Pace Yourselves

I was watching a movie the other night that should have been great, but the pacing was so slow I hit the pause button. “This movie is making me want to drink.”

The Bride raised an eyebrow. “You have a gin and tonic in your hand right now.”

“I need another one to stay awake.”

“No, you need a break to get up, and while you’re there, pour me a glass of wine, please. Let’s finish this tomorrow.”

She was absolutely right, and we did. Despite two of my favorite actors, what should have been a good movie was damaged because so many useless scenes should have been left on the cutting room floor.

I know this blog is about writing, but someone wrote that script that became a movie. Now I know how hard it is to write a screenplay. I wrote one myself that’s under consideration (read “it’ll never be filmed” here), and it was one of the hardest projects I’ve ever undertaken. That’s because I distilled my first 350-page novel, The Rock Hole, down into 130 narrow pages. The industry standard has been 120 pages, but I simply couldn’t tighten it up any more without losing the essence of the novel. One thing I did though was to maintain the pace, which brings us to what is essential in a novel.

Let me repeat that, pacing, which is the process of discovery.

Pacing is the speed at which a story unfolds, the rhythm and flow. Consider a roller coaster. There are times the train moves slow, the rise to the crest of the ride, and then the fall of plot points and events which should be fast enough to keep us turning the pages until we  rise again in anticipation of the next drop and ultimately, the final rush into the climax.

In other words, it’s how fast your story unfolds to the reader.

Let’s jump back to movies for a moment and look at two films about the same subject that released within months of each other, Tombstone, directed by its star Kurt Russell, and Wyatt Earp, directed by its star Kevin Costner.

Both are about the Earp brothers and the ultimate shootout at the O.K. Corral, but their pacing is dramatically different. Tombstone moves fast. Even what might be considered a slow scene passes quickly because of either action or humor, or a combination of both.

In Costner’s three and a half our hour film, Wyatt Earp, we find a movie dedicated to history and character development. He emphasizes Wyatt’s younger years and tells us how he eventually became the man he was, and the drive that sent him to Tombstone…

…and in the movie of the same name that lasts two hours and fifteen minutes, Kurt Russell utilizes a rule all authors should learn, show, don’t tell. He doesn’t give us half an hour of slow moving angst and backstory, he picks up the action almost at the outset and takes us for a satisfying roller coaster ride.

An interesting point is that the original Tombstone screenplay was so long it could have been a limited miniseries, but Russell understands what viewers want in a theatrical release and left huge chunks of already-filmed dialogue and character development on the floor.

It’s the same thing John Wayne learned from his legendary mentor, John Ford.

Keep it moving.

Tombstone works because he shows us instead of telling us, and unfolds the story with efficiency and a measured tempo. He keeps it moving.

How about another example, this time between mysteries and thrillers? A mystery usually advances with slower steps. We don’t know who the bad guy or killer is, so we follow the clues as the protagonist unravels a tangled web of suspects or motives until the end where it is all revealed. It’s a detailed process that some revel in, while other readers aren’t that detail oriented.

Thrillers are like that aforementioned roller coaster ride. We usually know who the bad guy is near the outset of the story, but we hang on for the ride until the end and justice (hopefully) prevails.

In my opinion, there are a couple of musts that have to be included in a well-written novel and of course one is tempo. Each chapter must push the story forward (pacing again), but it must have enough elements to keep the reader engaged. If you lose a reader because the story moves to slow, you’ll likely lost them before the end.

And things have to move , maybe not at hyper speed, but enough keep a reader interested. One of my favorite methods of driving the story forward and keeping someone turning the page is the use of short chapters. I grew up reading chapters that took days to push through, and often lost my place when I had to put the book down, or because there was wayyyy too much included in that one chapter (read Costner’s Wyatt Earp here again).

I love short, quick chapters and use them to effect. Then, as the action speeds up in the third act, I’ll shorten them even more, sometimes to only a page. This leaves the reader’s heart pounding, breathless (we hope) and ready to move on to the next chapter to see what happens next.

Consider this, many people like to read a night in bed. Slow, ponderous chapters and pacing will keep their interest until the Sandman comes in and throws his grains around, but short chapters will make the reader flip ahead and think, “Hey, this next one’s short. I can read another.”

Then another.


Short chapter.

How fast did you hit those three extremely short chapters above?

Now we have velocity and the reader stops checking the length of those chapters, caught up in the story’s drive and pushes ahead. “I can finish this before I go to sleep.”

Do you want your fans to mark their place, put that book on the nightstand and turn out the light, or create a fast-paced novel that drives them to stay up until one in the morning because they can’t put it down?

Here’s my answer. I’ll watch Tombstone every time it’s on, and to the end, because it’s engaging. I simply can’t watch much more of Wyatt Earp other than the shootout at the corral. Why? Because. It. Moves. Slow.

So pace yourselves.


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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

29 thoughts on “Pace Yourselves

  1. I went to a workshop on pacing once, and the author/presenter said she’d dug through numerous craft books and pacing either wasn’t mentioned, or had only a few pages dedicated to the topic. So thanks for this lesson.
    An editor once told me, when she’d asked for a submission, to watch the pacing, and she said she could tell by looking at the balance between dialogue and narrative if pacing was going to be a problem.
    Lee Child said, “Write the slow parts fast and the fast parts slow.”
    In my current wip, which is another of my international mystery/suspense/romances, I have to keep reminding myself to keep it from being a travelogue. Sure, the characters are going to pay attention to the setting, which is new to them, but something still has to happen to move the story along.

    • I’ve been to workshops like that. Sigh.
      Child is right, but I seldom have to think about those parts. However, in the most recent manuscript I sent to my agent, I cut out an entire chapter because I got too idea by, and not the character. That’s was fine though, I got it off my chest.


  2. Pacing is difficult to get right. I’m still learning, so thank you for the clear, concise, well-paced outline.

    Definitely, I agree with reading short chapters. I do most of my fiction reading at bedtime. If a chapter is more than 12 pages, I’ll probably fall asleep before finishing it.

  3. Thanks, Rev. There is another benefit to short chapters. Like it or not, attention spans seem to be shorter these days. The reason(s) for this can be discussed and debated at another time in another place, but keeping the bites of a novel shorter for a growing section of the reading population make it easier to digest.

    • That’s right. At least we can maintain grammar and spelling right now, unlike what I’m seeing in other formats. We’ll have to discuss the downfall of literacy and attention spans over drinks soon.

  4. A craft book I read early on said, “Get the motor running in the first three pages.”

    That might have been good advice in the 1980s. Now it should be “the first three paragraphs” or maybe even better “The first three lines.”

    • You’re so right. Read Michener, and nothing happens for days. I like the old style of writing, but always enjoy jumping into the story if it’s a thriller. I hope we never go back to the 1970s and 80s where so many books opened with prologues that were nothing more than a late chapter moved to the front of the book. That’s lazy writing.

  5. Great post, Rev. Good advice. On pacing, I’m still learning to “Write the slow parts fast and the fast parts slow.” Those “slow parts” do help us bond reader and character, and there are genre differences of reader expectation.

    On short chapters, I agree. They keep the reader turning pages, reading another chapter, and staying up past their “sleep time.” (Someone should quantitate that time and use it as a measure of how well we are engaging the reader.) A few cliffhangers sprinkled in at the end of those short chapters can also help.

    Have a “slow” enjoyable weekend without any “fast” chaos.

    • I think that no matter how many books we’ve published or how much we’ve written, we still learn from one work to the next. Writers also fall into bad habits that need to be addressed.

      We have keep our readers interested no matter what.

  6. Pacing is one of my favorite things, as a reader/viewer and as a writer. I’m with you on “Tombstone.” A number of people urged me to see it when they learned I liked westerns and hadn’t seen it, years after its release. So I did. I’ve heard little good about “Wyatt Earp,” so didn’t bother, taking the hint 🙂

    Shorter chapters are a great pacing device, as are shorter scenes, paragraphs, and even sentences. You’re right, too, about mystery vs thriller. I’m finding pacing tricker in writing mysteries than I did in my modern fantasy-thrillers.

    Thanks for a great post on a near-and-dear to my heart topic. Have a fine Saturday!

    • You’re welcome, Dale. it’s all about moving the story forward whether by using smaller sentences or chapters. These are the things I had to learn on my own. Have a great weekend.

  7. Such an important topic, Rev. I favor short chapters, as a reader and a writer. The Kindle makes long chapters more apparent with its “__ minutes left in this chapter” notation. My favorite compliments are readers who tell me I’m responsible for keeping them up till 1:30-2 a.m. I just had a reader post that on my Facebook. She blew through one series and started the next, all the while blaming me for her sleepless nights. LOL

    • Isn’t that great to hear? Since my most recent novel came out this week I’ve had a number of folks write to tell me they read it straight through, or finished in two days. One fan said he started at 1:00 in the afternoon and finished after midnight. What a great feeling, and pacing has a lot to do with it.

  8. Excellent post. Pacing is super hard to pin down, probably even harder than theme.

    One workshop I went to, the presenter emphasized try/fail cycles. You can increase the pace, but yet have little actually revealed, if the character is actively trying to solve the problem and failing instead of passively waiting for things to happen. That’s a problem I find in my critique group, and even in my early drafts. Characters just wait for things to happen, they just happen to hear the important information, they ease into a conversation to learn a juicy bit of information. Make choices. Even if that choices is to not move away from the important conversation.

    As for the short chapter thing, I get nervous when my chapters reach page 12 and super anxious if they reach page 15.

    • Honestly, I’ve never counted the pages in my chapters. I’m afraid if what I might discover. My characters drive the story, especially my protagonists who are always poking the bear. Thanks for commenting!

  9. I read a lot of old pulp paperbacks and those guys sure knew how to keep you turning pages. Never a dull moment because, I would argue, publishers didn’t force them to fluff up a book from 40,000-50,000 all the way up to our modern number of 90,000-120,000. Even the great action and thriller writers of today bore me with their fluff. Lots of subplots and back stories conspicuously added in books today.

    • I cut my teeth on those pulp paperbacks, from Micky Spillane to Louis L’Amour. They taught me about pacing, and how to get a lot of story into a very few pages. Writers should study Spillane to see how he moves everything forward and I read somewhere that he typed straight through without re-writes. Probably because it was so hard to edit on a typewriter.

      • Love those guys and both are still in print! That should say it all. Recently bought L’Amour’s entire backlist. Read through about 15 so far. He was awesome.

  10. In film, the soundtrack helps drive the sense of pacing. I taught a film class once where I showed famous scenes in silence and played different styles of music in the background. The impact was shocking!

    On the page, pacing is driven in large measure by the little things like word length and the cadence of individual sentences. Chapter length is important, too. I try to keep my chapters at around 12 manuscript pages–though I can’t always–and in a perfect world, the chapter will end on a high note, and at the chapter break we resolve the high note from a different part of the story.

    • Great point!

      This reached back to one of my previous blog posts about music. I wonder if my chapters and pacing increase because that third act is supported by hard rock music while I’m writing. I usually end a chapter on a cliffhanger, or humorous note, but it isn’t planned. As usual, I don’t plan a thing and am surprised when something happens.

      Cadence is important, too. I’ve had a few discussions with editors about my sentence structure. They want commas where I don’t think they belong, but that’s part of the creative process.

    • “On the page, pacing is driven in large measure by the little things like word length and the cadence of individual sentences.” I have found a lot of value in using “text to speech” to get the cadence right.

  11. The problem with short chapters is it gives readers an excuse to stop unless you are offering lots of questions they need answers to. If that’s happening, they don’t even notice the chapter breaks.

    I used the Rule of Three for every scene. If a scene doesn’t contain at least one or two plot points (information or events which move the plot forward), and one or two character points (important character information) so that you have at least three points total, then it should be tossed, and whatever points included in that scene should be added to another scene.

    Also, pace doesn’t need to be constantly breakneck to hold a reader’s attention. The trick is to know when it’s okay to slow down.

    • You’re right, it’s okay to slow down from time to time in order to give the reader a break. Isn’t it interesting how we all use different techniques, you following a set of established rules, and others hammering away at the keyboard as fast as possible to see what happens next.

      Have a great weekend and thanks for replying.

  12. Great information, Rev. Pacing reminds me of a musical work that ebbs and flows depending on the scene.

    When I wrote my first novel, the chapters were short – usually just a few pages. Not because I knew what I was doing, but because it was just felt natural to write them that way. A lot of folks told me how much they enjoyed that, so I’ve kept it up in my other books.

    I’ve never seen Tombstone or Wyatt Earp, but I know which one I’ll watch when I get a chance. Thanks!

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