Writing a Book People Can’t Put Down: The Art of Pacing
It’s two o’clock in the morning. You’ve had a long day, you’re exhausted, and in just four short hours you have to get ready for another day of work. More than anything, you just need to go to bed. So why don’t you? Because you just have to finish this absolutely amazing book you can’t put down!
Anyone who is a reader has been in this scenario at some point, and there’s nothing more gratifying for an author than to hear someone stayed up into the wee hours to finish their book. But wanting to write a book people can’t put down is much harder said than done. So how do you do it? In large part, it has to do with pacing.
Pacing, like most everything else in writing, is about balance. If you write a book that runs too slow, you’ll have readers getting bored, putting the book down, or just bashing their heads against the wall going, “Please! Just let something happen already!” On the other hand, a book that runs at an all-out, non-stop sprint will have its own set of problems. Continuous action scenes may blur together and lose their impact, while elements that run slower, like characterization and worldbuilding, may be skimmed over or sacrificed altogether.
Finding the right pacing for my science fiction novel Nova was an intriguing challenge, as it contains elements of both a fast-paced thriller and a slow-building mystery. This means that I had to vary the pacing as the book progressed to best capture these competing dynamics. However, no matter what you’re writing, it’s almost always better to have varied rather than static pacing. A single pace that never changes will make the story feel very one-note, regardless of whether it’s a fast pace or a slow pace. By changing up the pacing throughout the novel, you can keep the reading experience fresh and invigorating, and thus the reader engaged.
In writing Nova, there were four main places where I manipulated the pacing to give the story dynamic and really try to make it a “can’t put down” book.
The First 15% of the Book
The beginning of a book is crucial because this is where you have to hook your reader and convince them that, yes, they really do want to read your book. Hooking the reader isn’t just about presenting interesting content, but also using a brisker pace that will quickly pull the reader into the story. In the case of Nova, this was an easy task as my main character is a genetically engineered human bomb, whose countdown begins by chapter two. There’s nothing like a ticking time bomb to get the story moving.
The 15% Point to the Halfway Mark
Pacing-wise, this is the slowest section of my book, with good reason. Once you’ve hooked the reader, you need time to develop the story, build your world, provide relevant background information, and introduce your main characters. In Nova, this is where the MC has to come to terms with the fact that she’s a dud whose countdown clock is frozen and start to develop her fledgling humanity. It’s also where the foundations for the mystery elements of the story are laid.
Every book will have a “slowest” section simply by default, but don’t be fooled into thinking that slow means boring or that nothing is happening. When you have a slower section, it’s important to find ways to keep the focus on the plot and otherwise infuse bits of action and intrigue that will keep the pace from dragging and the reader interested. I used lots of little reveals and interpersonal conflict to achieve this in Nova. It also didn’t hurt that my MC started sporadically dropping seconds on her frozen countdown clock and realized she could blow up at any minute.
The Halfway Point
This is the transition between the slower beginning and the fast-paced end. Now that the character and story development are well underway, it’s time to the kick the plot up into a higher gear and get the story moving again. While this may seem like an early time to start ramping up the pace, this is what’s going to help create that “can’t put it down” mentality. Think of it this way: If you only ramp up the pace for the last 10% of the book, that’s 10% of the book they can’t put down. If you’re gradually ramping up the pace for the last 45%, that’s almost half of the book they can’t put down.
In Nova, I begin picking up the pace shortly after the halfway mark by raising the current stakes even higher, thus galvanizing the MC into greater action. The higher stakes, action, and intensity serve to ratchet the pace up another notch and start gearing up the reader for the final section of the book.
The Last Quarter
Unsurprisingly, this is the fastest section of Nova. This is where all the important reveals and elements come together to create a drop-dead sprint to the final climax. You want to make your reader stay up past their bedtime? This is where you have to stomp on the accelerator and go full speed to the end.
This is the basic formula I used for Nova, but obviously every book is going to have its own ideal pacing. Many factors, such as genre, content, and writing style figure heavily into pacing decisions, and ultimately, it’s up to the writer to find their own perfect pacing. And just as every writer has their own pacing preferences, so does every reader. So whether you’re a reader, a writer, or both, good luck creating or finding the book with your own perfect pace.
The clock activates so suddenly in my mind, my head involuntarily jerks a bit to the side. The fog vanishes, dissipated in an instant as though it never was. Memories come slotting into place, their edges sharp enough to leave furrows, and suddenly I know. I know exactly who I am.
My name is Lia Johansen, and I was named for a prisoner of war. She lived in the Tiersten Internment Colony for two years, and when they negotiated the return of the prisoners, I was given her memories and sent back in her place.
And I am a genetically engineered human bomb.
Lia Johansen was created for only one purpose: to slip onto the strategically placed New Sol Space Station and explode. But her mission goes to hell when her clock malfunctions, freezing her countdown with just two minutes to go. With no Plan B, no memories of her past, and no identity besides a name stolen from a dead POW, Lia has no idea what to do next. Her life gets even more complicated when she meets Michael Sorenson, the real Lia’s childhood best friend.
Drawn to Michael and his family against her better judgment, Lia starts learning what it means to live and love, and to be human. It is only when her countdown clock begins sporadically losing time that she realizes even duds can still blow up. If she wants any chance at a future, she must find a way to unlock the secrets of her past and stop her clock. But as Lia digs into her origins, she begins to suspect there’s far more to her mission and to this war, than meets the eye. With the fate of not just a space station but an entire empire hanging in the balance, Lia races to find the truth before her time—literally—runs out.