How to write a novel 101: Pacing

In my earlier post about prose I had compared a novel to a ladder, and said that it was your job as a writer to keep the reader motivated to step up to the next rung. Prose is the first tool in your chest to accomplish that task, and the way you connect your scenes and their length is another. I know I Googled the shit out of things like “average chapter length”, “average length of a thriller”, “word count for thrillers”, you name it, I was a man on a mission looking for the answer.

Then a few things dawned on me. The first was that it really doesn’t matter what your average chapter length is, what matters is that all your chapters serve a purpose, include only the information necessary to move the story at that time, and it first pulls the reader in and then ends in a way that keeps their interest.

James Patterson is the man who gave me the tip about “if it’s not moving the story forward, ditch it” (in so many words). I killed a lot of what I thought were very well written parts from my book. I popped open a good bottle of red and began chopping things I really liked out. After I was done, my copy-editor gave me another dose of “this doesn’t move the story forward”. Thanks man, those were the ones I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to chop alone, and needed a doctor present in order to perform the procedure.

Okay, so you get it, remove what is bad also eliminates some of the barriers for a reader to climb that ladder. There is another nifty little trick you can do to create suspense and motivation for the reader. There was a insightful article in the New York Times written by Lee Child, who is a complete ninja badass writer. In the article he put how to build suspense so simply and brilliantly I want to give the guy a big fat hug for it! (Lee, if some random redheaded guy with long hair runs up and gives you a hug when you’re walking around in DC on day, don’t sweat it, it’s cool, it’s just me…) I’ll let you read the article for yourself (go read it now and come back, you’ll be glad you did), but basically one of the easiest way to create suspense in your novel is to leave out details until you need to reveal them.  Here’s a teaser from his article:

“As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer.”
— Lee Child, ninja writer and bestselling madman

Okay, so your back from being enlightened from one of the masters? Now on to the next part in novel pacing that I found important, which is pulling the reader in and making them want to read on. It’s a simple concept, begin your chapter with a paragraph that pulls the reader in and end it with some sort of cliffhanger. What worked for me was analyzing Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code. He does an incredible job of juggling several scenes simultaneously and ending them a just the right place to piss you off. What I mean by that is that you want to know something at the end, so you need to read the next chapter, but that goes into another scene and then too leaves you hanging… Rinse, repeat.

The combination of simple prose, chapters that matter, openings that intrigue and leaving out details while being sure chapter endings pull the reader through to the next are the ingredients of pacing I found most to be important. I take what I believe is important from the writers I enjoy and toss it in a blender. Easy peasy.

Questions to ask yourself when writing a chapter:

  • What about this chapter moves the story forward?
  • Are there any details I can hold off on until later in the chapter or book to create suspense?
  • Is the opening strong enough?
  • Does the ending make me want to know more?