Tuesday, September 27, 2011

7 Tips to Improve Your Novel’s Pacing

By Dana Marton

JH: Romance author Dana Marton joins us today with great tips on pacing. One thing I especially like about her post is that her advice works for both action-y plots and slower more suspenseful plots. It's all about pacing to build the thrill (as it's often quoted), and not just about a breath-taking pace. When you're done here, definitely go take a peek at her website and her chart of the difference between real life romance, book romance, and intrigue romance.

Dana writes fast-paced action-adventure romances that take her readers all over the globe. She is a Rita Award finalist and the winner of the Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence. She loves writing stories of intrigue, filled with dangerous plots that try her tough-as-nails heroes and the special women they fall in love with. Her books include The Black Sheep Sheik, Avenging Agent, The Spy Who Saved Christmas, and many others. She's been published in seven languages in eleven countries around the world.You can find out more on her website, Facebook, or Twitter.

Take it away Dana...

To get the pacing right is crucial for all novels, but I think it’s truly paramount for suspense. I write fast-paced, edge-of-your seat romantic suspense. And I know people notice, because those words are mentioned in nearly every review my books receive. It’s part of my branding, but it also makes good sense for this subgenre. A car chase can’t crawl along. Criminals must be caught before they escape. The hero must reach the heroine tied up in the burning building, in time to save her.

If all I had were those high-speed, high-tension scenes, however, it would be exhausting for the reader. So to have a pacing that’s more enjoyable, the high-energy action scenes are interspersed with slow and sensuous romance scenes. Oh, to have the best of both worlds. It doesn’t happen often in real life, but in romantic suspense, you can!

But what if you don’t write romantic suspense? You still have to make sure to create the perfect ebb and flow of story. Put too many slow scenes next to each other, and your reader might just lose interest in the book and abandon it. Your goal should be to give readers a book they simply can’t put down. How do you achieve that? I’m far from an expert, but over the years I discovered a few tricks. Here are the ones that I think are the most important:

1. Start at a crucial moment that immediately draws your reader in. Either the hero or the heroine must be at crossroads. Difficult choices lie ahead, choices that must be made and made RIGHT NOW. If both are at a crisis point, so much the better. If what they desperately need is mutually exclusive, you have a great start. Don’t be afraid of shooting your readers out of a rocket right at the beginning. They’ll thank you for the thrill ride.

2. You should start not only your first chapter at a critical point, but all future chapters/scenes as well. Readers read to the end of the chapter for a break if they have to put the book down. But most often, they’ll read just the first sentence or two of the next chapter to get an idea of what’s coming. Make sure it’s so compelling that they won’t be able to put the book down. When they write your amazon review, you want them to say, “I could not put this book down. Had to read it in one sitting.”

3. End each scene on a cliffhanger. I try to never leave an action scene in one block, from beginning to end. I usually chop it up into at least three parts, for maximum effect. The structure might look something like this.
scene 21: romance develops, all looks wonderful, kiss etc… then at the end of the scene, armed men burst in and kidnap the heroine
scene 22: hero goes after her, big car chase, fight scene, hero is pinned down, looks like they’ll both die
scene 23: hero somehow turns the situation around, against all odds, and saves their lives… they escape with new information that propels the story forward
4. If you have a secondary plot (e.g. a secondary romance), you can increase tension by alternating scenes with that, leaving the reader hanging and wondering. Secondary plots give you all sorts of options to tune up your pacing.
scene 21: romance develops, all looks wonderful, kiss etc, then at the end of the scene, armed men burst in and kidnap the heroine
scene 22: secondary plot
scene 23: hero goes after her, big car chase, fight scene, hero is pinned down, looks like they’ll both die
scene 24: secondary plot
scene 25: hero somehow turns the situation around, against all odds, and saves their lives, they escape with new information
scene 26: secondary plot
5. Leave out the boring stuff. Seriously. A common mistake beginners make is to stay with the characters through thick or thin. Stick to the most tension-filled moments, where important things are at stake.

6. To speed up pacing, you can summarize events. Say, you have a chase scene and the hero and heroine escape. Don’t show them getting back to the houseboat where the bomb is waiting. Summarize it in a sentence or two. “Her body exhausted and battered, she slept through the ride home. Next thing she knew, Jase was lifting her out of the car.” Or, better yet, insert a scene with the secondary plot between the chase scene and the following one. The reader will know that things have progressed while he/she was reading about the secondary characters.

7. To slow pacing, which sometimes you’ll have to do to keep balance, you can add sensory detail. This is the place to notice what people look like, the weather and the setting. In the fast scenes, you won’t have time to communicate all that, yet those are important details that can define mood and add a lot of symbolism to your story.

Does this work? All I can say is, it seems to work for me. My last book, THE BLACK SHEEP SHEIK, was an RT Book Reviews Top Pick for the month of September. This is what the reviewer said: “Marton wraps up the ongoing Wind River County mystery with deft fingers, snappy dialogue and an adventure so tense it will knock readers off their feet.”

Do you know where that tension comes from? From pacing, of course! Go ahead and try it!

Wishing you the very best luck with your writing!

About The Black Sheep Sheik

Waking up from a coma in a remote Wyoming cabin, Sheik Amir Khalid thought he was dreaming when he laid eyes on the woman he'd spent one steamy weekend with.

Dr. Isabelle Andrews was every bit as gorgeous as he remembered—and nine months pregnant. But when shots rang out and it was clear their hideaway had been discovered, Amir's questions had to wait. Desperate to keep Isabelle and his unborn baby safe, Amir vowed to personally guard them 24/7. And as the independent beauty fought him at every turn, he knew it wasn't just royal protocol that made him want to keep her by his side. He'd give up everything that was expected of him if it meant protecting the family he'd only just met. Including his life.


  1. Hmm...interesting article, especially point 2!

    However, about the last point: What is your approach on bending sentence structure to increase or decrease pacing? For example, in one fight scene in my 2nd draft, the narrator switches to mostly simple sentences ("She strike. I blocked. She jab. I dodge...") along with some one-word sentences (when the narrator is counting down. And then the death scene brings out the complex sentences and long lists.

  2. Most definitely, C0. Sentence structure is a great way to slow or speed the action. You can even go as far as paying attention to the individual words and the sounds they make. For a fight: short sentences and short words with sharp sounds. For a love scene: longer sentences with words that have a more lyrical, softer sound.

  3. I love by numbers 2, 3, and 4!

    Thank you for sharing, Dana.

    And thank you for bringing Dana to us, Janice.


  4. Great tips...thank you.

  5. I love your chart on the difference between real life/ regular romance/ harlequin intrigue romance.

  6. Chicory--I had fun making that :-) I'm glad you like it.

    Thank you for stopping in, Myne and Raelyn! Hope you can use some of my tips.

    Heidi--It's so good to see you here. Ambassadora rocks!!

  7. Great post. :-)

    I definitely make use of the alternate character trick when something boring's happening with my main characters.

  8. As someone who had read and reviewed several of your books. The first thing i think of once i get going on reading your books is wow this is great. Fast paced and lots of action carry me right through the book in one sitting if time permits it. I don't see this that often in the shorter books. I always want more because i liked it but also feel i got everything possible packed into the number of pages you have to work with.

    This is so interesting to see you explain it.

    Lisa B

  9. Hi Dana- Very helpful, and loved the chart too. What's coming up next for you?

  10. Jeff--You're welcome!

    GayleC--Next up is Avenging Agent, the third novella in my Agents under Fire trilogy. Then it's Last Spy Standing in January from Intrigue. Thank you for asking! Good to see you here!

    Lisa--Waving madly Thank you for that wonderful compliment!

    Misha--Good luck with your writing!

  11. This is so, soooo helpful. I have a phone call with an editor tomorrow to talk about -you guessed it- pacing.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  12. Some helpful hints and ideas. Thanks for sharing. I'm not quite sure what genre I'm writing (just a hobby writer), but some of the tricks are useful anyway >:)

    Cold As Heaven

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