Keeping your reader’s attention is not just a matter of writing back to back cliff hangers or tacking on one segmented episode after another, it requires grabbing the reader’s involvement so that they can’t wait to know what is going to happen next. They become vested in the main character’s success.
If a reader is too bored to find out what’s going to happen next, it’s likely you’re driving the reader out of your story because the pacing is lackluster.
When a reader or publisher says the book didn’t hold their attention, it could be because the storyline was weak or the pacing didn’t hold up the plot. If the plot is the “why” the of the protagonist’s story, then pacing is the “how” the protagonist gets to where they’re going.
Pacing is a deliberate process of releasing your storyline in a controlled way. Readers should never know that they are being led and guided through each chapter as the plot is unveiled. The best authors vary the pace. Certain scenes move rapidly while others allow readers to catch their breath before the plot is off and running again.
Hooks are critical to a page-turning, well-paced mystery novel. The book’s first sentence, or scene; and, a chapter’s last scene, or sentence—should draw-in and hold the reader. A great hook sets the pace for the book and engages the reader because they must turn the page to find out what happens next. Writing craft techniques such as: foreshadowing, main character in conflict, unanswered questions, upsetting internal dialogue, the completely unexpected, are all samples of hooks.
The creation of strong scenes is another critical contributor to good pacing. Scenes are where the action occurs in a chapter. The more scenes, the more action you can have. The more action, the faster pacing. However, caution must be taken not to rush from one action scene to another because, first, it will wear out the reader and second, it undermines the emotional buy-in we should have for the main characters. We need a pause to reflect, in order to care about what is happening to the characters.
Concerned about a sagging middle? Check out your pacing. Create a scene with a plot twist preferably right after the protagonist has decided to go in an opposite direction.
Which takes us to another tool in the pacing toolbox—subplots. Well-written subplots create complications for the main character that create more main plot questions, or more questions about the main character. It’s the spacing (i.e. pacing) of subplot questions that keep the reader engaged. Will he leave? Will she survive? Will the real murderer be caught?
Remember to control pacing of your mystery you should evaluate the best tool to manage the pace. There should be a balance between speed-raised by the plot questions, dialogue and short chapters; versus a slower pace caused by interior dialogue, an engaging sex scene, narrative description or secondary characters’ subplots.
Structure affects pacing. If you feel the book is lagging as you are writing, look at the word allocation. It’s easy for a reader to get bored when you give scenes too much narrative—that is too many words on a page. Don’t let wordy descriptions or irrelevant detail drag on. Descriptions of any kind slow down the pace of a mystery novel. They’re best when the action is ramping up, or if building tension in the plot. But like any undertaking, too many words (or too little white space) on a page weighs down your writing and the reader will pick up another book.
Endings are sometimes overlooked as pacing opportunities in a novel. Whether you’re writing a mystery series or stand-alones, you want the reader to pick up your next book. The last paragraph in your novel, even the last line, must hook the reader. It’s the promise of the next escalating adventure that will keep your fans reading your series and impatient for the release of your next book.
Rae James writes under R. Franklin James and is the author of the Hollis Morgan Mysteries. The first book in the series, The Fallen Angels Book Club was released by Camel Press in 2013. Book two, Sticks & Stones, was followed by The Return of the Fallen Angels Book Club. The fourth book in the series: The Trade List was released this June 2016. James resides in Northern California.