Sunday, October 3, 2010

Creating the Page-Turner: Tricks to Great Pacing in Your Books

For twelve years, I wrote a syndicated weekly newspaper column. I only had six hundred words each week, so I learned to wrap the column neatly. The ending was always tied up with a clever image, like a bright bow on a tidy package.

When I went back to college for my MFA in fiction and began my first novel, this search for closure no longer suited my writing.  Novels explore, they expand, they lead to deeper secrets and more adventurous events.  When one of my teachers noticed this tendency to neaten up my chapter endings, she decided to broaden my understanding of pacing.  How it differs in books--as opposed to short pieces
like newspaper columns.

First she tempted me with a question:  Did I want my reader to close my book after each chapter, feeling complete and able to walk away from the story?  Even though my newspaper-trained writing mind yelled, Yes!  I knew the answer was, "Not at all."  I wanted a page turner.

So she shared this amazing trick:  She advised me to read the last paragraph of each chapter and rework it slightly, to pause the story in the midst of an unanswered question, an unfinished situation, or a foreshadowing of problems to come.  To not wrap up anything, really.  To leave the reader in a state of wondering right up to the end of the book, when the story concludes.

Negative Capability--A Lesson from John Keats
The poet John Keats worked extensively with something he called “negative capability.”  This theme appears in much of his work—and in brief, it's the willingness to be unresolved and accept that uncertainty is a good thing.   Not so easy for a closure-lover like myself, trained for years to create airtight packages.  But as I researched this in novels I loved, I realized most of my favorite writers did it.  Whether by accident or by design, they always left me with bigger questions at the end of their chapters than I'd had when I began reading.

I read further on the subject, revisiting the work of Rainier Maria Rilke, and his 1903 book, Letters to a Young Poet.  In this priceless volume, Rilke advises his young friend “to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.” Rilke explained that the answers to these questions “could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now” in hope that we can “live [our] way into the answer.”  

I decided to apply this to my book manuscript.  I was by now convinced that readers might well enjoy this suspension, this openness, in books as a whole and at the end of chapters in particular.  Even though  I had to deliberately unlearn twelve years of a certain writing style, I spent day after day working specifically with this new understanding of pacing in my chapters.

It took months to figure out new endings for my chapters, but once I began to explore the idea of creating incomplete endings, the tension in my book increased dramatically.

Finally my novel was published, and I began to hear from readers who confirmed the effect of this pacing work. I still have the letters and emails.  “I stayed up all night reading your book” and “I couldn’t put it down—I finished one chapter and had to begin the next one to find out what happened.”  Worth all the work, I decided.

If you want to try it, here's the exercise I used.  It's excerpted from my forthcoming book, Your Book Starts Here, which will be published at the end of 2010.

This Week's Writing Exercise

1. Find a published book in your genre and open it at random. Squint at several pages, studying the ratio of white space to dense text.

2. Read two pages aloud. Listen for the sounds, the rhythm. Does it feel fast or slow? Where does the pace vary?

3. Locate a chapter that contains a suspenseful moment or turning point. Notice if the sentences are short or long, if the verbs are particularly vivid. How did this writer adjust pacing to create this tension?

4. Next look at the chapter transitions. Study the paragraph that ends one chapter and the paragraph that begins the next chapter. What effect does it have on you? Are you left with a need to turn the page, read on? Or is there a feeling of things being wrapped up?

5. Copy three paragraphs into your writer’s notebook, changing where they start and stop. See what effect you get with different pacing.


  1. Truly excellent exercises! Thanks for this. We are DEFINITELY putting this is the best article roundup and tweeting it!

    Martina & Marissa

  2. I thoroughly agree with Martina and Marissa. The exercises are absolutely invaluable. Better still are Mary's comments, her teaching, guidance, mentoring, and good counsel which precede the lesson/exercise. I so enjoy just reading what she has to say. I have to sometimes go back and re-read "as the student" because the insights have been so enjoyable. What a treasure these exercises are. Thank you ...


  3. Do these techniques apply just to fiction or nonfiction as well?

  4. A very illuminating post! Robert Olen Butler also mentions 'yearning' in fiction, which is also similar to 'negative capability'.

    Closure for characters is rarely pat- one creative writing tutor told me to give characters what they need at the end, not what they or the reader wants.

  5. Thanks, eeleenlee, for your comment. I'm such a Butler fan and I know this yearning he speaks of has influenced my writing heavily. You're completely right in saying that closure is rarely pat. If it is, as a reader I am quite annoyed!

  6. Hi A.,

    This technique for leaving things open-ended applies to any book that wants to be a page turner--in other words, leave the reader unable to stop turning to the next chapter. I consciously use it in fiction and memoir differently than I do in nonfiction, but I use it in all the genres.

    In fiction and memoir, it's clear that you'd continue the story of the narrator or characters and leave unanswered questions at chapter's end. Fairly straightforward, but as I said above, often overlooked by the writer.

    In my nonfiction books, I've used the technique in this way: I ask a "next step" question at the end of the chapter, after that chapter's topic has been wrapped up. For instance, in a book on playing the piano, the writer might end the fingering chapter with this:

    "Now that you've learned the basic fingering on the piano, we'll look at chords next. What do chords contribute to a piece of music? How are they best approached by the new pianist?"

    Look in your favorite nonfiction books, the ones that keep you wanting to read on, and you'll often find this used.

    Thanks for your good question!