Sunday, June 30, 2013

How Mystery Writers Can Use Pacing as a Tool

"Who's Got the Money?"

Morgan St. James has the answer… Did you know federal prison factories manufacture $800,000,000 of merchandise every year? Read this amusing crime caper by Morgan and her co-author Meredith Holland, and find out how some sharp women make the bad guys pay.

The authors toured prison factories and military warehouses, then wrote this amusing novel. The book is fiction, but a former FBI Agent and NYT bestselling author wrote that "It really could happen."

This book tells us about million dollar greed and ironic justice in an industry few of us know even exists.

Please welcome mystery writer, speaker and columnist, Morgan St. James.

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

Pacing is a tool for aging characters or holding them at certain places in their lives, showing how events impact the plot or how timing affects a particular event. How fast or how slow should parts of the story unfold? What does it take to pull the readers through the events, hold their interest and keep them turning the pages? When have you revealed enough and when is it too little?

Think of pacing as the act of changing gears. If you’re driving a manual shift car or watching the gauges, the car tells you when it’s time to shift from second to third or gear down. The same holds true for fiction. The story is moving along and you become aware that something has to slow down or speed up to maintain the effect you envisioned.



If you leave something unresolved or hint at something yet to come in the next chapter, that’s called a cliffhanger. It is one of those devices that naturally picks up the pace and compels the reader to turn the page. After all, they have to find out if something happened. One good way to accomplish this if the scene ends with dialogue is to have a character say something cryptic that foreshadows eminent danger, fulfillment or any other number of events. If you are using an omniscient or third person narrator, the same opportunity exists. Example: If Martin had even a slight suspicion of what awaited him, he might not have taken that fateful step into Joan’s house.

Tools for speeding it up

As a writer, your arsenal is filled with many tools proven to speed up the action. Action is best written in short and medium sentences that move the story along. Some of those sentences might be as short as one word like Run! or Stop! You get the idea. The short bursts heighten the anticipation and, if appropriate, the fear or elation.

When writing action, long descriptions or expository speeches just don’t work. All they do is distract the reader from the purpose of the scene. They rarely resonate as real. That doesn’t mean the scene should be bland—not at all. But stay on point. For example, the person must get from here to there to find the bomb and defuse it. They aren’t going to stop to look in a store window and admire the merchandise. They are going to do anything and everything possible to get there, and that establishes a heart-pounding scene. Obstacles are good because they increase the tension.

Keep it entertaining or heart-pounding

In my upcoming Silver Sisters Mystery Terror in a Teapot, the protagonists, twins Goldie and Godiva, are desperate to get to a house where their mother and uncle are in danger. Stuck in a traffic jam, Godiva tries to change lanes and hits a truck in the next lane. This delays the action (getting to the house), induces tension (they are trying to do whatever they can to get back on the road), and creates the fear that something will happen to the oldsters before the twins can reach them.

One tool is to draw from things that happened to you and make them fit your scene. We used this: Several years ago Phyllice clipped a car at a strategic point that caused our front bumper to fly off, sail over the truck next to us and land on a median strip. Seeing how upset we were, after Phyllice and the fellow we hit exchanged information, he retrieved the bumper of the rental car from the median strip and fitted it into our back seat so we could be on our way. It was hanging out the windows on both sides, but we were back on the road! When we turned the car in, eyebrows raised when we said they would find the front bumper in the back seat. In Terror in a Teapot, a version of this happens to the twins.

Keep it real

By all means don’t put long thoughts in your character’s head when they are working on sheer willpower. Think of what you would do in a life threatening situation. Would you have the presence of mind to think in beautifully constructed sentences and map out what you had to do point by point? Of course not, unless you are one of the few who actually think like that. More often, thoughts are static and disjointed when faced with these situations.

Using scene cuts

Scene cuts are sometimes called jump cuts. Without explanation, the story is moved to a new location or time, and the characters might even be different ones than in the previous scene. This has to be done carefully so the reader is not confused. The main purpose of a scene cut is to speed up the action. Back in the days of heavy movie censorship, the actor Andy Griffith put out a comedy album and in one track he summed up scene cuts neatly. He said something like: He kisses her with passion and just when he is ready to make his next move, time passes and the scene changes. In this case, the viewer was expected to fill in the details between the cuts with their own imagination.


While it is great to have a story that keeps zooming along, sometimes it makes good sense to slow it down—let the reader catch their breath and put everything into perspective. This technique will also serve to build tension. Slowing down the pace is one way to let it layer, leading up to the maximum payoff.

After the cliffhanger

Okay, assume the last chapter ended with your version of “The Perils of Pauline,” or the pretty woman tied to the railroad tracks as the train speeds toward her. What next? How do you slow something like that down unless Superman puts out his hand and stops the train? The answer is to prolong the outcome. If you stretch it out instead of giving the instant outcome, the end result is that it actually speeds up in a way. The reader rushes ahead to find out what happens, reading as fast as possible but not wanting to miss a word. So, how do you slow it down?

Some types of scenes that could benefit from a slowdown:

Romantic interludes

Everything has been happening at breakneck speed for your male and female protagonists. Maybe the detectives are attracted to each other, but who has time to find out? We see this all the time in TV shows. The tension is kept alive with the “will they, won’t they” question. All of a sudden it happens. Do we want to speed past this as well? If the plot calls for it, slow things down. Let the reader enjoy the scene where they kiss...and more.

Emotional decisions

Give your characters ups and downs. Vary the scenes so intense emotions don’t dominate every single page. Let them be confused, afraid or undecided about something. Are they reluctant to take the next step? Why? Does something stop them in their tracks? All of these things can slow the pace but leave the door open for picking it up again anytime you want to. If you give the reader some low moments, they will savor and enjoy the high ones even more.


Descriptions are good devices, but there is a narrow path to be walked here. Too much description and it becomes snooze time. Too little, and the reader might feel cheated. Like they were just beginning to get a sense of the overall picture, but it wasn’t completed. Evaluate how much description you need, and where. Ask others to read these scenes and listen to their reactions. You have lived the scenes over and over and have probably become jaded, but they will read it with fresh eyes.


Flashbacks always slow the action, either in a major or minor way depending upon the content and how long the scene lasts. Again, just as with descriptions, be careful with flashbacks and moderate how you use them. Good flashback scenes will fill in the details and help deliver the backstory, but too many or too long, and you might lose the reader. They begin to flip pages to revisit some of the things they’ve read, because they might have lost the thread of the story. Flashbacks are like having a franchise to peek into the past, but franchises can only be exercised a certain number of times.

Let your protagonist make mistakes

You’ve heard the often-used expression: One step forward, two steps back. If circumstances undo some of what the protagonist has accomplished and another way has to be found, the story is going to slow down for the period of time they are getting back on track. It can be short or drawn out. In either case, mistakes work. The same goes for unexpected events. The protagonist approaches their destination holding a paper with the address. But the building has been torn down. Where do they go from there? Whether pursuing a lover, an opportunity or a killer, this is an opening where you can choose the pace.

Morgan St. James


  1. Lots of good advice. Thanks
    JL Greger

  2. Glad you found it helpful, Janet.

  3. Thank you, Morgan! Your excellent comments can be very helpful to both neophytes and writers on the NYT bestseller list! Writers can always learn a slightly differenr way of developing their darlings! Thelma Straw

    1. It was my pleasure, Thelma. Once you are aware of these things, it not only helps your own writing but flavors the way you read the work of others. Writers should always take note and try to remember what they do and DON'T like in the work of others.

  4. Great post, Morgan. I got interested in writing mysteries by watching "Cliffhanger" Saturday afternoon serials. I think that's where we got the term. The cliffhanger for my mom waiting for my return and what mischief I'd get into. At least I was consistent.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Ah, J. D., I didn't mention your name, but I hope you remembered that you were the one who alerted me to the overuse of the word THAT. And, for THAT I have mentally thanked you time and again. Love your description of "cliffhanger." Was the word retribution what happened when Mom got home?

  5. Morgan, after reading your comments on Sandy's blog re sociopaths, I hope you will write about this topic... Thelma