“Can’t Put the Book Down”

Last weekend I once again had the privilege of being a panelist at Orycon, our local science fiction convention, and, among other things, moderated panels on writing and pacing your story. Creating a compelling story and keeping a reader turning the pages, to the point of missing sleep to read through to the end, are goals I believe all of us here at TKZ share.

Today’s Words of Wisdom considers three tools to help achieve those twin goals of creating a compelling story that is a page-turner. First off, Joe Moore looks at when and how to actual slow the pacing down. Then, Jordan Dane gives advice on managing narrative drive. Finally, Elaine Viets shares tips on creating cliffhangers.

Slow things down when you want to place emphasis on a particular event. In doing so, the reader naturally senses that the slower pace means there’s a great deal of importance in the information being imparted. And in many respects, the character(s) should sense it, too.

Another reason to slow the pacing is to give your readers a chance to catch their breath after an action or dramatic chapter or scene. Even on a real rollercoaster ride, there are moments when the car must climb to a higher level in order to take the thrill seeker back down the next exciting portion of the attraction. You may want to slow the pacing after a dramatic event so the reader has a break and the plot can start the process of building to the next peak of excitement or emotion. After all, an amusement ride that only goes up or down, or worse, stays level, would be either boring or frantic. The same goes for your story.

Another reason to slow the pace is to deal with emotions. Perhaps it’s a romantic love scene or one of deep internal reflection. Neither one would be appropriate if written with the same rapid-fire pacing of a car chase or shootout.

You might also want to slow the pacing during scenes of extreme drama. In real life, we often hear of a witness or victim of an accident describing it as if time slowed to a crawl and everything seemed to move in slow motion. The same technique can be used to describe a dramatic event in your book. Slow down and concentrate on each detail to enhance the drama.

What you want to avoid is to slow the scene beyond reason. One mistake new writers make is to slow the pacing of a dramatic scene, then somewhere in the middle throw in a flashback or a recalling of a previous event in the character’s life. In the middle of a head-on collision, no one stops to ponder a memory from childhood. Slow things down for a reason. The best reason is to enhance the drama.

A big element in controlling pacing is narration. Narrative always slows things down. It can be used quite effectively to do so or it can become boring and cumbersome. The former is always the choice.

When you intentionally slow the pace of your story, it doesn’t mean that you want to stretch out every action in every scene. It means that you want to take the time to embrace each detail and make it move the story forward. This involves skill, instinct and craft. Leave in the important stuff and delete the rest.

Joe Moore—March 18, 2015

Each author strives to create a compelling narrative drive (whether they understand what the term means or not) because they want readers eager to turn the page. That means the author MUST manipulate the world and the characters into the optimal story that involves mystery, suspense and intriguing relationships. This covers all genres of writing.

The author controls what is revealed to the reader and parses it out in the most optimal way by their judgement. They make choices on when to reveal things and how they are to be doled out. Natural born story tellers know how to do this instinctively.

The author is in control of EVERYTHING. He or she manipulates the reader with a titillating story and how that story is shared and how it affects the character relationships. Nothing should come as a surprise to the author.

To create MYSTERY elements, the author is guarded about what to share with the reader and when to share it. There’s misdirection with red herrings or through unreliable narrators, for example.

To create SUSPENSE, the author can have the reader follow along and reveal what they want the reader to know as the main characters discover things. This builds on suspense elements.

To give the reader an INSIDER VIEW, the author may reveal things to the reader that the characters don’t know. Let the readers play God from afar and watch the play that is told in the story.

KEEP A READER CURIOUS and/or WORRIED – Readers are naturally curious folks. Give them something to uncover. A wise author will let a reader’s minds be piqued by carefully placed clues. Or an author might make readers worry for the characters they’ve grown fond of. Make readers care and escalate the danger for the characters. Again, this post might sound geared for crime fiction, but it can apply to any genre. The threat does not have to involve life or death. It can involve the heart or the emotional survival of a family enduring a tragedy or a stigma.

1.) Backstory dumps and long boring expositions can kill a strong page turner.
2.) When one scene doesn’t lead to a cause and effect, the plot may drift without cohesion. The reader gets lost in the amble. Actions must have consequences for the reader to want to come along for the ride.
3.) Cheating at mystery elements, where the author creates intrigue, but the outcome is a let down or a head fake for the reader. That’s when a reader will throw a book against a wall and may never buy an author again.
4.) Cheap surprises without build up is the same type of disappointment. Don’t pull a killer or a bad actor or a story element from thin air to end the book.
5.) No coincidences. An author might get away with a coincidence in the first few pages of a story, but a coincidence should never end the book. Major No-No.

I believe that each scene in a book should be like a mini-story. It should have a compelling beginning, a journey through the scene with purpose, and an ending that foreshadows what’s to come to create a page turner. Each scene should move the plot forward by 1-3 plot points, making that scene impossible to delete without toppling your story (like the wood block-building game of Jenga.)

I endeavor to build as many of these scenes as possible, even with scenes that build on a relationship as a subplot. The subplot should have a journey through the book as well.

Jordan Dane—October 3, 2019

Cliffhangers are the hooks that make your readers keep turning the pages, pulling them into the next scene or chapter. Most cliffhangers come at the end of the chapter. If your readers are hooked, they’ll continue reading.

Here are some tips for good cliffhangers:

A cliffhanger should catch your readers by surprise.

Something unexpected has to happen: Someone threatens to jump off a bridge. Their car goes into a skid on a snowy curve. A door opens unexpectedly. Then, bam! The chapter ends.

Darkest Evening, Ann Cleeves’ new Vera Stanhope novel, has a perfect cliffhanger chapter ending. Vera follows a killer, who gets her alone and strangles her. I’ve edited out the killer’s name in this section, but you get the idea.

“As Vera began to lose consciousness, she thought that this was her fault. . . it was her pride again, making her think she was indestructible.

“Then the world went blank.”

I couldn’t wait to turn the page and see what happened to Vera. Not to mention the killer.

Someone unexpected arrives. A crook, an innocent person, a cop, just in time. This person is a surprise. They abruptly break up the scene.

Someone leaves.

A bride suddenly leaves the groom standing at the altar. A couple is fighting, and he walks out on her. She suddenly quits her job.

Sometimes, the cliffhanger is a new piece of information.

Your character learns something. She’s not married legally to her husband after all because he never divorced his first wife.

Or, he’s not the son of the man he called father: the DNA test proved it.

Your character notices something. The detective sees the scratches around the door lock and realizes the house had been broken into. A wife finds lipstick on her husband’s shirt – scarlet lipstick. She never wears that color.

Your character figures something out. She finally understands the key to the puzzle the dead man left behind. He finally knows why his dead father wanted him to listen to the CD he left in his desk drawer.

Your character decides something. She’s going to leave her abusive husband. He’s going to rob the store to get enough money to feed his family.

She’s going back to school.

Elaine Viets—May 14, 2020


  1. How much do you think about slowing your story’s pacing when writing or editing? Do you have a favorite technique?
  2. What does narrative drive mean to you? How important is it to you?
  3. Do you use cliff-hangers? If so, what sort and when?


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20 thoughts on ““Can’t Put the Book Down”

  1. Dale, thanks for culling out these words of wisdom. Joe, Jordan and Elaine have some very important tips. I don’t know about others but when I’m first drafting, I don’t necessarily see the ebb and flow of tension and pacing. What’s really cool is when you go back and read a scene & see how drawn in you were–that the read was effortless. By the same token, you re-read some scenes and think “Ho hum. This sounds a bit dry.”

    I think my favorite tip is thinking of the story as a rollercoaster ride. That’s a great visual to keep in mind as you revise scenes in the book.

    One challenge I have noted from writing collaboratively with someone is that one writer on the team may disagree with the other as to whether the pacing of a scene is slow while the other writer thinks it’s fine as is. So not only do you need to recognize flat-lining in your own writing, but when working as part of a team. That’s why that rollercoaster analogy is such a nice visual to keep in mind.

    I’m curious for input from writers here: When you give your project to a beta reader(s), are there key comments from your betas you hone in on that trigger you to realize they’re saying “it wasn’t unputdownable,” to some degree? I mean, they may tell you flat out that a scene was boring, but if not, what clues from their feedback clue you in?

    • You’re welcome, BK! In my case, I do try and see the ebb and flow of tension and pacing. However, I’ve worked on those aspects of fiction long enough they are internalized, and it’s a more a case of checking in at points.

      One of the questions I ask my betas is, “where did you slow down?” With my first library mystery, that mainly happened with at one or two points where there was too much library detail, so I dialed that back.

  2. I use long and short sentences to slow and speed up the pace, shorter chapters, too.

    I use cliffhangers. Sometimes something surprising happens like a character who wasn’t in the scene walks in (and of course he’s all upset or excited). Other times I’ll have a character do something like step on the gas in hopes she’ll “make it there on time.”

  3. Excellent advice by Joe, Jordan, and Elaine. Thanks for digging through the archives for these posts, Dale. It’s not an easy task.

    How much do you think about slowing your story’s pacing when writing or editing? Do you have a favorite technique?

    It’s crucial to let your reader catch their breath. The story should move in the same way music ebbs and flows. I don’t have a favorite technique, per se. Instead, I sense when my ideal reader needs a break. Not helpful. Sorry!

    I use cliffhangers in the same way Elaine explained. Sometimes I cut a scene early, or my MC poses a question, or fears the unknown — whatever the scene calls for at the time. Also, not as helpful as the excerpts. LOL

    Have a fantastic weekend, my friend! It’s rainy here, so no moon, nor stars. I’m living vicariously through your telescope pics on X-Twitter! Keep ’em coming. 😀

    • Thanks, Sue! I love your music analogy for the ebb and flow of story.

      I hope you also have a fantastic weekend! Hopefully the skies will at least partially clear again like they did last night so I can snap more Luna pics 🙂

  4. I use a cliffhanger at the end of every major scene and the end of every chapter. Sometimes those (scene and chapter end) are the same and sometimes they aren’t, depending on the story and the pacing and the characters’ voice.

    And immediately following the cliffhanger, at the beginning of the next scene or chapter, I use a hook to pull the reader into the story again and propel him or her forward.

    Pacing works, and it’s among the lesser-understood and more-important crafts in the art of writing fiction, whether short stories, novellas or novels.

  5. This is a wonderful collection from the archives, Dale. Thanks!

    1. I do think about slowing the pacing down at the points where I want to place emphasis. Joe’s article had a lot of great tips.

    2. Narrative drive is something I’m constantly striving for as I plot and write the story. Jordan’s article was detailed and very helpful.

    3. I do use cliffhangers at the end of most chapters. They usually introduce coming conflict or a sudden setback.

    Thanks for the link to your first Empowered book. I’ve downloaded it and am looking forward to reading it.

    Great topic for this post! Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Glad you found these three posts useful, Steve. I struck gold when I found them in the archives. I also keep narrative drive in the forefront of my mind when outlining, writing and editing my stories. Her article was excellent.

      I hope you enjoy Empowered:Agent. Have a great weekend!

  6. Dale, great choices from Joe, Jordan, and Elaine. I remember all these posts when I first read them b/c they were so packed with wonderful techniques. Glad to review them again.

    1. Characters generally determines the pace. Faster scenes are when they take action. In slower scenes, they are struggling to make sense of what just happened, or decide what their next action should be. Jack Bickham’s technique of Scene (action) and Sequel (reflection on what just happened, planning the next move) really helped me grasp pacing.

    2. Narrative drive is what makes the reader want to know what happens next.

    3. I use cliffhangers in combination with jump cuts. One scene ends with Character A in peril. The next scene switches to Character B facing a different problem. The reader is torn between wanting to know what happens to A yet also wondering what B will do next.

    • Thanks, Debbie. Insightful comment that character determines pace by what they are doing. I love that. I’m also a fan of Bickham’s Scene and Sequel dynamic. It helped me as well. Your summation of narrative drive is perfect. Combining cliffhangers with jump cuts will certainly keep your readers turning the pages of your novels.

  7. Years ago, when the INDIANA JONES movies were so wildly popular, a publisher created an action book series with the pace of the opening scene of the original INDIANA JONES where disaster builds upon disaster upon disaster with no real stopping for breath.

    I read the first book, and it was bloody awful because the action became boring and silly at such a lunatic pace, and there was so little personality to the main character or any of the other characters I didn’t give a damn one way or the other what happened.

    EXAMPLE: A bear chases the hero up a tree, he thinks the tree is safe, but it’s rotten, and the bear begins to shove it over, the tree lands in the river, but it’s infested with alligators, and there are bad guys on the other side of the river, and a bear on this side. He out swims the gators to a bridge and begins to climb up a vine growing up its side, but, ooops, there’s a large poisonous snake right above him, and….

    Needless to say, that series vanished without a trace after a few books.

    • Non-stop disasters do wear out the reader, as you example well illustrates. We need those breath-catching pauses, and so do the characters IMHO, to build an compelling story.

  8. I think most will know what I mean when I say, I don’t so much plan hooks as use them to decide where to end the chapter. I try to end almost every chapter at a hook, or end with a cliff-hanger where it seems natural in the course of the story. If I can’t manage a pure hook at the “out,” I change the last bit of dialogue to a question, and end there.

    Yes, “narrative can slow things down,” but I’d like to point out that action scenes are often pure narrative. Maybe an occasional “Curse you, Jack Dalton!” Or maybe not.

  9. What a fabulous set of selections from the TKZ archives, Dale.

    For some reason, varying the pace of the story seems natural to me. After a tense, dangerous section, I want to slow things down. I like Joe’s analogy with a rollercoaster.

    I try to end most chapters with some kind of cliffhanger, but not always. I’ve read books where it seemed the author was trying too hard to apply a cliffhanger on every chapter and it seemed forced.

    Thanks for another great TKZ Words of Wisdom post!

    • Thanks Kay. I also like the rollercoaster analogy–it’s very apt for pacing. Excellent point about being careful to avoid cliffhangers seeming forced–either by choosing different sorts, or not always ending a chapter with one.

  10. Pingback: About This Writing Stuff… | Phil Giunta – Paranormal, Fantasy, & SF Writer

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