Sunday, March 25, 2012

Tips for Picking up the Pace in Your Fiction

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker  

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.


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

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook and Twitter


  1. Jodie, a terrific post as usual! The more I learn, the more I discover I don't know.

    Along with the skipping ahead and jump-cutting, someone once told me to come in to each scene late and leave early.

    I love your advice to "just leave out the boring bits."

  2. Peg, you're so right about starting each scene as late as possible, without all the warm-up, and ending it early, rather than dragging on and rehashing what went on. I forgot to add that one. I think I will right now! Thanks for that!

  3. Great advice! But some readers want to get a feel for setting, especially in a series, so some description is necessary. The trick is to weave it into the action, such as occasionally driving/racing across town.

  4. I agree completely, LJ. I really like how you weave the descriptions of the setting into your stories, as they go along.

    The thing for aspiring authors to avoid is using the first several paragraphs of the book just to set the scene. You need to hook your readers in first, with some action and dialogue. But then quickly tell us where they are, so we can get situated. And add more details of the setting as you go along, with the occasional descriptive paragraph thrown in, for a nice respite for the readers.

  5. Great post Jodie.

    I agree with you and LJ on the need to make description active. Those long passages of description really don't work for me as a reader or writer, so whenever I describe something I also work to move the story at the same time.

    You made another great point about "moving people around". So often new writers focus on how characters get from place to place. Sometimes it is necessary, but we all know how to drive and take the bus and a lot of that can be left out.

  6. Thanks for your comments, CJ. I agree that showing the character's transition from point A to point B is a lull in the action and should be left out as it doesn't advance the plot, contribute to character development, or add tension - unless he/she has an accident along the way or is being followed or chased, of course!

  7. Great post Jodie, I can see why so many writers hire you!

  8. A wise editor once told me, "Never end a chapter with your character going to sleep. Your reader will put the book down and follow their lead."

    I like to write fast-paced books, and typically see them unfold like a movie in my head. It's part of the genre.

    HOWEVER... I do feel sad for the days when our attention spans were longer and we could linger over beautifully-worded descriptions of setting and people. At the end of the day, I just love words and love to find them put together in unique and eloquent ways.

    Man, I feel old.

  9. Thanks, Tom! :-)

    Gayle, great advice about not ending a chapter with a character going to sleep! Also, don't start a book or a chapter with a character waking up, then showering, getting dressed, having breakfast, etc. Yawn.

    I think there will always be literary novels where you can enjoy every word and turn of phrase. Readers of popular commercial fiction expect to be entertained more, though - they want things to move along at a faster clip. They want their adrenaline to flow!

  10. All very good advice, Jodie. It's so important to keep things moving. Not too fast, but not too slow, either. One thing I've learned to do--and trust me, it didn't come easily--is to give the readers just enough info so they can let their imaginations run wild. I set the scene with a few key sensory impressions--the smell of things, the mood of the surroundings, but I keep them brief and let the readers fill in the blanks.

    I also make it a point never to describe my main characters in vivid detail. I may drop one or two hints, but I don't want to interfere with the readers' imagination or impressions. I think it's often what you don't say that's important, rather than what you do.


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