Whether you’re writing a thriller or literary fiction, you want your story to feel interesting — and you certainly don’t want to bore your readers. Even an introspective, character-driven book needs to maintain an engaging pace.
Pacing, like many aspects of good writing, usually comes down to details. Once you tune your eye to look for them, you’ll see them everywhere. When you sit down to revise your novel, keep these tips in mind:
Cut the pleasantries.
Used wisely, dialogue helps keep your story moving. It can just as easily sabotage your pacing. Be careful not to replicate real-life dialogue too closely. Most conversations are actually pretty boring. Dialogue needs to feel realistic without actually being realistic.
When revising your dialogue, look first to the beginnings and endings of conversations. You can usually cut the initial small talk and the polite wrap-up. We don’t need to hear each character say “goodbye.” You can often handle pleasantries much more efficiently outisde the dialogue.
On the other hand, sometimes you’ll want to include pleasantries because they contribute to the scene. Just make sure you have a specific reason for doing so. As a rule of thumb, only include dialogue that reveals something about your story or characters. Readers have no interest in idle chit-chat.
Leave out extra detail (unless it matters).
Detail is like seasoning for your prose: it gives life to your scenes, but you need to use it wisely and with purpose. Too much will make your writing unpalatable. Too little will leave readers with nowhere to direct their focus.
Be careful with actions. You don’t need to describe your character setting down his drink, getting up from the couch, walking over to the kitchen, opening the refrigerator door, and peering in at the selection. You can simply say he got up and wandered over to the fridge to look for a snack. A choice detail here and there to draw attention to unique mannerisms or character traits, however, will really spice things up.
A major exception to this rule is when your main character is in danger, mortal or otherwise. If your character is being held captive and trying to sneak past a sleeping guard, you may want to describe every step.
Give your characters some dimension.
Avoid leaning on shorthand and generic types to describe your characters. Readers won’t sustain interest in your idea of a “typical housewife” or a harried lawyer trying to make partner at their firm. You need to add something unexpected.
This goes for your characters’ personalities, too. What makes your typically unflappable main character lose his patience? When does a character everyone thought was irresponsible rise to the occasion and save the day? Real people never stay in character 100 percent of the time. Let your characters surprise us, too.
Avoid telegraphing your main characters’ actions before they happen. This steals the power from your writing and slows the pace of your scene. Anytime you find yourself predicting what’s about to happen by describing your main character’s feelings or intentions, you can probably cut it.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t describe character emotions — you should! Just avoid saying he really wanted a drink, then showing your character getting up and grabbing a soda from the fridge. Readers will know he wanted a drink when they see him get one.
Effective pacing is all about knowing which details to include and which to leave out. Include details that make your characters and setting feel more three-dimensional, but cut anything mundane that doesn’t serve a clear purpose.