02 May 2015

Pace Yourself

In his book Story, screenwriting teacher Robert McKee says:

"Because a story is a metaphor for life, we expect it to feel like life, to have the rhythm of life. This rhythm beats between two contradictory desires: On one hand, we desire serenity, harmony, peace, and relaxation, but too much of this day after day and we become bored to the point of ennui, and need therapy. As a result, we also desire challenges, tension, danger, even fear. But too much of this day after day and again we end up in the rubber room. So the rhythm of life swings between these poles."

We all know that in a short story or a novel, the proper pacing is vital to its success. And in the case of mystery/crime fiction, the pace has to be fast. Nobody likes being bored, and nothing is so boring to a reader as a story that drags along and doesn't do something.

Ideally, this building of suspense has to happen throughout the narrative. A good, exciting opening is always important, but the challenge is then to keep up that pace afterward as well. Personally, I'd almost rather read a story or novel that starts slowly than one that starts strong and then bogs down in the middle; if it has a poor beginning I can at least stop reading sooner. As I've said before, there are too many good books and stories and movies out there for me to waste my time reading one or watching one that doesn't hold my interest.

So yes, good pacing is essential. But--as the little boy said to the magician--how do you do it?

At the risk of oversimplifying, here are three ways that we writers can control the pacing of our fiction.

1. Style

- Dialogue speeds things up; description slows them down

- Short, simple sentences speed things up; long, complex sentences slow them down (think Hemingway vs. Faulkner)

- Action verbs speed things up (sprinting vs. running, slamming vs. closing, gulping vs. eating, stomping vs. walking)

- The overuse of certain kinds of punctuation (commas, ellipses, parentheses, etc.) slows things down

- Active voice speeds things up; passive voice slows them down

- Short scenes/chapters speed things up; long scenes/chapters slow them down (think Patterson vs. Michener)

2. Action

As mentioned earlier, the best way to keep the reader interested is to make things happen--preferably exciting things and preferably often. There should be plenty of confrontations, obstacles, and setbacks. Internal struggles of course create tension, but in genre fiction the conflicts should be external as well. According to Jessica Page Morrell in her book Thanks, but This Isn't for Us: "If too many scenes in your story feature a character alone, the story won't work. Especially if in most of the scenes the character is thinking, musing, recalling the past, or sighing. Especially sighing."

3. Reversals

I'm a big fan of plot twists--and by that I don't just mean O. Henry-type surprise endings. I love it when the story takes a sharp and unexpected turn at any point, even near the beginning. It keeps me guessing and therefore keeps me reading. (Or watching. Reference the shower scene in Psycho.) I can't remember who said it, and I'm paraphrasing here, but if you're the writer and you think things might be moving too slowly, that's a good time to have someone burst through the door holding a gun.

Those are just a few thoughts--please feel free to contradict them or to add to the list.

Finally, no discussion of pacing would be complete without at least mentioning the concept of "scene and sequel." Scenes are units of story action, and sequels (in terms of writing) are breaks in the action--rest periods when the hero/heroine takes a timeout to think about what just happened and to consider what might happen next. Properly alternating scenes and sequels is a pacing mechanism, to allow the reader to--along with the protagonist--catch his breath and calm down a bit before facing the next challenge.

If you want to read some really fast-paced mystery fiction, I suggest stories and novels by the following authors: Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Robert B. Parker, Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, Jack Ritchie, Joe R. Lansdale, and Elmore Leonard.

It won't take you long.


  1. This is an excellent post, John - I'm going to point my students to it.
    I'm in the 'fast' school myself. (Some might say too fast.) A lot of novels I read would be better off as novellas.

  2. Love the post, John. And Melodie, I agree with you - a lot of novels seem just padded out to me in order to make them fit a certain length. The old days, when a mystery novel could be 40,000-60,000 words, was (imho) just perfect for most (Hammett, Stout, Christie, for examples). But can a person still get published with a shorter novel?

  3. Very good advice here, John. Many of these very points I've...wait...somebody just kicked in the door! Gotta run!

  4. Thanks, Melodie! I too tend to pace my fiction a bit fast, but it probably makes sense that I do--I love writing dialogue and I love writing action scenes. Description and exposition, while necessary, aren't as much fun to write.

    Eve, I agree with you and Melodie--a lot of longer pieces would be better off shorter. And I suppose novella-length fiction might now be easier to publish than it used to be because of e-publishing; I can remember when novellas were a No Man's Land because there were so few places to market them.

    David, I do love those WHOA! moments when unexpected things happen in a story. It was, by the way, a great pleasure to finally meet you, last week!

  5. Precise explanation, John. I'll share this with some newer writers as well as using it to remind myself of pacing facts.

  6. Thanks, Fran. This is one of those things we rarely think about (some writers are so good they don't have to, I suppose), but I do try to keep pacing in mind specifically because I tend to go TOO fast, and have to consciously slow things down a bit now and then.

  7. Good advice and I agree. It frustrates me when I think my own stories are too slow but ADD people are notorious for having no sense of time.

  8. Leigh, I've read your stories and they're not too slow. What happens in early drafts doesn't matter; it's the final product (what the readers see) that's important.


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