The Thrill of the Pace: Creating a book that readers can’t put down
Readers today have a finite amount of time and an explosion of different entertainment options. As a thriller author, my competition for readers’ attention isn’t just other books. With a smart phone in every person’s pocket, my real competition is Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok, Xbox, Candy Crush, and Fortnite. If my reader’s mind wanders because they’re bored with the story, it’s easy to pick up their phone or TV remote to find something better to do.
So with every book I write, my goal is to keep the reader from ever finding a comfortable spot to put the book down. I want them to say to themselves, “Okay, just one more chapter before I go to sleep,” and then suddenly realize it’s three am. My favorite emails are ones I get from readers who report that they missed their subway stop or were bleary-eyed at work the next morning because the story was so gripping that they couldn’t tear themselves away from it.
Here are the guidelines I use when crafting the pacing in my books. Remember, this is just what works for me; your mileage may vary.
What does “fast-paced” mean?
It’s all about rhythm and momentum. Although it’s a tired cliché, a good thriller novel really is paced like a rollercoaster. There’s the stomach-clenching build-up as you climb the mountainous first hill, tension building all the way. Then there’s the release and exhilaration as you plunge down the first drop, after which there’s a bit of a pause for you to catch your breath and prepare for the next fall. The difference from an actual rollercoaster is that in my novel I want the last thrill to be the biggest one.
Don’t underestimate the importance of breathing room to readers.
Ironically, action scenes can get tedious if they come one right after the other with no letup. Scenes where the characters take stock of what just happened, regroup, and plan for what comes next build tension. The resulting action scene is the release of that tension.
Varying the sentence structure subtly helps distinguish the type of scene. Longer sentences with descriptions and dependent clauses are more appropriate for suspense-building. Short sentences convey action.
Telling my story to a friend
Elmore Leonard famously said, “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” Of course, there are elements of the story I need to create a feel for the location and a sense of atmosphere, but I focus on how those descriptions are relevant to the plot and characters.
I think of how I would tell the story of my novel to a friend verbally. Is there any place where I could imagine my friend glancing at their watch, stifling a yawn, or distractedly gazing into the distance? If so, I leave it out. In my thrillers, readers want to be swept away in the adventure and thrills, not be bogged down by boring details.
I have several trusted beta readers who help find those dead spots, and I’m open to constructive criticism. I don’t want their feedback to be brutal, but it does have to be honest, and I accept it, even if it hurts a bit. After all, everything can be changed. They’re just words on a screen, not written in stone.
In media res
In media res is Latin for “in the middle of things.” Kurt Vonnegut recommended, “Start as close to the end as possible.” I want the opening of my book to drop readers into the story as late as I can. Often, the action is already in media res, and the reader has to figure out what’s going on. It’s a balancing act, because I also don’t want my reader so confused about what’s going on that they are lost.
I don’t begin the story with excessive character description, backstory, scene setting, or elaborate descriptions of the weather.
I provide just enough information so that the characters aren’t disembodied talking heads, and I get the story underway at a critical juncture, essentially the point of no return propelling the character forward.
The key is presenting a question to the reader, one that compels them to keep reading to find out the answer. If my first sentence, paragraph, and chapter don’t bring to mind interesting questions or puzzles for the reader to solve by diving into the next chapter, they probably won’t keep reading.
For example, my book ROGUE WAVE begins with the sentence, “Captain Michael Robb opened his eyes to find himself lying on the cockpit floor.” There are a number of implicit questions packed in there. Is Robb the pilot? Is the plane in flight? Why is he on the floor of the cockpit? Was he unconscious? If so, why? My hope is that readers will keep going to find out the answers, and in the process even more fascinating questions are raised.
One of the first steps in creating suspense is setting out the rules of my story. Readers should understand who the players are, what’s at stake, and what the consequences of the actions will be. Suspense develops from the reader understanding and caring about what happens to those characters.
Alfred Hitchcock noted the difference between surprise and suspense. Surprise is a bomb going off under the characters’ restaurant table. Suspense comes from the reader already knowing that the bomb is under the table when they sit down for dinner.
Suspense is also related to seeding resolutions to tense situations from the beginning so that they’re breathtaking in the moment, but inevitable upon reflection. If my character offs the villain with a drill, I don’t reveal that handy weapon in the paragraph before. I introduce it in an earlier scene in the book with enough distance so that the reader forgets about it, but still thinks it’s clever when it’s ultimately used.
I love to leave readers with cliffhangers at the end of each and every chapter. That way, they are compelled to find out what happens next. It doesn’t have to be life and death (although it often is in my books). It just has to raise a new mystery for the reader or present a new obstacle or dilemma for the protagonist.
I never save the life of a character at the end of the chapter. The reader could say, “Phew!” and be able to put the book down because the danger is passed. Similarly, I don’t have a character go to sleep at the end of the chapter. If the protagonist is going to bed, so can my reader. I try to end the chapter on strong note, focusing on the last sentence and even the last word.
I don’t use foreshadowing that is out of the character’s point of view, such as, “Little did he know, but he had less than five minutes to live.” I try to be more subtle than that and present only information that the character would know.
Enter late, leave early
Think of any Law and Order episode. Previously, detective programs showed the cops, getting in their car, driving to the suspect’s house, getting out of the car, and knocking on the door. In Law and Order, however, scenes often begin with the detectives already in the middle of the questioning, which electrifies the pace of the story.
Throughout the story, I avoid showing mundane activities unless they’re relevant to the plot.
Readers know my characters eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom, so I leave out all of that unnecessary routine. I also omit traveling scenes unless I can use one to further the plot, provide necessary exposition, or flesh out the characters. As in Law and Order, I simply teleport the characters to the next scene.
Likewise, if several hours or days go by between important scenes, I’ll fast-forward to those spots and provide a recap of anything pertinent that happened in the interim.
Showing my research
My books often require loads of research into history, technology and exotic locations, and it’s fun to explore all of that as I’m writing the book. But using all of it can cause the story to seriously lag. I bet I draw on only 10% of all the research I gathered for the book, but going through the other 90% was what got me the juicy stuff.
It’s tempting to info-dump all of that research, which makes for a dull read. Having characters explain the info to each other can make it go by faster, but I don’t have characters tell another person something they should already know (“As a Nobel-prize-winning physicist, Dr. Tindale, you are well aware that nuclear fission is…”). I attempt to make the conversation more organic.
In general, long paragraphs of exposition and description can slow a story to a crawl, so I’m careful to eliminate as many of them as possible. But I also keep in mind that readers love learning something new, one of the most rewarding aspects of reading.
A lot of dialogue literally makes a book a quick page-turner because of all the white space. I use dialogue tags sparingly, just often enough to orient the reader as to who is speaking. “Said” and “asked” make up 98% of my tags. More unusual tags like “exclaimed” and “murmured” can draw too much attention if they are overused.
I try to make each person’s style of speaking or cadence distinctive enough for the reader to identify who is talking. But I avoid using patois or spelling out dialects, which can really slow me down when I’m reading a book and have to sound out the words someone is speaking.
The ticking clock
I often set a ticking clock and make both the reader and the protagonist aware of it to heighten the tension. Then just when it seems like they might be able to beat the clock, I shorten the timetable.
Adding a deadline always amps up the pace.
I regularly remind the reader of the deadline. I also pay attention to explaining what day and time it is in the story, so the ticking clock is still looming. This can be a challenge with my stories, because they often take place with different characters across multiple time zones. Sometimes I put the time and date at the beginning of the chapter, and sometimes I embed it in the narrative.
Before I get to the meat of the action in complicated scenarios or unusual settings, I explain all of the location details, character positioning, and stakes before the shooting starts. If I wait, the reader is either confused about what is going on, or I have to pause the action as it’s happening, which dampens the excitement and pacing.
I do take time during the action to describe how the characters are reacting. Smells, tastes, and feelings can be heightened in life or death situations, and the description of those sensations results in a more immersive scene.
I make sure not to rush it at the end of the book. The big finale is what my readers have been waiting 400 pages to see. I don’t draw it out unnecessarily, but I want my readers to feel they got their money’s worth.
That means providing a satisfying resolution for my characters. It’s not always a totally happy ending, but it delivers on the promise of the book and resolves all of the plot threads. Dispensing an appropriate comeuppance for the villain is also something I put a lot of thought into.
And I never resort to deus ex machina.
There’s no cavalry that comes in to save the day. The protagonist defeats the villain’s plans by resourcefulness, skill, stamina, or willpower.
Above all, my goal is to leave the reader wanting more. The end of the book isn’t a cliffhanger, but it should make them eager to dive into my next adventure.
Boyd Morrison is a #1 NY Times bestselling author, actor, engineer, and Jeopardy! champion. He started his career working on NASA’s space station project at Johnson Space Center, where he got the opportunity to fly on the Vomit Comet, the same plane used to train astronauts for zero gravity. For non-fiction thrills, he enjoys white water rafting, skiing, scuba diving, and bungee jumping. Boyd is also a professional actor, appearing in films, commercials, and stage plays. In 2003 he fulfilled a lifelong dream and became a Jeopardy! champion. He currently lives in Seattle with his wife. His newest thriller MAURADER in the Clive Cussler Oregon Files is out this week!