How to Pace Your Stories

8 ways to keep your reader engaged (and avoid the sagging middle)

Poor pacing is one of the most common writer issues. There’s even a name for it: Sagging Middle Syndrome.

Having a sagging middle means losing momentum in the middle of your story, either because the plot slows down or the conflict stagnates. If confronted with a sagging middle, readers will often lose interest and stop reading.

You might think bad pacing is caused by mistakes in your narrative structure, but this is often not true. Keeping readers engaged has more to do with how you package your story.

In this article, I’ll show you the 8 ways I fix my pacing issues without changing my story structure. I also made an infographic for you download and print. You can find it at the bottom of this article.

1. Start at a fun place

Make a good first impression by starting at a fun place. Like job interviews, first impressions are everything when it comes to storytelling. If you tell the reader that exciting things will eventually happen, then they’ll be more forgiving during the slow parts.

Some people call this establishing “author authority”. A skilled writer uses the first scene to set the tone, pace, and future expectations. The right opening will make a lasting impact on the reader.

Here are a few possible fun places to start:

  • When the character encounters big trouble.

  • When the character realizes she has something to lose.

  • When the character has a major conflict with another character.

  • When the setting is memorable, evocative, and reflects the tone of the story.

And here are some not-so-fun places to start:

  • A prologue with unimportant characters.

  • An explanation of the backstory.

  • A character waking up and looking in the mirror.

  • An ordinary day where nothing happens.

2. Use cliffhangers

End your chapters with cliffhangers. This way, the reader constantly wants to know what happens next. They might seem like cheap tricks, but cliffhangers actually help the reader focus on the plot progression, which makes your pacing feel tighter.

Experienced authors like Stephen King use chapter cliffhangers all the time. Next time you open a novel, pay attention to the way published writers end scenes and chapters. You’ll see cliffhangers everywhere.

Cliffhangers work, especially considering that…

3. Use short sentences

Your story’s pacing does not always depend on the big-picture movement of the plot. Pacing is also subjective — as in, a story can either feel fast or slow. Shorter sentences make books feel faster. That’s why most bestselling novels are below an 8th Grade reading level.

Use shorter sentences to make your writing easier to read. Avoid big words. Avoid long, unbroken paragraphs. Avoid infodumping.

A reader who has to take breaks will probably stop reading. A reader who is flying through the chapters will keep reading.

4. Have something go wrong

The saggy middle of your book is often caused by a lack of story-worthy events. What is a story-worthy event? It’s an event that changes the character traits, stakes, goals, or the direction of the plot.

If nothing is is going wrong in a scene, and nothing troubles your protagonist, and no problems are being solved, then the scene is not worth writing. Perfectly executed plans are boring. Quiet chatter on the beach (without tension) won’t excite your reader. That’s why, if your story is sagging, make something go wrong.

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5. Withhold information

Avoid the urge to tell the reader everything they need to know for them to understand your story. The best writers pose a question at the beginning, and slowly reveal the answer.

For better pacing, withhold information for as long as you can. This keeps important questions in the reader’s mind, and makes him want to keep reading to find the answers. Here are some examples of best-selling novels and the questions posed:

  • The Road, Cormac McCarthy — What happened to the world? What is waiting for the father and son duo at the coast?

  • The Giver, Lois Lowry — The society seems too perfect… What terrible things are they hiding?

  • Pet Sematary, Stephen King — What does death have to do with the main character’s new life?

  • World War Z, Max Brooks — How does the world deal with the zombie apocalypse?

This is one of the fundamental rules of fiction: always maintain intrigue. (Mastering Fiction students know this!)

6. Rachet up the stakes

Improve your pacing by putting more and more of what your characters value at risk. If the stakes start off as financial, add physical danger. If your character’s relationships are in danger, put her career at risk as well.

Stakes make stories interesting. Anticipation is a writer’s best friend.

7. Use strategic introspection

Strategically add introspective scenes (or flashbacks) to answer old questions and pose new ones. This way, you can deliver necessary plot information without slowing the pace of the story.

Here’s an example: suppose the protagonist doesn’t plan to fight, and he was only pretending to, to live up to people’s expectations.

This is information that changes the direction of the narrative. Drop this bombshell reveal right before the big battle and you makes the reader want to keep reading to find out what happens next. Add it too early, it destroys your pacing by making the middle of your story seem pointless.

8. Tell the reader something the characters don’t know

This is a classic thriller technique: show the murderer hiding in the closet. A stroll through a forest is either boring or exciting, depending on whether the reader knows about the tiger waiting in the bushes.

If the reader knows about an upcoming danger, then he or she will find reasons to excuse your meandering plot as part of the setup.

Infographic: Story Pacing - 8 Ways to Keep Your Readers Engaged

Download it, print it, or share it with your friends. It’s yours to keep. ❤️ 

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