Readers of fiction often complain that a book didn’t keep their interest because “it dragged,” or “the story meandered,” or “it was slow going,” or “it was boring in parts.” Today’s readers have shorter attention spans. Most of them/us don’t have the patience for the lengthy descriptive passages, the long, convoluted “literary” sentences, nor the leisurely, painstaking pacing of fiction of a century or two ago. Besides, with TV and the internet, we don’t need most of the detailed descriptions of locations anymore, unlike early readers who’d perhaps never left their village, and had very few visual images of other locales to draw on.
While you don’t want your story barreling along at a break-neck pace 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.”
Condense those set-up, backstory and descriptive passages.
To increase the pace and overall tension of your story, start by cutting back on setup and backstory. Here’s what Donald Maass has to say about setup: “‘Setup’ is, by definition, not story. It always drags. Always. Leave it out. Find another way.” Some backstory can be essential, but marble it in on an “as-needed” basis, rather than interrupting the story for paragraphs or pages of explanation of character background.
Also, to pick up the pace, keep your descriptive passages short and vivid, and concentrate instead on scenes with action, dialogue, and lots of tension. Show, don’t tell – use vivid, sensory imagery, and just leave out the boring bits.
In general, develop a more direct, lean writing style.
That way your message and the impact of your story won’t get lost in all the clutter of superfluous words and repetitive sentences. I cover specific techniques for cutting down on wordiness in my upcoming article, “Streamline Your Writing.”
Of course, the best novels do vary the pace to allow the reader brief respites to catch his breath, but generally, your story needs to move along at a good clip to keep the readers interested.
TIPS FOR THOSE FAST-PACED SCENES:
Here are a few easy techniques for picking up the pace at strategic spots in your novel, to create those tense, action-packed, nail-biting scenes.
Write shorter sentences and paragraphs.
For a fast-paced scene, use short, clipped sentences, as opposed to long, meandering, leisurely ones. Even sentence fragments. Like this. Use short paragraphs and frequent paragraphing, too. This creates more white space. The eye moves faster, so the mind does, too. This also increases the tension, which is always a good thing in fiction.
As Sol Stein points out, “In fiction, a quick exchange of adversarial dialogue often proves to be an ideal way of picking up the pace.”
Here’s an example from The Watchman by Robert Crais, one of my favorite authors. My favorite hero, Joe Pike (Jack Reacher is a close second), is protecting a spoiled young heiress from enemies who are closing in. Pike starts out.
“Pack your things. We’re going to see Bud.”
She lowered the coffeepot, staring at him as if she were fully dressed.
“I thought we were safe here.”
“We are. But if something happens, we’ll want our things.”
“What’s going to happen?”
“Every time we leave the house, we’ll take our things. That’s the way it is.”
“I don’t want to ride around all day scrunched in your car. Can’t I stay here?”
“Get dressed. We have to hurry.”
“But you told him noon. Universal is only twenty minutes away.”
“Let’s go. We have to hurry.”
She stomped back into the kitchen and threw the pot into the sink.
“Your coffee sucks!”
“We’ll get Starbucks.”
She didn’t seem so wild, even when she threw things.
We get the undercurrent of tension in Joe, who’s trying to hustle her out without alarming her.
It isn’t necessary to use dialogue to pick up the pace – short sentences and frequent paragraphing can have that effect even without dialogue.
Lee Child, another one of my favorite writers, is a master at lean writing and short sentences. Here’s a short excerpt from Worth Dying For. Our laconic hero, Jack Reacher, has a very painful broken nose that’s bent way to the side. He has to reset it, and he knows that when he does the pain will be so excruciating he’ll pass out from it, so he has to do it right, and fast, before he passes out:
He closed his eyes.
He opened them again.
He knew what he had to do.
He had to reset the break. He knew that. He knew the costs and benefits. The pain would lessen and he would end up with a normal-looking nose. Almost. But he would pass out again. No question about that. …
And it goes on like that.
Skip ahead for effect.
Skip past all the humdrum details and transition info, like getting from one place to another, and jump straight to the next action scene. Delete any scenes that drag, or condense them to a paragraph or two, or even just a few sentences.
Jump-cutting is a more extreme version of skipping ahead. This is used a lot in movies. You jump straight from one scene to another, with no transitioning at all in between. Your protagonist leaves her house. Add an extra space or * * *, then show her at her workplace office having a conversation with a colleague. Or in a restaurant with her gal pals or a date. Or jogging through the park, or wherever. The reader can easily fill in the gaps. No need to show her getting into her car, driving to her destination, etc.
Some other techniques for increasing the pace:
– Use shorter, more direct words – mostly powerful verbs and nouns.
– Cut way back on adjectives and adverbs.
– Avoid unfamiliar words the reader may have to look up.
– Use active voice instead of passive: “The bank robber shot the teller,” rather than “The teller was shot by the bank robber.”
– Use cliff-hangers at the ends of scenes and chapters.
– Start each scene as late as possible, without all the warm-up, and end each scene as early as possible, without rehashing what went on. (Thanks to Peg Brantley for the reminder about this one!)
Do you have any techniques to add, to keep the readers turning the pages?
© Copyright Jodie Renner, March 2012
Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel
Sol Stein, Stein on Writing
Robert Crais, The Watchman
Lee Child, Worth Dying For