How readers move through a book depends on its pacing: the rhythm and tempo that propel the story’s events. Of course what constitutes a truly satisfying reading experience differs from person to person. Some readers prefer novels that slowly, elegantly unfold. Others seek fast-paced pleasures that raise their blood pressure while they eagerly flip pages.
As a rule, literary fiction proceeds at a slower, more deliberate pace, with an emphasis on introspection and language. Read Free Love by Tessa Hadley, Alice Elliott Dark’s Fellowship Point, or the novels of Elizabeth Strout or Kazuo Ishiguro to see these skills beautifully executed. By contrast, commercial fiction usually demands a fast-paced read with a page-turning plot. For a few excellent examples, check out The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave, Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson and City of Fire by Don Winslow. And there are always more fantastic books to be read by Stephen King.
Whatever category your book fits into, you need to be aware of the reader’s experience of your story. It’s easy to get carried away by your own brilliance (and perhaps research) and lose sight of the reader. But it’s crucial to make a distinction between what the writer wants and what the story needs. That’s the difference between the amateur writer and the career author: a vigilant focus on the reader experience. Stephen King knew this. He had the bookworm in mind with his amusing but spot-on advice to writers: “Try and leave out the parts that readers skip.”
So what are those parts?
Here are 5 tips to pick up the pace.
1. Don’t overexplain.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking of your novel as a one-way street leading from you to the reader. Instead consider your reader a partner in this literary endeavor. Don’t over-explain; spark imagination. Participation in a story provides readers with a more absorbing, satisfying experience—always the goal.
How much info does the reader actually need, and how much is too much? Take a close look at your pages: long descriptive passages may indicate you’re getting carried away.
Everything included on the page should drive the plot forward. It should have relevance to either character or plot.
If it doesn’t, it’s slowing us down. Cut it.
Avoid digressive back story. Any included flashbacks should be appropriately revelatory, so as not to rob a novel of momentum while its linear progress is temporarily halted.
2. Avoid stage directions.
By this I mean too much description, but not the kind that rhapsodizes about lovely red chrysanthemums or fragrant breezes blowing through bending aspen trees. Instead, writers sometimes go overboard chronicling every single movement of every character. (He stares. Silence. She picks up the wine glass and crosses the room. He …)
With multiple characters in a scene, it can be overwhelming for readers to observe details about what each of them is doing—a common problem in thrillers. As above, keep the action fast and furious by limiting the prose to what readers need to know.
3. Keep the dialogue natural.
Long and unnatural dialogue can really bog down your story.
Editor Brenda Copeland warns of lengthy didactic passages, “speechifying masquerading as speech.” Keep scenes vivid and absorbing by breaking up dialogue with other characters interrupting, questioning, participating.
And on the subject of dialogue, you might use beats to break it up, but these interruptions should be more than pauses. They should not be included if they’re not meaningfully contributing to the plot.
“I’m sorry,” he said, staring blankly out the window. (Why is he staring out the window? It should make sense in context.)
Don’t include dialogue explaining stuff that would not realistically be verbalized (the dreaded info dump).
Also, dialogue should not bore the reader by repeating information they already know. Readers might start skimming! Instead, a quick summary may be in order—for example, “Trish recounted last night’s thrilling events to Nat.”
4. Pay attention to where chapters begin and end.
A skilled author guides readers into a new chapter without too much throat-clearing. Diving directly into a new chapter—or scene—adds urgency to your plot.
Chapter endings should have a clear resolution, underscoring the relevance of what just occurred. Or chapters might close with a cliffhanger. Either way, keep the reader engaged, even as you might be providing them a necessary breather between chapters to go grab a sandwich.
The point is to keep readers riveted.
5. Restrain yourself (really).
Short chapters are the norm in today’s bestselling fiction. Easily digestible bites are more commercial. E. Lockhart’s twisty, super-charged blockbuster We Were Liars has 87 chapters in 250 pages—each chapter is about three pages.
Writing shorter scenes may add needed momentum. Also, overlong paragraphs can sometimes slow down the action and intimidate readers. Break ’em up.
Shorter sentences—or fragmented sentences—add urgency. Dynamic language—active voice, pithy, punchy words—create zingy, dramatic scenes.
Remove what’s superfluous. Look for extra adverbs and unneeded prepositional phrases and cut, cut, cut. Don’t use too many words when fewer convey the same meaning.
Look again and cut more!
Be your crabbiest and share with other writers on Facebook what bores or slows you down when reading a novel.