There are times as a reader who also happens to write that I want to quietly pull another author aside and give them some advice. Nine times outs of ten what I want to talk to them about is pacing.
It’d be a quick conversation. “Sweetie, these are really fun characters. Great plot. Your pacing sucks. Could I maybe, pretty please, help you tighten this up? Maybe just… I don’t know, refer you to some really good references?”
I don’t because it’s rude to comment on a finished manuscript like that. If the author wanted my opinion they would have asked for it. And if the book wasn’t good the editor or beta-reader would have put a kibosh on things before the book ever hit the shelves. These aren’t bad books, but their missing a few key elements that would move them from Okay to Everyone Must Read!
Let’s cover the basics of pacing…
1) Set A Time Limit
— The killer kidnaps the victims seven days before killing them, the bomber is targeting an event next week, the treasure must be found before the house goes on sale the third, grandma only has days to live, if I don’t find a solution I will marry Prince Charming in two days and never realize my goal of taking over the world…
Whatever the source of friction is there needs to be a deadline. Characters who are wandering around for fun are boring. There’s no urgency. No risk if they fail.
2) Never End A Chapter With Sleep
— “It had been a long day. Jane climbed into bed, pulled the sheets over her head and drifted off to dreamland.” is an invitation for the reader to close the book.
Take a tip from the writer’s of Nancy Drew: Always end the chapter in the middle of action. Never give the reader an easy out.
3) Let Characters Be Wrong
— It’s okay if the characters fail. It’s okay if they use bad information and get to the wrong place. Actually, it’s more than okay, it’s good! If everything comes easily to your characters there is no reason to care about the story. The reader knows it will be okay in the end.
4) Let Characters Fail
— Let them die. Let them lose. Let them have heartbreak and sorrow.
George R.R. Martin does a great job of this. You never know when he’s going to kill a character. What you do know is that no one is safe. It keeps the tension up. It means you won’t know until the last page if the character you’re invested in will survive.