Presented at THRILLERFEST, July 9, 2009
PACE: Ten Surefire Ways to Keep the Pages Turning.
OKAY, HERE’S HOW IT’S GONNA GO. I’m gonna talk about how to elevate the PACE in your books. I’m going to break PACE into two categories: structural, or how you order or organize the book, and syntactical, meaning your sentence structure and prose style. And I’m going do my best and try and say TWO OR THREE smart things in the next forty minutes…That’s all. The rest is just gonna be filler for me to get to the Q and A, where you can say some smart things. And I’m even gonna say those two things up front, so if you’re compelled to leave, to catch someone else’s talk, feel free to go.
And the first of those smart things–I hope—is…There is absolutely no right or wrong when it comes to pace. Slow or fast. It’s only a matter of what you want to accomplish in your book. THE BEST PACE, like a referee in a hockey or basketball game, is the pace you don’t notice. When it never intrudes on your enjoyment of the game. THE SAME WITH PACE.
Another “smart” thing: EVERYTHING IN A BOOK IS A TRADE OFF. A trade off of what the reader will accept and what you are trying to accomplish. You can layer deeper character detail or richer back story in, have more elaborate scene setting or descriptive passages. You can describe homes in Architectural Digest details, how someone is dressed as if it’s an article in GQ— but everything has a trade-off. And that trade off is – it slows down the pace. Conversely, you can strip down the prose to nothing but simple sentences and robotic, declarative dialogue and action. That may speed it up, but then the book lacks richness and texture. It sounds simple, but it’s about balance. And your goals. If you want pages to turn, really turn, something has to give. SO THE RIGHT PACE IS THE BALANCE THAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU TO ACCOMPLISH YOUR OWN GOALS.
I’m not going to attempt to define what pace is…To me, that’s a waste of time. It’s sort of like pornography—can’t define it, but know it when you see it!
BUT AMERICANS LIKE NUMBERS AND I HAVE SPENT YEARS WORKING OUT A COMPLEX MATHEMATICAL ALGORITHM THAT DISPLAYS WITH 100% MATHEMATICAL CERTAINTY, PRECISELY WHAT PACE IS. AND I WANT YOU TO MEMORIZE IT AND REFLECT ON IT WHEN YOU’RE STUCK OVER YOUR BOOK AS TO WHAT TO LEAVE IN AND WHAT TO LEAVE OUT:
S (G – B)2
U – N2
S = speed
G = the point where the good guy stumbles onto a crime
B = the point where the good guy finally kills the bad guy
U = defined as the writerly urge to use self-indulgent or overly descriptive language, and
Ns = the number of times he/she gets to have sex in the book.
THIS IS PACE, ladies and gentlemen. Learn to recognize it when you see it!
It is the speed at which the hero first comes on the crime until he follows the clues, solves the puzzle, chases down and kills the bad guy–over, all that stuff that a good editor editor would eliminate minus the frequency of sex.
HELLO. SIMPLE. Don’t laugh, it’s actually true.
Now if that’s not enough, that may tell you what pace is, but it doesn’t really help you because it doesn’t tell you how to actually measure the rate of pace. For that I have another equally timed honed algorithm.
Sk – $$
Where, in this formula:
W = amount of Words
Times, A = the number of Actions, or what, ladies and gentlemen, the duration of your plot.
Sk = With apologies to Elmore Leonard, the parts that readers tend to skip! minus
$ = the dollar amt if you happen to have one of those old fashioned contracts where you are actually paid by the word. Which you don’t. So don’t worry about it. That was just a joke!
Now in this formula, it’s important to further define Sk The parts readers tend to skip. In its place you could easy substitute in:
I = too much Information. You do not need to take your reader through complex derivative analysis just because you are going to kill off a hedge fund manager. You do not need to show you reader you’re not really a writer, but an arms expert because your hero uses a gun. You can do it. You can give the historical background to the building your character is walking into, but it does what—it slows down the pace. Sk can also be recorded as
SH = showing off. Or,
B = plain old BORING
SH (showing off) is when you try to slip in some slick and artsy prose for the reviewers that doesn’t really advance the plot, which is okay, but please, not when the bad guy’s hands are tight around the hero’s throat. That creates Ir. Irritating to the reader.
And trust me, you’re not likely to get reviewed anyway.
For those who think more linearly, another way to look at this is the continuum line between P and p.
Big P———————————————————————————-small p
Big P we will call….Marcel Proust.
Small p is James Patterson. Sorry Jim.
THESE ARE THE TWO ABSOLUTE ANTIPODES OF PACE!
PROUST, as we know, took 30 pages to describe the joy of eating a cracker.
With PATTERSON, In the same thirty pages, you get ten chapters, two murders and three chase scenes!
The point is… THERE’S NO RIGHT OR WRONG WHEN IT COMES TO THEIR PACE. It’s all a matter of what they are trying to accomplish.
Without his pace, Proust would never have gotten a trilogy, and without his, JP might still be in advertising.
BUT WHAT IS ESSENTIAL, Smart Point #3…is to make sure your goals and what you want to accomplish are aligned.
If you go for speed, your prose has to back it up. If you’re going for something else, your sentence and structure should reflect that too. It would not work in a mannered, literary novel set in a languorous garden in Yorkshire, for the character to : “I got to the end of the hedge. I looked both ways. I saw no one coming. My heart started to race. I turned, heading under the rhododendrum…”
Now I said pace is both STRUCTURAL AND SYNTACTICAL.
By structure, I mean how your book is organized or its plot developed. This can be a PACE accelerator too.
By syntax, I mean, your writing style.
How does STRUCTURE help create pace?
CRISP, SHORT CHAPTERS.
CULLING CHAPTERS TO SINGLE SCENES STRIPPED DOWN TO THEIR ELEMENTAL, DRAMATIC CORE.
GETTING IN AND OUT OF THOSE CHAPTERS FAST.
A CLOSE-IN, FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW. (Helps make you FEEL what is happening. Creates immediacy.)
And how does SYNTAX help create pace?
Sentence structure should mirror what is happening at that moment in the book. If you’re in a chase scene, don’t weigh it down with turgid, complex sentences. Simple sentences. Short thoughts in the mind of the characters.
It’s sort of obvious except how many times in the heat of a final chase scene, do you come across some endless, weird, overwrought sentence, with a lot of indirect clauses, and by the end of it, someone has a gun you didn’t know even had one, or someone’s lying on the floor I DIDN’T KNOW WAS SHOT!
It makes you go back and re-read the thing and go, what just happened. Which supports my last, obvious but sometimes overlooked thing: If you’re going for PACE, never take your reader out of the narrative.
MAKE YOUR WRITING STYLE FIT EXACTLY WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE BOOK
Like I said, everything the writer does reflects a trade-off. Yes, I could have spent more time on the hero’s relationship with his brother. Yes, I could have deepened my back story. But I did what I thought was right—given that what’s important for me is for people to keep turning pages. Not to find a reason o put the book down. On the other hand, it seems fair that three page chapters and short declarative sentences will not get you short listed to the National Book Award or Booker Prize!
NOW, I GO FOR SPEED. I like my books to be devoured in two or three sittings. NOT IN ONE! THREE! I GUESS I DO WANT THEM TO BE SAVORED JUST A BIT.
So here we are. I said I was going to give you TEN SUREFIRE WAYS to keep your pages turning. To create PACE. So here they are:
I said to think of them both in terms of structure and syntax. So in no particular order…
1. SHORT, LINKING, DRAMATIC CHAPTERS. End on a hook that makes the reader want to turn to the next page. Enticing the reader to go further than intended is the surest form of PACE.
2. THE SCENE. Eliminate whatever does not directly advance the story. Cull it down to its elemental dramatic core. Whether it’s two pages or ten.
3. YOUR WRITING SHOULD REFLECT PRECISELY WHAT IS GOING ON. When the scene calls for speed, write with it! Action scenes should utilize crisp, understandable sentences. Not where somewhere in the middle of some LONG, inscrutable, run-on sentences, someone has pulled out a gun. NEVER pull the reader out of the narrative. Do not make him go back and scratch his head, “Where did that gun come from?” Or, “How did we get over here?”
Conversely, it’s okay, of course, to use a richer, more complex style when the situations calls for it—if you can pull it off.
Or unless it’s about SEX. The goal, gals, as we all know, is try and REMOVE too much pace from sex! :-)
4. DON’T BOG THE NARRATIVE FLOW DOWN by showing off, being boring, injecting an unnecessary description unless it is directly called for. If the reader is turning the pages to find out what happens, give them what they want to read! Give them what YOU would want to read!
5. Which brings us to the following, with all credit to Elmore Leonard, “Try and eliminate the parts readers tend to skip.”
6. PARE, PARE, PARE. Learn that there is nothing more fun than the elimination of all those precious, hard-to-come-by words and paragraphs. Sometimes even a single extra word can stand out, slow a sentence down and draw attention to itself. You know, in your heart, when you are being self-indulgent or trying to show off. We all do it. Well, the reader knows it too. Keep it in the first draft! Again, Do not take the reader out of the narrative.
7. DO NOT OVERPROVIDE INFORMATION. Make sure what is interesting to you is not boring to the reader. I always find there is too much data. Decide what details you need and maybe cut it in half. I sometimes write about financial things, being that my books take place in Greenwich, and my characters can be hedge fund managers or lawyers with appropriate schemes. But I try and give the reader what they need in ONE PARAGRAPH. Not pages!
8. ORIENT THE READER quickly when you begin a scene. Don’t make them guess. Don’t make them figure out, who’s talking, where they are. What may have taken place. Root the reader in the scene immediately .Anytime they are not—it’s taking them out of the narrative. Slowing down pace.
9. KNOW WHAT EACH CHAPTER, OR SCENE, IS SUPPOSED TO DELIVER. And don’t try and make it do more. Don’t weight down chapters with too many scenes—I do one_- and don’t weight down scenes by staying in too long.
10. And lastly, the final, surefire way to get those pages turning faster, if all else fails. USE A LARGER FONT!
Hope some of this has been helpful, and here’s to your pages speeding up!