Fast-paced. Gripping. A page turner. “I couldn’t put it down.” Why do some books get these comments, while others are called slow or flat?
A strong story has conflict and tension. But that’s just the beginning. Once you have a strong conflict, you need to make it as compelling as possible with proper pacing.
As a general rule, shorter paragraphs and shorter sentences give a feeling of fast-paced action. The book is literally a page turner, as the eye moves more quickly down the page with lots of white space.
Let’s look at a scene from my middle grade mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh. The main character, Seshta, has been on a roof, listening down the stairwell. Now someone is coming up the stairs and she’s about to be caught spying. I could put this all in one big paragraph with long sentences:
With a gasp, Seshta leaped up and stumbled across the roof. She felt as if she were swimming through honey but finally she reached the edge of the roof and crouched to leap for the [date palm] tree. She hesitated, wobbling on the edge, because the tree was more than an arm’s length out and if she leaped for it she would stab herself on the spikes. Worse, if she didn’t find holds at once, she would scrape against the rough bark as she tumbled to the ground. She glanced back at the stairwell and knew she didn’t have much time. Seshta turned and lowered herself over the edge of the roof until she hung from her elbows, her legs scraping against the wall. From the stairwell, a head rose into view as Seshta let go and fell.
There’s a lot going on in that paragraph. Too much. It jumbles together, at worst becoming hard to follow and at best burying some dramatic details. Here’s the published version with shorter sentences and paragraphs.
With a gasp, Seshta leaped up and stumbled across the roof. She felt as if she were swimming through honey.
She reached the edge of the roof and crouched to leap for the tree. But she hesitated, wobbling on the edge. The tree was more than an arm’s length out. If she leaped for it she would stab herself on the spikes. Worse, if she didn’t find holds at once, she would scrape against the rough bark as she tumbled to the ground.
She glanced back at the stairwell. She didn’t have much time.
Seshta turned and lowered herself over the edge of the roof until she hung from her elbows, her legs scraping against the wall.
From the stairwell, a head rose into view.
Seshta let go and fell.
This version is easier to follow, since there isn’t so much jammed into every sentence. At the same time, it feels more breathless with anticipation. It even looks faster, with more white space.
Be careful about overusing this technique. Imagine the paragraph above if every sentence had its own paragraph. It would feel choppy, and you’d lose the emphasis on the more dramatic moments at the end. A single sentence set off in its own paragraph has extra weight and drama – but only if you use that technique on rare occasions.
It’s important to have variety, with longer paragraphs of description and introspection. Here’s a chapter ending from The Eyes of Pharaoh where Seshta is waiting for a friend who may be in trouble.
Seshta sighed. Once she knew Reya was safe, she could curse him for distracting her and get back to more important matters.
Ra, the sun god, carried his fiery burden toward the western horizon. Horus caught three catfish. A flock of ducks flew away quacking. Dusk settled over the river, dimming shapes and colors until they blurred to gray. The last fishing boats pulled in to the docks, and the fishermen headed home.
But Reya never came.
The long paragraph of description conveys time passing slowly. Putting the last short sentence into its own paragraph gives it added emphasis, causing it to feel more important and ominous.
Check Your Paragraphs
Print your story or a chapter of your novel and look at your paragraphing. Don’t read it, just see how it looks on the page. Do you have variety, or is everything about the same length? Do you favor short paragraphs or long ones?
Now look closer. Do you have long paragraphs of action, where several things are happening within one paragraph? Consider breaking that into shorter paragraphs, starting a new one for each small piece of action, as in the first example above.
Look at your chapter endings, especially when you have cliffhangers. Can you break your paragraphs into smaller pieces for more drama? Can you shorten your sentences? How does the feel of the section change as you play with sentence and paragraph length? Note the difference between even small changes in wording and punctuation.
Slow down to Speed up
Short sentences and paragraphs can make your actions seem more dramatic. Don’t make the mistake of rushing through your action scenes, though. It may sound like a contradiction, but action scenes have more impact if you slow them down, making the reader wait to find out what happens.
For more on pacing, see my series of posts on cliffhangers on my blog. Most of these techniques can also be used in action scenes that don’t come at the end of the chapter.
Conflict is key to a good story. Make the most of your conflict to keep your readers turning the pages.
Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.
Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.
Chris also writes for adults under the name Kris Bock. Kris Bock writes action-packed romantic suspense involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page.
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The Eyes of Pharaoh
Chris’s latest book is The Eyes of Pharaoh, set in 1177 BC: During the reign of Pharaoh Ramses the Third, Seshta, a 13-year-old dancer in the Temple of Hathor, dreams of becoming a famous entertainer. Horus, the brother of her heart, is content as a toymaker’s apprentice. Reya, at 16, has joined Egypt’s army with hopes of becoming a hero. Despite their different paths, nothing can break the bonds of their friendship. Yet when Reya hints that Egypt is in danger from foreign nomads, Seshta and Horus don’t take him seriously. How could anyone challenge Egypt?
Then Reya disappears. Seshta and Horus set out to find him—and discover a darker plot than they ever imagined. To save their friend, Seshta and Horus spy on merchants, soldiers, and royalty, and start to suspect even The Eyes of Pharaoh, the powerful head of the secret police. Will Seshta and Horus escape the traps set for them, rescue Reya, and stop the plot against Egypt in time?
Set in ancient Egypt, this story of drama and intrigue brings an ancient world to life. The ideas in this book echo in the international politics of today, while the power of friendship will touch hearts both young and old.
To help teachers in the classroom, extensive Lesson Plans provide material aligned to the Common Core State Standards. View them at http://www.chriseboch.com/events.htm.