Anne Buist is the author of the acclaimed Natalie King series, which begins with Medea’s Curse and continues with Dangerous to Know, out this March — which makes her advice below, about thrillers and pacing, something you should pay attention to!
Page turner, gripping and couldn’t put it down…we associate all these descriptions with the thriller genre, but what gives thrillers this quality? Style, first person narrative, immediate action, showing not telling—these are all possible and important things that contribute. But they are also contributing to what is key to the thriller—pace. You don’t stay up, book in hand (or dare I say, kindle), until three am without this. Something that is slow, harmonious, comfortable … lovely reading on the beach or the balcony with a glass of wine, but you’ll put it down to get that important shut eye time if you aren’t compelled to know what happens next.
Classically in thrillers—certainly in mine—there is something to grab you early on. Sometimes this is the prologue, or teaser; I use this in both my books (and the third I am working on)—in Dangerous to Know we find out Frank is clearly implicated in whatever happens and something is going to go badly wrong—but we don’t know what. Then the thriller goes straight into some action—in Jaye Ford’s Already Dead the heroine is hijacked on about page two and there is a steady escalation until about a third of the way through the novel. Most others build throughout the book, with the last few chapters the ones to have you reading into the wee hours. Early things to catch the reader? Strong, clear dramatic questions and conflict. I am currently editing the third in the Natalie King series, and have a post it note on the computer screen to remind me to keep asking myself this and to put it in if not already there.
Other techniques? As the pace accelerates, sentences and chapters get shorter (this may not be true in James Patterson’s—his start off pretty short!). The action increases—but so does the protagonist’s risk. Often there is physical risk from the villain (even my heroine who is a psychiatrist, ends up in physical peril, though she has to use brain rather than brawn to get out of it), as well as the ticking clock (a classic in thrillers), as all the loose ends get tied up. The reader is so exhausted that even if it wasn’t three a.m. they would sleep … though of course they may be too scared to!
I know a book’s pacing is working when I find myself hunched over, shoulders tense as I read. More importantly, I don’t want to get off the train when I reach work in the morning. It’s weird how things that register for me are physical — are they the same for you?
Anne highlights some of the things that absolutely work like a charm when it comes to pacing in my reads: the short, sharp sentences and chapters, especially. When pacing isn’t working, I find myself getting distracted and wondering why the author is writing a two page chapter.
The other things that work for me, are the physical reactions of the characters in action scenes — sweaty palms and being out of breath — what about you? What things in a book — sentence structure and length, events and revelations — that affect the pacing of the entire book for you?