-washy, humdrum “filler” words and phrases. And use plenty of sensory details, emotional and physical reactions, and attitude. (For more on this, see Fire up Your Fiction.)
A well-disguised example from my editing:
Kristen fired him a dirty look, probably because he was doing this in piecemeal and not getting straight to the point as she would have liked him to. Her voice was terse. “Why not?”
Kristen fired him a dirty look as if to say, Cut to the chase. Her voice was terse. “Why not?”
Kristen fired him a dirty look. “Why not?”
~ Vary the sentence structure, and shorten sentences for effect at tense moments.
Shorter sentences give a pause, which catches the attention of the reader. At a critical moment, don’t run a bunch of significant ideas together in one long sentence, as they each will be diminished a bit, lost in among all the other ideas presented. You can also go to a new line for the same effect.
For a fast-paced, scary scene, use short, clipped sentences, as opposed to long, meandering, leisurely ones. Sentence fragments are very effective for increasing the tension and pace. Like this. It really works. Especially in dialogue.
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
Excellent tips all around, especially in today’s digital age where younger readers might be reading on their cell phones.
Thanks, Nancy. So many young people, especially males, are reluctant readers. We need to appeal to them to get them started on discovering the joys of fiction!
I love this summary of tips to enhance pace and tighter writing. I look at each scene to be a short story with the same craft care on its beginning, middle, and end. It needs to move the story by several plots points in order to remain. Foreshadowing what’s to come (or use of solid imagery to enhance character development) can give a sense of page turning pace too.
Thanks for your spot-on additional tips and commentary, Jordan! 🙂
I’m having he worst trouble reading this book club book. I think because one of the opening scenes is two characters discussing politics in a fantasy world I know nothing about yet, nor do I yet care. I keep putting it down or coming up with excuses not to read. :-p
Kessie, this was my complaint with “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Terrific whodunit but some editor needed to slap Larsen about the head and tell him to cut the first 50 pages of political throat-clearing.
Kessie, that’s the main reason I’m not in a book club – having to finish books that don’t grab me!
Kris, I couldn’t agree with you more about Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – it needed a serious edit, with lots of slashing in the first 100 pages!
Fortunately the (Swedish) film version benefited from some serious splicing and cutting!
Good to hear – I didn’t see that version.
Hey Jodie, if you don’t mind, can I use some of your tips (attributed of course!) in my upcoming workshop? Pacing is so important and you’ve hit the main points well here. Also, you advise: Limit explaining – Show, don’t tell. My post tomorrow is devoted to explaining just what this means with before and after samples.
Sure, that’ll be fine, Kris. I’d love it if you could mention my book, Fire up Your Fiction, too – it’s full of great advice on this, with lots of examples to illustrate each point!
Definitely will mention your books and blogs. Am putting together a handout for my students or sources.
Great! Thanks! And I’m sure they’ll learn a lot and gain a lot of inspiration from your talk, Kris! 🙂
Plenty of good tips for writers, who HAVE to remember that readers aren’t inclined or even capable of reading long, meandering stories. It’s not like it was 180 years ago, when there was little else to do. Can you imagine the response to a query for a book that was popular mid-019th century. “Mr. Dickens: You’re manuscript left us perplexed. You say it was both the best of times and the worst? How could that be? Consider removing the “worst” parts. Readers prefer the happier stuff, and you’ll shorten the mss to manageable levels.”
John, as I advise in my books, for most of today’s readers, just cut to the chase! (Most of the time.)
John–your comment is spot-on. “Consider removing the ‘worst’ parts,” Mr. Dickens. Readers are turned off by too much to think about. That’s because only those readers who have been exposed to great novels from the past are going to be interested in more thoughtful writing of today. And there are fewer and fewer such readers. The model put forward in Jodie’s post is essentially based on video values, not those of print. If the “cut to the chase” mantra is good advice for most pop-fiction writers–and I’m sure it is–it is also a prescription for dumbing down literature. Is there a point at which it becomes foolish for writers to tailor what they write in order to compete with video games, YouTube and streaming video, etc? I think the answer is yes.
Barry, it’s an unfortunate fact that compared to Dickens’ day, readers of today have so many more demands on their time, so many more enticements for their attention, and if we want young readers to read fiction, we need to find ways to appeal to them. Even most adult readers are busier today than every before in history, and generally exhausted at the end of the day, so when it comes to relaxation reading, they/we prefer to be entertained, I think, rather than to work too hard at it. If we want to exercise our brains, we can always turn to nonfiction. But that’s just my take on it, and what I pick up on observing the reading habits of young people and busy/stretched parents of young families.
Great summary. The only thing I would add is a fascinating main character that we meet right away.
Yes, that is absolutely essential, Brian, and I actually had that point in, but I took it out as I thought it didn’t really relate to pacing — but I suppose it does!
Every time you post an amazing piece like this I worry you may be dissuading people from buying your excellent craft books. Then I remember these craft books, having read all of them, and my mind rests because these posts are just the tip of the iceberg. The books are must have, evergreen references for any writer. Thanks, Jodie!
Thanks so much, A.M.! I loved working on your intriguing international thriller, Terminal Rage! Now get back to work on your next thriller! The world is waiting! 🙂
I am printing this bad boy out right now and taping it to the wall. What I love about these tips is you can apply them to your writing RIGHT NOW and see instant results.
Not all writing fixes have to be instantaneous, of course, but sometimes when you’re editing and it feels hopeless, it helps to be able to do things that have an immediate impact.
Thanks for the great tips! I always look forward to your posts.
By any chance, are you planning on publishing another book on editing? My copies of your other two books are lonely…
Thanks for your kind words, Elizabeth. I’m so glad you find my biweekly tips helpful!
And yes, I’ve had my third book about three-quarters written for months and put it on hold for my big cross-country move. Must get back to it and put it out there! Thanks for the reminder!
Oh – forgot to mention, Elizabeth – the title of my third book is CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS.
Thanks! I found this blog while at The Passive Voice a couple of weeks ago. Downloaded your samples and waited until payday. So glad to see you’re in Prime. (FL gets taxed now because of the Tampa facility. I prefer paper for research.) The points you make are excellent. 😉
Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Aithne! 🙂
Great post especially as I am just about to edit one of my ms and focusing on pacing!!!
So glad you find my tips helpful and the timing works for you, Clare!
Love these awesome tips. In my last round of edits I was able to condense three different scenes down to one. I didn’t miss a single word!
By the way, my son’s teacher had them read the super, duper condensed version of Moby Dick and my son actually liked it. The size of that classic intimidated me but I think I’m up for the streamlined version!
Thanks for your comments, Julie. Readers at the time Moby Dick was first published didn’t have movies, TV, or the internet to distract them, nor a lot of other books waiting to be read, so they loved a long read. Many of today’s readers consider a long tome to be a daunting responsibility, and they just don’t want to give that much of a time commitment to one book. And who needs all those long descriptions anymore, anyway? We get it!
I agree with every one of your points. What I’m trying to figure out is why The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer, and is STILL on the bestseller list. I’m 1/4 of the way through, and will finish one of these days, as it’s a perfectly fine story.
BUT, it is unspeakably verbose. Every time somebody looks out the freaking window you have to prepare yourself for several paragraphs of poetry about the plants, sky, who knows what.
I haven’t read The Goldfinch, John, but I can tell it wouldn’t be my kind of story, and probably wouldn’t appeal to many or most busy readers today, especially young people. I don’t tend to read or edit literary fiction, but I’m sure there’s a readership for it. My tips are more for producing mainstream, popular fiction, of the bestseller type. I specialize in editing thrillers, romantic suspense, suspenseful mysteries, and other fast-paced fiction – which are all very popular for people like me who just want to be entertained at the end of a long, busy day.
Great post Jodie, thank you (late to the party, life’s been crazy!). I think I definitely exhausted some of my readers with the pace of the first novel in my supernatural thriller series. There were comments like ‘getting giddy and breathless’ because things were so fast. I toned things down a bit in the next books and I think my readers like it better this way.
Thanks for taking a moment in your busy life to drop by and read my post and even leave a comment, AD! Yes, varying the pace is the best technique. If it’s all at break-neck speed, we just get numb – and exhausted!
Great tips. Shared at https://danielfbowman.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/pick-up-the-pace-for-a-real-page-turner/