Pacing as a Writing Tool

My recent trip to Bouchercon in Albany was enjoyable not only from the aspect of an author meeting her readers, but also as a writer who is always looking to improve her craft. Just because you’re a published author doesn’t mean that there is nothing left to learn. So I made it a point to attend several panels on writing craft.

One of the panels I attended was on pacing. Authors Toni Kelner, A. X. Ahmad, Daniel Friedman, Michael Kardos, Dale T. Phillips, and Julie Pomeroy discussed the finer points of pacing stories, specifically in crime fiction. It was an excellent panel, so I wanted to cover some of their ideas here.

Unlike literary fiction, crime fiction authors needs to get into their story immediately and escalate quickly from there. The panel authors shared many of their tips and tricks to crafting a well-paced and exciting storyline:

  • The sliding scale of pacing depends on specific subgenres. Cozy mysteries are expected to have a slower pace than thrillers, and police procedurals tend to have a slow, stately buildup as the case progresses. Write according to the basic rules of your subgenre.
  • Even when the pace of the story is rapid, both the story and the readers need time to breathe. A story that goes at breakneck pace for the entire novel may actually leave readers feeling exhausted rather than breathless with anticipation. Good stories give the protagonist moments to reflect on what is happening to him, rather than doing nothing more than constantly reacting.
  • Pacing can be the by-product of a good plot. An exhilarating and intriguing story will naturally keep the pace moving without needing superfluous Michael Bay-like explosions to artificially ramp up the tension.
  • If you’re going to blow up something, don’t do it on page one before the reader has a chance to connect with your characters because they simply won’t care. Once they know and love your characters, putting them in jeopardy as a natural part of the plot will pick up the pace and keep the reader turning the page.
  • A pacing tip: Start your story in motion. Have your character on the move, hurrying from place to place, or in the car. This gives a sense of urgency right from the opening line.
  • Add a clock. Nothing ramps up the tension like a life or death deadline or a ticking clock à la 24.
  • Alternate scenes to pick up the pace. This is a film trick directors often employ. Change up POV and scene locations in short cuts to increase urgency.
  • Use high stakes to propel your story and give it energy.
  • Pacing doesn’t always equal action. Use dialogue instead as it can be loaded with emotional stakes for your characters
  • Short chapters can give the impression of speeding up your storytelling and will keep the reader flipping right to the next chapter.
  • As the recently deceased Elmore Leonard is famous for saying—leave out the parts people skip.

Hopefully, you’ll find these tips as helpful as I did. In the next writing post, I’m going to cover the excellent panel on creating the perfect villain.

Photo credit: -cavin­-