Gone are the days of Victor Hugo. Back in those days, a novelist could get away with crafting a 200 page backstory inserted in chapter 2. In those days, you could go on and on about the setting, the history, the details without driving readers to the brink of literary insanity.
Those weren’t the days.
Though Victor Hugo wrote great stories, the way he wrote doesn’t work today. Take Les Miserables for example. Others have adapted it into a musical and multiple movies, but if they had included even half of what Victor Hugo included in the unabridged volume, the musical Les Miserables might end up looking more like a nine-hour Wagnerian opera. Instead, the directors boiled it down to the heart of the story, which in turn helped them pick up the pace.
In 2011, people’s attention spans have waned. We are used to quick information, quick entertainment, and snappy stories. Whether you are writing a short story, novel, or screenplay, you have to take that short attention span into account. Here are some ways I’ve found effective to pick up the pace:
- Start In the Action. The first chapter should not be the “nametag” chapter. “Hi, my name is Rich, and I will be your protagonist for this book. I’m short with brown hair and eyes, wear coke-bottle glasses, and have an overactive imagination. This is my mother…” In many cases, it is good to start with a little action. Introduce your main character to the reader while he or she is in the middle of solving a problem. The way that someone acts when put under pressure is a great way to get to know the real them.
- End Chapters “At the Top of the Hill”. You know that instant at the very top of a roller coaster when you are about to plunge down the first hill? You feel tense and excited all at the same time, a tension which will be released when you finally let gravity do its thing. Instead of ending your chapters with something like having the character go to sleep, end “at the top of the hill”, where something is about to happen. Promise the thrill of plummeting down the hill, but make them go to the next page to get it. Have your hero at the edge of the cliff, the killer about reader to strike from the darkness, the game-scoring point about to be attempted.
- Don’t Fill It Up With Flashbacks. The biggest thing about keeping up the pace is to keep the story moving forward. When you insert a flashback or a flashforward (thank you LOST), you risk interrupting the flow of your story. Instead, think about ways that events in the present to reveal important events in the past. Nothing makes my eyes glaze like reading, “And then Bill looked out the window and thought about a cold night....long ago….” It’s seriously like asking the people on the roller coaster to go back down the hill.
There are many ways to keeping the story going. The best thing to do is to have an objective party read your work after you are done and have them tell you about the pacing. Where did they want to stop reading? That may be where you need to pick up the pace.
Thoughts for Commenting:
In the comments, mention what methods you see in books that you like to keep the pace going. Are there ones you see that you don’t like? What are some things that bore you when reading?