There are many techniques and strategies that come into play when writing a successful novel–characterization, plot, dialogue, description. But I believe that the one element that ties them all together is pacing.
The books and short stories that I enjoy most move at a quicker pace.
Think about it. When people talk about a novel they like, they say things like, “It was so good. I flew through it.” I’ve never heard anyone say, “That novel was as slow as molasses. I loved it.”
In Charles Dickens’ time, the world was more leisurely. Novels could be paced slower. The books could have lots of description that ran a page or more. The plots could move like, well, molasses.
But today, there are so many distractions in everyone’s lives that we need to write novels that continuously keep our reader’s interest.
Good Pacing is one way to do this.
Here are some tips on how to make your novel move.
1) Begin your Story with Action
Of course not every book can start with action, but it is an excellent method of speeding up your novel right at the beginning. This is often called ‘medias res,’ which means that your character is in the middle of things.
You’re starting your character off already battling someone or something, or she’s in trouble. This gets the reader immediately into your story.
2) Limit Back Story
Even if you don’t start with action, you don’t want to tell your reader everything near the beginning of your book. Think twice about whether the reader needs to know something at this point in your story.
There are two main ways to add back story. One is to dribble it in along the way. The second method is to leave most of the back story until page forty or so.
My preference is the second method. This way the reader can speed through the first forty pages. By the time they reach the back story section, they are already hooked.
3) Start with Chapter Two
Often when you’ve written your first draft you’ve given out too much information in chapter one. This slows your novel down at a time when you want it to move faster.
I suggest that, in most cases, it’s a good idea to eliminate the first chapter. Then go right into the next one. In most cases, you won’t have to make any changes to that second chapter.
4) Tense-Up your Situations
Adding tension to a scene helps give your story a quicker pace.
For example, you might have a scene where someone’s gone missing, and she must be located before the bad man finds her. Or perhaps, you have a bomb going off in an hour, but the cops have no clue where it’s located.
These types of intense scenes not only keep the reader’s attention but also give it forward movement.
In your first draft, you may have several chapters in a row that are slow. So what do you do?
You can, of course, eliminate them. But if there are significant events that are needed to make the story work, then you might want to merge the chapters.
This will cause a lot more to happen in this single chapter, and make your book feel like it’s moving at a faster pace.
6) Use Cliff Hangers
A cliff hanger is the element at the end of a chapter that makes the reader desperately want to read the next chapter.
In my opinion, most types of fiction should use cliffhangers. They are a great way to make the reader continue to turn pages, no matter how tired she is.
These cliffhangers can be relationship oriented–Will Sally apologize to Jennifer about kissing her boyfriend? Or big events such as will Harry be able to slay the dragon?
The important thing is that they lead the reader into the next chapter.
7) Shorten Chapters
Shorter chapters are a great way to speed up your novel. If each chapter is only a few pages (aka James Patterson), then a reader will be more likely to finish the chapter no matter how late the hour.
If you then put a cliff hanger at the end of the chapter (as we discussed previously), the reader will definitely keep reading.
8) Edit like you’re charged for each word
The faster someone reads your sentences the faster your book will seem. So take out any words that don’t add to the value of the sentence. Ask yourself if you can you get your meaning across with fewer words.
In some novels, even those by well-known writers, you will see sentences that could have been made shorter, and hence speeded up their books.
At the same time, it’s important to avoid monotony, so vary your sentence length so that some sentences are shorter and some a bit longer.
9) Remove Characters
There must be a reason for each of your characters to be in your novel. Extra characters that don’t add anything slow down your story. Look at your manuscript and see if all the characters carry their own weight.
Does the story work if you cut them out or does it fall apart? Only if the characters are essential should they be allowed to stay.
10) Talk it Out
Someone may skip a scene with a lot of description but seldom do people avoid reading dialogue. It’s fun, and it makes a scene move fast.
You can also show much more about the characters in a dialogue exchange than in a long prose passage.
If you find things are slowing down in your novel, have your characters speak to one another. Scenes such as where a police officer interrogates a criminal can be riveting, as can a simple scene between a husband and wife who no longer trust one another. Scenes like this increase the pace of your novel.
11) Have your Characters Act
Most of what we know about a character should come out, not in a long description, but by their actions.
We find out a character is a thief by seeing him steal an expensive vase. We discover a character’s heroism, not by the writer telling the reader that she’s brave, but by her saving a drowning child.
Certainly, we should describe our characters when we first meet them. However, this should be fairly short and meaningful.
12) Add Twists
A story that stays on the same ‘path’ throughout your novel slows it down. At certain times, you need to move your story onto a different ‘path’ to keep the pace fast.
You do this by adding twists, keeping the reader guessing as to what is happening. This adds excitement and speed. Try to have lots of unanswered questions. It will make the reader curious, and keep her reading until the end of the book to find out the answers.
All of the above twelve strategies improve the speed at which a book moves. Of course, pacing is just one technique to keep readers hooked.
If you want to learn other strategies for making your book one that readers will fly through, join me for my workshop, Writing the Page Turning Novel, starting Feb 18.