From Rick:

Someone recently asked the question: How does one get and hold a reader’s interest? This is a difficult to answer because not only are different readers interested in different things, but a given reader rarely has a single reading interest. Add to that the almost limitless possibilities of story openings and we begin to understand the problem.

There is no clear definition of what constitutes “an interesting opening.” It could be an event, the character’s voice, or even the style of writing that grabs a reader’s attention.

By asking this question, we are really asking two different and only partially related questions. One you hook your reader, the problem is to keep him going at a pace that matches the type of story. Since I’ve already done a number of blogs on openings, I’ll address the pacing part here.

How we determine pace is strongly tied to the type of story, the style of writing, and how the story needs to be paced at any given moment. An action story or thriller (The DaVinci Code)is going to be paced differently than a character study (The Great Gatsby) or a quiet romance (The Bridges of Madison County).

But very few stories will or should maintain an even pace. “Even” is boring. Consider Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz) as good examples of multi-paced stories, where scenes of high tension move along faster than do quieter scenes.

Pace is also tied to the story’s length. You clearly don’t want a short story to drag in the first 75% then suddenly pick up in the last page or two. You’ll lose the reader before he or she gets near the end. Novels, on the other hand, have more time to develop story, but you still don’t want them to drag.

The more you have going on in a story, the more carefully you must control the pace to maintain reader interest. For example, if you have two converging plot lines, one where the character is rushing to complete something and the other less frantic but still important to the story, then you have to decide how long each scene will be to keep the reader with you and the story lines coming together properly. You can’t keep the reader waiting too long for the next action scene or he’ll skip over the slower moving story line and possibly miss important details.

Think of movies or TV shows you’ve watched that are like this. If you were a fan of the various Star Trek spinoff series, you may recall that the episodes often had two stories running in parallel, sometimes related, sometimes not. The script writers had to time and pace them to ensure the viewers stayed interested (and that both story lines wrapped up together at the end of the episode). That’s tricky to do, and a movie that doesn’t flow well will disappoint viewers won’t show good box office sales.

Author Elmore Leonard said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” That’s excellent advice. If a reader wants to skip over something, then you’ve failed at your job as a writer and wasted your time writing what the reader isn’t interested in.

Here are a few quick tips on controlling pacing:

Short sentences, short paragraphs, and rapid-fire dialogue speed things up. Detailed description, thoughts during action scenes, longer sentences and paragraphs, and exposition slow things down.

These are by no means all-inclusive, and many other factors can speed up and slow the pace. And a slow pace doesn’t equate with boring. You can use a slow-paced scene after a tense, incomplete one to build tension and interest. In general, action (which may include dialogue) equals faster pace. Non-action slows the pace.

Remember that during action scenes where events are happening a rapid pace, characters do not have much time for extensive thoughts. The same is true when emotions are running high. If your characters are thinking a lot during a rapid-paced scene, you’re being unrealistic as well as slowing the pace. Yes, characters can think during action scenes, but make sure you don’t have them taking too long. When that sword blade is swishing its way toward your character, he probably doesn’t have time to regret being here in the first place.

Here’s a passage to illustrate. It’s a back-and-forth dialogue, but in the first version I’ve slowed the pace with a more character mental musings. The second version is how I originally wrote it. There’s really nothing wrong with the first version except maybe some unnecessary telling in places, but pay attention to how the different the pacing is between the two versions.

(Note: This passage comes from one of my earlier vampire novels that I’m revising. I apologize for one use of the f-word here in Adrian’s thoughts, but the passage loses its meaning without it.)

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VERSION ONE (slower pace):

Adrian leaned back in his chair, looking past his PCs and servers at the satin-black wall behind them. He’d recently repainted the room with Jonathan’s help. Black made the flatscreen monitors stand out better. Not having to crank the contrast and brightness was easier on his sensitive, vampire eyes. And the black wall was way cool.

He’d painted the other walls and ceiling pale orange. Indirect lighting around the ceiling cast a warm glow over the room. Jonathan had picked the color. He claimed Halloween colors and vampires went well together.

Adrian returned to his hacking frustrations. “Where the hell did you go, Adam? I didn’t think you were that smart.”

“Only old folks talk to themselves,” Jonathan said. He looked up at Adrian and grinned. “Oh, I forgot, you are old. My bad.”

Adrian was used to Jonathan’s insults, so he accepted them and went with the flow. “Hey, dogbreath, I’m only twenty-two.”

“In vampire years, loser.”

What a pain the kid could be at times. No matter what Adrian said, Jonathan would have some smart retort. But he at least had to try to defend himself, didn’t he? “In human years.” Fucktard.

With an exaggerated finger press, Jonathan paused his iPod.

Oops. Adrian knew that look. Jonathan was about to engage in a serious verbal battle. “Uncle Eli is gonna be so pissed at you for swearing at me, mega-loser.”

“I did not swear at you.” For all the good it would do him to deny it.

Jonathan put his fingertips on his temples. “You thought it and I heard it, so it’s a swear.”

Maybe all wasn’t lost. Adrian put a finger on his forehead. “That was my private thought, you little pain-in-the-anus. Eli warned you not to poke into people’s minds without their consent.”

The kid gave him that sneer-like grin that said he had yet another perfect comeback. “Uncle Eli says it’s okay to poke sometimes. He pokes yours all the time.” He wrinkled his nose and gave his mean stare. “You’re a bigger tard than me.”

Maybe a gentle reminder would save his honor. “‘Sometimes’ is the operative word. He doesn’t read my thoughts all the time.”

“Only ‘cuz there’s not much to read, stem.”

Stem? Adrian was confused. “What’s that mean?”

“Stem. Like brainstem. Like nothing above the neck.”

Score a good one for Jonathan. Adrian suppressed a desire to smile. “How you doing with that video game? You done hacking it?”

“Almost. I beat your score an hour ago.” He displayed his straight, white teeth. “It’s so cool how you teach me all this shit.”

Adrian glared at him, but Jonathan’s expression told him the kid wasn’t done.

“‘Shit’ isn’t a bad swear.”

He glared again.

“I’m hungry.”

Now he was trying to change the subject. “You had blood last night.”

“Real food. Pizza, super-deluxe with everything. Good pizza, not the frozen store… stuff.”

“You had good pizza yesterday, and it cost me twenty-five bucks. You think I’m made of money?” As soon as Adrian said that, he regretted it. He saw in Jonathan’s eyes that the kid had the perfect response.

“The Vamp Council pays you mega bucks to hack for them, and Uncle Eli gives you a mega allowance to spend on me, so… yeah.”

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VERSION TWO (faster pace):

Adrian leaned back in his chair, looking past his PCs and servers at the satin-black wall behind them. He’d recently repainted the room with Jonathan’s help. Black made the flatscreen monitors stand out better. Not having to crank the contrast and brightness was easier on his sensitive, vampire eyes. And the black wall was way cool.

He’d painted the other walls and ceiling pale orange. Indirect lighting around the ceiling cast a warm glow over the room. Jonathan had picked the color. He claimed Halloween colors and vampires went well together.

Adrian returned to his hacking frustrations. “Where the hell did you go, Adam? I didn’t think you were that smart.”

“Only old folks talk to themselves. Oh, I forgot, you are old. My bad.”

“Hey, dogbreath, I’m only twenty-two.”

“In vampire years, loser.”

“In human years.” Fucktard.

With an exaggerated finger press, Jonathan paused his iPod. “Uncle Eli is gonna be so pissed at you for swearing at me, mega-loser.”

“I did not swear at you.”

Jonathan put his fingertips on his temples. “You thought it and I heard it, so it’s a swear.”

Adrian put a finger on his forehead. “That was my private thought, you little pain-in-the-anus. Eli warned you not to poke into people’s minds without their consent.”

“Uncle Eli says it’s okay to poke sometimes. He pokes yours all the time.” He wrinkled his nose and gave his mean stare. “You’re a bigger tard than me.”

“‘Sometimes’ is the operative word. He doesn’t read my thoughts all the time.”

“Only ‘cuz there’s not much to read, stem.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Stem. Like brainstem. Like nothing above the neck.”

Adrian suppressed a desire to smile. “How you doing with that video game? You done hacking it?”

“Almost. I beat your score an hour ago.” He displayed his straight, white teeth. “It’s so cool how you teach me all this shit.”

Adrian glared at him.

“‘Shit’ isn’t a bad swear.”

He glared again.

“I’m hungry.”

“You had blood last night.”

“Real food. Pizza, super-deluxe with everything. Good pizza, not the frozen store… stuff.”

“You had good pizza yesterday, and it cost me twenty-five bucks. You think I’m made of money?”

“The Vamp Council pays you mega bucks to hack for them, and Uncle Eli gives you a mega allowance to spend on me, so… yeah.”

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See the difference. Also note that the tone of two version a little different because Adrian isn’t as quick with the responses. This demonstrates that pacing can also affect character portrayal.

Certainly, a lot more can be said about pacing. This just skims the surface, but I hope it gives you an idea of the importance of proper pacing and some idea how to adjust it in your writing.

While this dealt with just one scene, be aware that when you’re writing a novel, you have to watch out for pacing not only at the scene level but at the larger level of the entire story.

–Rick