Pacing is one of the most important elements in crime fiction, but it’s also one of the hardest to get right. That’s understandable: when you’re writing something over a period of several months that you hope readers will be compelled to finish within the course of a single plane flight, you’re probably going to need to make a few pacing adjustments during revisions.
But the one thing I’ve always found useful to remember from the get-go is that fast-paced doesn’t always mean fast. While it can be exhilarating to speed through certain action-packed scenes, it’s numbing and ultimately boring if you keep up that type of pace with no respite. Some of the most suspenseful moments in crime fiction novels are the dragged-out ones—such as the point in Mary Higgins Clark’s masterful Where are the Children, in which a key slipping into the front door of the home in which Nancy’s children are being held captive is described in excruciating, pulse-pounding detail….
One of my favorite writing exercises has to do with pacing: One person punches another. 1) Describe this act in 10 words. 2) Describe the same act in 100 words. You’ll find that the second description reads more like the end of a chapter, while the first may sound more like the beginning or middle.
To follow up, write a scene leading up to the punch and play with sentence lengths. For the scene leading up to 2, for instance, try making all the preceding sentences no longer than five words apiece. In the scene leading up to 1, keep all the sentences equally short, except when you get to the action that directly provokes the punch and describe that one action in 100 words.
After completing this exercise, you should see how very different the exact same scene can feel, depending on which elements of that scene are sped through, and which are dragged out.
Interesting, isn’t it? But don’t worry about it too much. As mentioned earlier, it’s nearly impossible to write a novel that’s perfectly paced in its first draft. I wrote and sold my first book, only to wind up cutting around 50 pages of subplot. My editor felt that it interfered with the story and slowed down the pace. And, much as I may have loved writing that subplot, she was right. For every one of my books, there’s been a “cut file,” sometimes hundreds of pages long, of stuff that (much as I may have loved it) wrecked the pace of the novel as a whole. When it comes to killing your darlings, there’s no such thing as too brutal if you’re sacrificing them on the altar of pacing. (That includes stretched metaphors, BTW.)
Finally, the best advice I can give in terms of pacing is to read and learn. The next time you come across a book that keeps you up all night turning pages, give it a second read once you’ve finished and caught your breath. Take a look at what the author does, whether it’s speeding up scenes, slowing them down or shifting points of view at crucial moments. Odds are, you’ll appreciate the book even more… and pick up a few pacing tricks of your own.