Writing the Five Genii Way

Mind, Heart & Soul of writing

#10 Pacing: Eating Raw Rhubarb

Table of Contents

  • How fast would you eat raw rhubarb? Ice cream? Saltwater taffy?
  • How slowly would you walk if you were going to make a confession? If you had good news to share?
  • How fast would you swim to win a race? To relax your muscles?
  • How quickly would you glance at a convenience store you’ve seen hundreds of times? An unusual art installation you’ve never seen?
  • How likely are you to pause to listen to the sirens of oncoming emergency vehicles? To the jazzy notes of a saxophone coming from an open doorway?

Your answers to these questions invite you to consider pace. Humans pace themselves all the time, whether doing chores or enjoying activities. They may increase the pace of something if they’re excited about it, decrease it if they dread it. They may spread out their effort if they need sustained energy to go the distance, decrease it if time and energy don’t matter. They may slow down if they want to get the most out of an experience or speed up if they want to experience as many phenomena as they can. They may walk slowly back and forth (pace) to think or deal with emotions and problems.

I sometimes pace my reading. If I don’t want a book to end, I slow my reading rate. If I am bored or just want to finish a book to go to the next one, I increase my reading rate, sometimes just scanning each page to make sure I know the ending.

The Importance of Pace in Writing

Many authors discuss the importance of pace. For example, Brenda Uehland, a journalist, editor, freelance writer, and writing teacher, said, “The secret of being interesting is to move along as fast as the mind of the reader (or listener) can take it on. Both must march along in the same tempo.”

But how do you know how fast the mind of a reader wants to go?

She prescribes reading “your writing aloud to yourself. As soon as your voice drags, cross that part out.” (138)

She also counsels introspection: “When I was a staff writer on a magazine several years ago, and set to work on an article, I would write laboriously (and with what ennui! What struggle to pin my attention on it!) ten or twelve pages. I would realize then that I had just explained very elaborately and with a great deal of rewriting, polishing, something that everybody knew already.” (138-9)

She describes how she writes in a diary: “If you write fast, as though you vomited your thoughts on paper, you will touch only those things that interest you. You will skip from peak to peak. You will sail over the quagmire of wordy explanations and timidly qualifying phrases.” (139)

Image by Freepik

“And know this,” she continues. “Whenever you find yourself writing a single word or phrase on a page dutifully and with boredom, then leave it out. Something is wrong if it is dragged in. It isn’t your true self talking. If what you write bores you, it will bore other people.” (139-40)

                                          BORED WRITER




Image by DC Studio on Freepik

Examples of Pacing

In the previous blog, Finding the Beginning in the Middle, I shared with you three different beginnings I wrote for Through the Five Genii Gate. My focus was on where authors find their beginnings, but each beginning also illustrates pace. Here’s one of the first beginnings I wrote:

___________ was born on February 17, 1885, in _____________, Texas, a small town in west central ______________County in the center of Texas, a hard-scrabble land which was first civilized as a Santa Fe Railroad switching point. Her father, _______________, and her mother, _______________, were both 25 when they married – she a teacher and he a rancher – and they had ________________ who was nicknamed ________________two years later, and __________the year after that. Then, another child almost every year until there were eight, six girls and two boys. The lineup from oldest to youngest was ,_________ ,________ ,________ ,_______ ,_______ ,________ , and _______.

The family owned some land near _____________ in __________Country and ran a few hundred cattle. It was not a particularly good time to be a rancher. Livestock barely survived or starved on the native forage, and it was almost impossible for ranchers to supplement their feed in any significant way. Blizzards decimated herds, cattle prices plummeted, overgrazing ruined what natural feed there was, and drought threatened even that. The Beef Trust’s Big Four – Armour, Swift, Hammond, and Morris – made it very hard for individual ranchers to sell what beef they could raise and at least break even.

I noted in the previous blog that this beginning “especially, is fast. It goes by quickly. It covers a lot of narrative ground (1885 to about 1903) in just a few words.” Its pace is fast:


The capital X stands for major incidents, which succeed each other rapidly (as shown by the arrows), from birth of the main character to the birth of her siblings to the years of trying to survive on a ranch. There’s not much to hold onto in this beginning.

Here’s one I wrote later:

Through the open door, __________could hear a horse and buggy make its way up the dirt road that led to their ranch. She looked down at her bare feet – she’d discarded her boots to mop the plank floor – and remembered that she had bunched her work dress up under the ties of her apron. She looked out. There was her fiancé, ____________.

She quickly pushed shut the bottom half of the door, hoping that would prevent Mr. _________ from seeing her bare feet.

“Miss ____________(her last name), ______________(her first name),” he said, doffing his hat but still sitting atop his roan. He was dressed in his good ginger-colored suit, with a vest even though it was June, and his best cowboy boots. His oiled black hair still showed comb tracks, and his black string tie was slightly askew from riding the sixteen miles from __________________.

“Mr. ____________, well! I didn’t expect you! Did I forget an engagement?”

I noted that this beginning was much slower than the first. The pace can be diagrammed as


In this version of the beginning, the capital X is a main event. The main character realizes that someone on a horse has come to the old ranch house. There are several arrows between the capital X and the first lower-case x, indicating that time has passed, and the lower-case x indicates that the next event is a continuation of the major event. After she realized that she had a visitor, she listened to discern who it was, and she surveyed herself to see if she was presentable. She looked outside more carefully and closed the bottom half of the door so that her fiancé would not see her in disarray. She noticed how spiffy he was. She called out to him.

Probably only two-to three-minutes pass, rather than years, in this beginning.

The pace of this beginning allows the reader to grab something to hang onto – perhaps the main character’s decision to hide her disarray from her fiancé. Why did she have to do that?

The pace of the third beginning I shared in the previous blog is even slower.

Kathryn rubbed the heel of her hand against the inside of the small porthole window on the Kiang Wo to clear a spot that would allow her a glimpse of Chungking from the Yangtze. Mr. Chu, the purser, had called out, “Missus Cam, Missy Missy, eight o’clock late! Up, up, up. Sun beat you this day!” She used the hem of her sleeve to clean the window but, still, all she could see was blackness. Or rather a smoky gray. The shaky incision the sun made through the charcoal sky illuminated ragged buildings high on what was apparently a cliff. “This is Chungking?” she murmured and turned from the porthole to wake her daughters, Emma and Lucy.
Mr. Chu had told them before lowering their bunks from the wall the night before that they would have to depart the Kiang Wo for an even smaller boat that would take them further up the Yangtze to reach Mt. Emei, one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, and their 1937 summer hiking and camping destination. They dressed quickly, hefted their canvas rucksacks, to which they had fastened folding beds, onto their backs, took the handles of the two duffels each had brought, and stepped outside into the narrow hallway. There, Mr. Chu waited, and hands prayerfully clasped under his chin, bowed and intoned his obituary for their plans, “Much sadness. Not go Emei. Ship stuck above. Not go back. Jap block. Go Chungking. See guvmint. He help.” He backed away from them before they could form any kind of question, so they rushed to the end of the hallway and stepped through the doorway onto the deck.

Here’s how a diagram of how pace in this beginning might look:


The big X indicates the major event, when the main character awakened and wanted to see where she was. Then a minute (or less than a minute) passes, as indicated by the single arrow, before she takes an action related to the major event. She recalled that Mr. Chu had scolded her for sleeping in, observed the sky and sun, and commented on the view. The pace quickens because the reader doesn’t witness her awakening her daughters (the X in parentheses), but it slows down again as she remembered what Mr. Chu had told them the night before. Then there’s another X for getting ready to go, quickly. The next major event is the latest information Mr. Chu shares, followed by their actions.

No more than 15 minutes have passed in this version of the beginning. There’s a lot a reader could fix on in this version: Why couldn’t the main character see out the porthole? Was the problem inside the porthole or outside? Who’s Mr. Chu and why does he awaken the main character this morning and mildly scold her? Does he do that every day, or is this day special? What did she expect Chungking to look like? What’s making the view so dreary? Is this description of Chungking foreshadowing something?

Now, don’t think that I diagrammed the pace of any of these beginnings before writing. I just wrote what felt right at the time. However, through analysis of the three pieces, I saw the following (which I noted in my previous blog):

  1. The first two seem far away. They seem to be about characters seen from a distance.
  2. The third seems immediate. It is right there happening in front of the reader.
  3. The first seems to have answers. The second less so. The third even less so.
  4. The first invites very few questions, the second a few more.
  5. The third seems to invite lots of questions: Who is she? Why is she leaving with her children? Why are they in China? In Chungking?
  6. The first, especially, is fast. It goes by quickly. It covers a lot of narrative ground (1885 to about 1903) in just a few words. The third is slow, taking its time to cover only a few minutes from awakening to contemplation of first steps towards shore – and continues for several pages. The second is like the third; the first 10 minutes of the beginning also go on for several pages.
  7. The third is an event, in detail. It shows what is happening.
  8. The first is a recitation of facts. It tells. The second is somewhere between the first and third.
  9. The first has no immediate action, while the second and third do.
  10. There is no tension in the first, some in the second, and much more in the third.

The most important realization in the list above is about pace. It seems contradictory, but

The faster the pace,

  • the further away the story is from the reader;
  • the less engaging (memorable) the narrative might be;
  • the more time can be covered; and
  • the more the narrative tells (recitation) rather than shows (action).

The slower the pace,

  • the closer the story is to the reader;
  • the narrative is more memorable than “coverage” of the facts;
  • the less time can be covered; and
  • the more the narrative shows (action) than tells.

Stephen King wrote so eloquently and engagingly about how to write in his memoir on the craft, On Writing, that once again I looked to him for insights on pacing.

He cautioned, “There is a kind of unspoken (hence undefended and unexamined) belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast paced. Like so many unexamined beliefs in the publishing business, this idea is largely bullshit. . .which is why, when books like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, or Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain suddenly break out of the pack and climb the best seller lists, publishers and editors are astounded.” (22)

Sometimes writers can get away with a fast pace because they do it so well. One writer I think of is Sue Grafton, the author of alphabetized crime mysteries, such as A is for Alibi and Y is for Yesterday (she died before she could write her Z novel). I inhaled her books. Here’s a sample paragraph from V is for Vengeance (which begins with Philip trying to finance his five grand loss in Vegas):


He’d been uneasy about the appointment. In addition to Eric’s filling him in on Dante’s sordid past, he’d assured Phillip the exorbitant fees for the loan were what he called “industry” standard. Phillip’s stepfather had drilled into him the need to negotiate all monetary matters, and Phillip knew he’d have to tackle the issue before he and Dante came to an agreement. He couldn’t tell his parents what he was up to, but he did appreciate his stepfather’s counsel in absentia.

Perhaps my selection is unfair. . .Grafton does slow down things when she needs to, but this passage is like many that tell what happened. It goes by rather quickly.

King comments, “Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind, either by confusion or by wearing him/her out. And for myself, I like a slower pace and a bigger higher build.” (221)

George Eliot at age 30 by Francois D’Albert Durade in the National Poetry Gallery; from Wikopedia Commons

Here’s another example, from a book I have just succeeded in reading, Middlemarch by George Eliot. Granted, she wrote in a different time and culture. But here is a very slow read:

And when he had seen Dorothea he believed that he had found even more than he demanded; she might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary, and aid which Mr. Casaubon had never yet employed and had a suspicious dread of. (Mr. Casaubon was nervously conscious that he was expected to manifest a powerful mind.) Providence, in its kindness, had supplied him with the wife he needed. A wife, a modest young lady, with the purely appreciative, unambitious abilities of her sex, is sure to think her husband’s mind is powerful. Whether Providence had taken equal care of Miss Brooks [Dorothea] in presenting her with Mr. Casaubon was an idea which could hardly occur to him. Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy. As if a man could choose not only his wife but his wife’s husband! Or as if he were bound to provide charms for his posterity in his own person! – When Dorothea accepted him with effusion, that was only natural; and Mr. Casaubon believed that his happiness was going to begin.

This time I was so swayed by the humor in Middlemarch – the wry, the dry, the sly – that I was compelled to finish it and am glad I did despite the slog.

Setting the Pace

How do you achieve the right pacing for your book? King notes, “The best way to find the happy medium? Ideal Reader, of course. Try to imagine whether he or she will be bored by a certain scene – if you know the tastes of your I.R. even half as well as I know the tastes of mine, that shouldn’t be too hard.” Some causes of boredom: “Too much pointless talk or under explained a certain situation. . .or over explained it or forgot to resolve some important plot point or forgot an entire character.” (219)

How do you determine the pace in your own book? The first thing is to check the books that you like to read. Grab a few of them and scan the pages. How do they feel? Are they more like Example #1, the fast-paced beginning that covers a lot of time in a few short paragraphs? Are they more like Example #2, the medium-paced beginning that covers less time in more paragraphs? Are they more like Example #3, the slow-paced beginning that covers a very short period in even more paragraphs?

I can’t imagine deciding, “I will write a fast-paced book” and then doing exactly that. First, achieving pace in a single paragraph is hard enough, let alone in a full piece of writing. Your mind might dictate a particular pace; your fingers might try to obey. Second, your reader would become exhausted if your whole book, story or essay was fast. . .and probably snoring if the whole thing was slow. Third, the story you are telling or the subject you are discussing will have its own way with your mind. Development of a thesis or plot will make its own way down each page, led by characters, setting, theme, and other elements of your work.

You’ll have to settle with, “I’d like to write a fast-paced story, most of the time” and then be ready to slow it down or bring it back to speed as needed.

Here are some instances when fast may be good:

  • When an exciting part of a plot is looming.
  • When a turning point in an essay is coming.
  • When dialogue is carrying the story.
  • When you need to establish the scene, but you don’t want to dwell overmuch on description.

Here are some instances when slow may good:

  • You introduce your main character in fiction or argument in nonfiction to the reader.
  • You want readers to understand the relationships among characters or arguments in an essay.
  • When you bid a character to reflect or give an example in nonfiction that you want readers to consider.
  • When you want to be sure that the logic, organization, and connections are clear to the reader.

And, of course, there are other reasons to take the readers quickly through your writing, and reasons for slowing down, too.

Concrete Ways to Think About Pacing

Your AUDIENCE and PURPOSE and ATTITUDE (see my 8th blog “More Than AP: Audience, Purpose and [Attitude]”) will prod your pace, slowing it down when appropriate, speeding it up when appropriate. You can read your work aloud to yourself or someone else – but is that all you can do? No. Here are two tools you can use to understand and modify pace.

Four Levels of Development

A simple way of looking at the development of a paragraph helped me teach students how to pace their writing. Usually, I taught this strategy when I found myself asking students for more detail.

Think of a paragraph in terms of its level of development:

Level One: The basics
Level Two: Some details about the basics
Level Three: Some details about the details
Level Four: Some more details about the details

Of course, these levels are formulistic. You probably wouldn’t write according to them, but if you want to understand or modify what you are doing to affect the pace, think of how you are writing. Are you sticking to Level One in most paragraphs? That’s what I was doing in Example #1 of an early beginning I wrote for my novel. Do you have some paragraphs that reach Level Two? Level Three? Level Four? Are all your paragraphs at Level Four? Do they feel too heavy, too burdensome for the reader?

Here is an example to work with:

Luminaria picture from the Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, AZ. Image by Freepik

Their house in Taos was classic adobe. They drove an old red truck. She made ristras to sell at Christmas. The children made farolitas (sometimes known as luminaria) for the old church.

This is the kind of writing that would prompt me to declare on the student’s paper (but never in red): Tell me more. Each sentence is a Level One sentence, goes too quickly to the next sentence, which goes to the next, and the final sentence. The pacing is fast, and I’m a disappointed reader. I want to know more. Here’s how to develop the first sentence according to levels:

Adobe house

Level One: Their house in Taos was classic adobe.
Level Two: They built it themselves from bricks of clay, straw, and water.
Level Three: They allowed the bricks to dry and shrink in the sun before using them like they’d use any other type of brick to build the house.
Level Four: The adobe walls of their house show no shrinkage or cracking because of the lengthy process of making the brick and a coat of mud that makes the walls even smoother.

Oh, now I get it. I know what “classic adobe” means. I can almost see the house. As a paragraph, these four sentences need a little work (see the next sub-section of this blog), but they slow down the pace of the initial paragraph and give the reader something to hang onto.

Each of the other three sentences in the initial paragraph can be developed similarly. The result is at least two slower-pace paragraphs. Perhaps the author can decide not to mention (or develop) the sentence about the truck. Or, perhaps, the author can go right to the third and fourth sentences and develop them (one about ristras, the other about farolitas) and add the fact that their old red truck took them to town to sell the ristras and place the farolitas at the church.

So, check the level of the sentences in your paragraphs. Are they all Level One? Is there a mix of levels? Is that mix appropriate for Audience, Purpose, and Attitude? Does it work? Where could you extend a sentence to its next level or more? Where could you withdraw a sentence that is not needed? What does extension or withdrawal of a sentence do to the pace of your writing?

Sentence Combining

You might have thought the paragraph about the classic adobe house in Taos was repetitive. Indeed, it was. Another technique – called sentence combining – helps you eliminate redundancies, shorten a sentence or a paragraph, and create a slightly faster pace. So, if you notice a paragraph like this, you might want to use the sentence combining strategy:

The Colorado sky was blue. It was dotted with white clouds. They were being pushed westward by an arctic wind. The wind would bring snow to the Front Range. The skies would be white. Everything would be white.

You can create a better paragraph by

  • Combining whole sentences with a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, yet, or, so).
    Example: The dog played. The dog chased a ball. The dog played and chased a ball.
  • Combining elements of a sentence (subjects, verbs, objects, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, or prepositional phrases).
    Example: Snow storms are heavy in December. Snow storms are heavy in Januuary. Snow storms are heavy in February. Snow storms are heavy in December, January, and February.
  • Inserting adjectives, adverbs, and phrases from one sentence into another.
    Example: The jacket was red. The jacket was well-insulated. The red jacket was well- insulated.
  • Changing the form of a word (a noun to an adjective; a verb to an adverb, e.g.).
    Example: Loan applicants must have a high credit score. They must show strong payment records. Loan applicants must have a high credit score showing that they have strong payment records.
  • Inserting linking words such as When, Although, Afterwards. . . .
    Example: James will call you back in the morning. Lisa will call you back in the afternoon. After James calls you back in the morning, Lisa will call you back in the afternoon.

Let’s go back to that set of sentences about snow in Colorado and see how well it reads after a bit of sentence combining:
The Colorado sky was blue but dotted with white clouds being pushed westward by an arctic wind. The wind would bring snow to the Front Range, turning the skies and everything else white.

You could have combined sentences in other ways to emphasize different aspects of the paragraph. For example, you could have combined the sentences like this:

Although the sky was still Colorado blue, it was dotted by white clouds pushed by arctic winds onto the Front Range. The next morning everything – even the sky – was white with snow.

Other Techniques for Changing the Pace

The Four Levels of Development and Sentence Combining will help you not only analyze the pace of your writing but also change it. Here are some other ways to change the pace of your writing:

Paragraph Length

As you noticed in the Sue Grafton and George Eliot examples, authors’ paragraphs can be long, short, or middling. Varying the length of paragraphs is an effective way to control the pace of your work. After a long paragraph, for example, you can write two or three short paragraphs (one to three sentences) to increase the pace. However, don’t do this unless you have other reasons to do so, related to your Audience, Purpose, and Attitude. Also – especially if you are dividing a long paragraph into two or three shorter ones – make sure you divide them in a way that makes sense.

Here’s an example of a paragraph (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) that might be divided, followed by three paragraphs that change the pace (and, yes, one sentence paragraphs are allowed).

Long Paragraph: Not all that Mrs. Bennet, however, with the assistance of her five daughters, could ask on the subject, was sufficient to draw from her husband any satisfactory description of Mr. Bingley. They attacked him in various ways—with barefaced questions, ingenious suppositions, and distant surmises; but he eluded the skill of them all, and they were at last obliged to accept the second-hand intelligence of their neighbour, Lady Lucas. Her report was highly favourable. Sir William had been delighted with him. He was quite young, wonderfully handsome, extremely agreeable, and, to crown the whole, he meant to be at the next assembly with a large party. Nothing could be more delightful! To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love; and very lively hopes of Mr. Bingley’s heart were entertained.

Short Paragraph #1: Not all that Mrs. Bennet, however, with the assistance of her five daughters, could ask on the subject, was sufficient to draw from her husband any satisfactory description of Mr. Bingley. They attacked him in various ways—with barefaced questions, ingenious suppositions, and distant surmises; but he eluded the skill of them all, and they were at last obliged to accept the second-hand intelligence of their neighbour, Lady Lucas.

Short Paragraph #2: Lady Lucas’s report was highly favourable. Sir William had been delighted with him. He was quite young, wonderfully handsome, extremely agreeable, and, to crown the whole, he meant to be at the next assembly with a large party. Nothing could be more delightful! To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love; and very lively hopes of Mr. Bingley’s heart were entertained.

Short Paragraph #3: The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

The third paragraph is like a fanfare, a flourish of trumpets at the end that announces why Mrs. Bennet is so interested in Mr. Bingley.

Sentence Length

Generally, short sentences (1 to 10 words) increase the pace. Here’s a sentence from Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. At 107 words, it could use a bit of shortening:

The French are certainly misunderstood: — but whether the fault is theirs, in not sufficiently explaining themselves, or speaking with that exact limitation and precision which one would expect on a point of such importance, and which, moreover, is so likely to be contested by us — or whether the fault may not be altogether on our side, in not understanding their language always so critically as to know “what they would be at” — I shall not decide; but ‘tis evident to me, when they affirm, “That they who have seen Paris, have seen everything,” they must mean to speak of those who have seen it by day-light.

Shorter Sentences:

The French are certainly misunderstood but whether the fault is theirs or ours is likely to be contested by us.
They may have not sufficiently explained themselves or spoken with that exact limitation and precision which one would expect on a point of importance.
The fault may be ours in not understanding their language so critically as to know “what they would be at.”
I shall not decide, but ‘tis evident to me, when they affirm that “They who have seen Paris, have seen everything, they must mean to speak of those
who have seen it by daylight.

Of course, some words needed changing to work in the newer, shorter sentences. Also keep in mind that Sterling was an Anglo-Irish novelist born in 1713, before George Eliot was born in 1819, so the style of writing was different from today.

I would still combine these sentences into a single paragraph.

Here’s another, this one by a more contemporary author, Annie Proulx (born in 1935), from her book about Wyoming called Close Range, at 142 words:

But Pake knew a hundred dirt road shortcuts, steering them through scabland and slope country, in and out of the tiger shits, over the tawny plain still grooved with pilgrim wagon ruts, into early darkness and the first storm laying down black ice, hard orange dawn, the world smoking, snaking dust devils on bare dirt, heat boiling out of the sun until the paint on the truck hood curled, ragged webs of dry rain that never hit the ground, through small-town traffic and stock on the road, band of horses in morning fog, two redheaded cowboys moving a house that filled the roadway and Pake busting around and into the ditch to get past, leaving junkyards and Mexican cafes behind, turning into midnight motel entrances with RING OFFICE BELL signs or steering onto the black prairie for a stunned hour of sleep.”

Shorter Sentences:

But Pake knew a hundred dirt road shortcuts, steering them through scabland and slope country, in and out of the tiger shits, over the tawny plain still grooved with pilgrim wagon ruts, and into early darkness.
The first storm laid down black ice as the morning dawned a hard orange, and the world smoked, and dust devils snaked on bare dirt.
Heat boiled out of the sun until the paint on the truck hood curled when ragged webs of dry rain never hit the ground.
He wound through small-town traffic and stock on the road, a band of horses in morning fog, and two redheaded cowboys moving a house that filled the roadway.
Pake busted around and into the ditch to get past, leaving junkyards and Mexican cafes behind. He turned into midnight motel entrances with RING OFFICE BELL signs or steered onto the black prairie for a stunned hour of sleep

I would, of course, write these individual sentences as one (long) paragraph. And, as with the first long one-sentence paragraph, I had to change some words to make the sentences work.

Annie Proulx used a technique that writers sometimes use to describe a scene that leaves them breathless (figuratively). They pile on the details of a scene. They build it up so that the reader has a mental picture of it, almost like a chimera. They use lots of conjunctions, commas, and semi-colons. If you’re wanting to create a scene that leaves readers breathless, you might want to write a similar long sentence, on purpose.

(Thanks to the website BlackFox for these and other examples of one-sentence, long paragraphs. Go to https://thejohnfox.com/2021/08/65-long-sentences-in-literature/ for more, including several that are over 500 words.)


It may be hard to imagine that cliffhangers can affect the pace of writing. The word itself apparently appeared in a serialized version of a novel written by Thomas Hardy between September 1872 and July 1873. At the end of one of the episodes, the main character is left hanging off a cliff.

Earlier – though not called cliffhangers – Charles Dickens published episodes from his novels serially in magazines. He became a master of the technique, ending each installment with so precarious that readers had to get the next installment. (A side note: By publishing his novels as installments, he made them affordable and attracted more readers to the genre.)

You can look for cliffhangers even earlier than Dickens. For example, each of the stories known collectively as One Thousand and One Nights ended with a cliffhanger. According to the frame for the collection, the Sultan Shahryar discovered that his wife was unfaithful and slayed her. Thereafter, he took one wife each day and executed her the next morning. Scheherazade stopped this serial massacre by marrying the Sultan and telling him a story each night and almost ending it each morning. But not quite. She stopped telling each night’s tale at a crucial point, and the Sultan had to keep her alive so he could hear the ending.

After 1000 stories, Scheherazade told the Sultan that she had no more stories but, by then, he had fallen in love with her and spared her life.

I remember when our local theater, the Woodlawn, brought back serials from the 40s and 50s, showing one or two episodes each Saturday morning for many weeks. (Note: I suspected that mothers in the neighborhood had paid the theater to run serials so they could get their work done without us kids distracting them.) Often these were westerns with peril promulgated on simple people by unsuspected villains.

Yes, there were cliffs from which people dangled, railroad tracks to which they were tied, and cars careening down the road with the driver slumped over the wheel – enough to bring us back with our quarters (plus ten cents for popcorn) the next Saturday, and the next. . . .

Canyon where you'd find Wiley Coyote and the RoadRunner.
Image by upklyak on Freepik

Then there were cartoons and comics. I admit I still get a laugh when I come across an episode of Wile E. Coyote trying to capture the Roadrunner (good eating) using all sorts of gadgets from the Acme Corporation. The gadgets backfire; the foolproof umbrella is supposed to protect Wile E. Coyote from the boulder Roadrunner has pushed off the cliff. WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO WILE E. COYOTE? We suffer through a commercial only to learn that the umbrella has floated up to the Roadrunner who uses it to drift down to the road at the base of the cliff, where he tut-tuts about the shape the coyote is in and then runs off.

And then there were the Rocky and Bullwinkle serials, with Dudley Do-Right saving Nell, the damsel tied to the railroad tracks by the archvillain Snidely Whiplash.  

Consider movies and television shows. The earlier cliffhanger movies featured the cowboys (John Wayne, The Lone Ranger, and Gene Autry, for example). Then there were Tarzan, Dick Tracy, Zorro, the Phantom, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Terry and the Pirates, the Green Hornet, the Shadow, Captain Marvel, Captain Midnight, Batman, Superman, Brenda Starr, and the Purple Monster.

Cliffhanger movies didn’t disappear at the end of the twentieth century, however. George Lucas acknowledges that he was influenced by the serial films when he created his own series of whole movies, such as the Star Wars and the Indiana Jones series. Consider Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, Avatar, and the Harry Potter movies.

The daytime television sitcoms or soaps often relied on cliffhangers to keep their audiences coming back for more. Think of dramas such as General Hospital, Dynasty, Days of Our Lives, even the parody of soaps called (of course) Soap. Prime-time television can do no better than Dallas, with the all-time best cliffhanger, “Who shot JR?”

Recent or current prime-time TV shows rely on cliffhangers to get audiences from one episode to another: Madmen, Twin Peaks, ER, Star Trek, Sherlock, Breaking Bad, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dexter, The Good Place, Grey’s Anatomy, The West Wing (had President Bartlett been shot?), Friends, Game of Thrones, the British series Doctor Who. . . .

Of course, you can think of many more movies (and movie series), television (and TV series) that rely frequently or occasionally on cliffhangers. Add to this list any number of videogames. Also, consider gameshows, Japanese manga and anime.

I haven’t forgotten about books and stories that feature cliffhangers. Consider The Hunger Games series, Gone Girls (and the many books based on it), The Lord of the Rings and The Harry Potter series, the Twilight sagas, The Girl on the Train, The Life of Pi, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Rose Gold, Never Let Me Go, Tell No One, The Lake, Smilla’s Sense of Snow.
Alas (or perhaps for the good of the reader), there are very few cliffhanger endings in nonfiction.

How Does a Cliffhanger Affect Pacing in Writing?

The pacing in a cliffhanger gets faster as the end of a section or chapter nears. Everything is shorter: words, sentences, paragraphs. The writer may feel breathless (see the excerpt from Annie Proulx), and the reader may race through the last sentences to see if, maybe, the ending is revealed, which it won’t be if the piece is really a cliffhanger. Then, author and reader rush into the next chapter, which may or may not keep up the pace. Indeed, some readers become annoyed when an author derails the ending for the previous chapter in the next chapter, perhaps to elaborate on, add another element to, or deflect the peril.

Here are some cautions about using cliffhangers:

  1. The reader may feel frustrated and disappointed if the writer has not resolved the dilemma built up in a previous chapter.
  2. The reader may feel even more frustrated and disappointed if the writer has not satisfactorily resolved the dilemma. This doesn’t mean that the resolution must be exactly what the reader expects, just that it makes sense and addresses all aspects of the dilemma.
  3. If the writer overuses cliffhangers, the reader may become suspicious of the way the piece is going (“Oh no. Another cliffhanger!”) This strategy must not seem formulaic.
  4. The reader loses interest if #1 or #2 happens and may even cease reading.

Cliffhangers are a plot element, but they can be physical, emotional, or narrative. Here are some more specific strategies.

One or more of the characters

  1. Has encountered a puzzle or an enigma that must be solved (you fill in the details about what might happen if it were not solved).
  2. Has an unanswered question to answer.
  3. Is in peril physically or emotionally or both.
  4. Has discovered something new and must deal with this revelation.
  5. Is experiencing some romantic tension, such as a choice between two loves.
  6. Has a hint about what is going to happen (foreshadowing). Feels a foreboding.
  7. Has a conflict to be resolved.
  8. Experiences an unexpected loss.
  9. Is given an incentive to do something.
  10. Has a sudden glimmer of hope.
  11. Is threatened.
  12. Hears the clock ticking or is in a race against time.
  13. Has a decision to make.
  14. Has an accident.
  15. Is working according to a given (but dangerous) script or set of steps or directions.

Reading Your Work Aloud

No matter what strategy you use to affect or change pacing, you must read what you have written aloud. To yourself. To a writing buddy. Into your phone (to be listened to later). Or give your writing to someone (a buddy or a stranger) to read back to you. Here are few comments about the importance of reading your work aloud – especially to discern the effectiveness of its pace – from published writers:

Diana Athill, a British literary editor, novelist, memoirist, and OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) wrote, “Read it to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK.”

Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and teacher Margaret Atwood (well-known today for The Handmaid’s Tales and its sequel) said, “Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.)”

“A story needs rhythm,” said Esther Freud, a British novelist whose works include I Couldn’t Love You More; Mr. Mac and Me; Love Falls. “Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn’t spin a bit of magic, it’s missing something.”

So read (or have someone read to you) what you have written aloud. Listen carefully. You may find that what you have written sounds different from what you had in your head when you wrote it. J.S. Wong notes on the website “Medium” that reading aloud adds “other layers of brain processing, letting us engage with the story on a deeper level.”

You may catch errors that you didn’t notice when you read the same passage; that’s because when we read silently, we read faster than usual (sometimes skimming or glossing over what we wrote) and we may read what we intended, not what we actually wrote. Don’t let the errors stop you, just note them quickly and move on. Your quest is pacing, not spelling.

You may discern your own voice when you hear it. . .and places where you lost your voice. Again, note these, but go after the pace.

The important effect of listening to our own work is that we get to “adopt the perspective of the audience.” Wong counsels, “As you listen to yourself read, notice what moments you stress and which parts you might try to rush through or skip — this might become more apparent if you’re reading to others. This process forces you to consider storytelling from the perspective of your reader. Is it evoking what you intended? What parts resonate with you? What parts frustrate you? Why? Is it conveying the emotions you wanted to express? Does the narrator’s voice sound consistent? How about each of your characters? Does the dialogue sound natural?”

Let these insights lead you to consider pace. Here are some questions that might help:

  • What parts seemed slow to you? Did you want that effect? Did it work. . .or was it a dud?
  • What parts seemed fast to you? Did you want that effect? Did it work. . .or did it just blow over you?
  • Was there an appropriate acceleration or deceleration in pace? Or did everything proceed at the same pace in the section you are listening to? Or was the pace increased or decreased for no apparent reasons?

Now’s the time to go beyond noting problems to be fixed. Now’s the time to go to work fixing those problems. Try reading the section you are examining in different ways:

  1. Read the whole section as slowly as possible. Where do things bog down, perhaps so much so that you want to throw the whole passage out? (Remember in Blog #5 “Dropping In On The Absolutes” you were given permission to “murder your darlings.” It’s okay to discard something you’ve written.) But perhaps you don’t have to throw the whole piece out, just use some of the techniques in this blog to increase the pace.
  2. Read the whole section as fast as possible. Get breathless. Where does fast not seem to work? Where does a fast pace lead the reader to expect something that is not coming?
  3. Mark the section you’re working on. Use some kind of mark for the parts where the pace should be somewhat fast. (Perhaps underline those parts with a red pencil or pen.) Use another kind of mark for the parts where the pace should be somewhat slow (perhaps a yellow marker). Then reread the passage according to your marks. Does it work? If not, where does the pace fail your intent? Mess with your markings until it reads exactly as you want a reader to read it.

Then use the techniques in this blog to modify the pace in your writing.