January 18 – 24: “Describe your favorite techniques for strong pacing.”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re all about pacing on The Thriller Roundtable. Conciseness, partial clues, short chapters? ITW Members Brendan P. Rielly, W.D. Gagliani, Vincent Zandri, H.A. Raynes, Adrian Magson, Nina Mansfield, Jean Heller, Donna Warner, Bill Schweigart and Heather Moore describe their favorite techniques for strong pacing.




unbeatenAn Unbeaten Man is Brendan Rielly’s first thriller. Brendan is a member of ITW and Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance and studied advanced fiction writing while attending law school. Brendan is chair of Jensen Baird’s litigation department and lives with his wife and three children in Westbrook, Maine, where he is the City Council President. Brendan is the middle of three generations of Maine authors with his father and son (as a high school senior) also published.


hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, Maximum Impact and Handyman by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, The Someday File, to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.


nationH.A. Raynes’ debut novel, NATION OF ENEMIES, was published by HarperCollins/ Witness Impulse in August of this year. Inspired by a family member who escaped Poland in WWII, Raynes combined lessons from the past with a healthy fear of the modern landscape. A longtime member of Boston’s writing community, Raynes was a finalist in the Massachusetts Screenwriting Competition and has published a short story in the online magazine REDIVIDER.


WolfsBlindLgW.D. Gagliani is the author of the novels Wolf’s Trap, Wolf’s Gambit, Wolf’s Bluff, Wolf’s Edge, Wolf’s Cut, Wolf’s Blind (upcoming), and Savage Nights, plus the novellas Wolf’s Deal and The Great Belzoni and the Gait of Anubis. Wolf’s Trap was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award in 2004. He has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous anthologies and publications such as Robert Bloch’s Psychos, Undead Tales, More Monsters From Memphis, The Midnighters Club, The Asylum 2, Wicked Karnival Halloween Horror, Small Bites, The Black Spiral, and others.


The Beast of Barcroft_SchweigartBill Schweigart revives a bit of forgotten lore from the shadow of Washington, D.C. in his latest novel, THE BEAST OF BARCROFT, which finds a devilish creature stalking the residents of Arlington. Its sequel, NORTHWOODS, will be available February 16, 2016. Bill is a former Coast Guard officer who drew from his experiences at sea to write the taut nautical thriller, SLIPPING THE CABLE. Bill currently resides in Arlington, VA.



SwimmingAlonefrnt (2)Nina Mansfield is a Connecticut based writer. Her debut novel, SWIMMING ALONE a YA mystery, was published by Fire & Ice YA in 2015. Nina has written numerous plays, which have been published and produced throughout United States and internationally. Her graphic novel FAKE ID: BEYOND RECOGNITION, illustrated by Leyla Akdogan, will be out with Plume Snake in 2016. Nina’s short mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Mysterical-E. She is a member of ITW, MWA, SinC, SCBWI, The Short Mystery Fiction Society and the Dramatists Guild.


Locker resizedAdrian Magson is the author of 19 crime and spy thrillers, a YA ghost novel and WRITE ON! – a writers’ help book. His latest books are CLOSE QUARTERS, (Severn House), the second in the ‘Watchman’ series of spy thrillers, and THE LOCKER (Midnight Ink – out January 8) the first in a new thriller series featuring private security investigators Ruth Gonzales and Andy Vaslik. In between writing books, he is a regular reviewer for Shots Magazine –  and writes the ‘Beginners’ and ‘New Author’ pages for WRITING Magazine.


ORCHARD GROVE - ZandriVincent Zandri is the New York Times and USA Today best-selling author of more than 16 novels including The Innocent, Godchild, The Remains, Moonlight Rises, and Everything Burns. His novel Moonlight Weeps won the 2015 Thriller Award for Best Paperback Original, and is currently nominated for the Shamus Award as well. He is also the author of numerous Amazon best-selling digital shorts, Pathological, True Stories, and Moonlight Mafia among them. Recently, Zandri was the subject of a major feature by The New York Times. He has also made appearances on Bloomberg TV and FOX News. In December 2014, Suspense Magazine named Zandri’s The Shroud Key as one of the best books of 2014.


targetedDonna Warner is a crime fiction novelist and freelance literary editor. Her debut novella, Targeted, is co-authored with award winning novelist, Gloria Ferris. Targeted will be released by Black Opal Books on Dec. 5, 2015. Donna enjoys helping others with their communication projects including English as a Second Language (ESL) students. She is an avid reader of thrillers and enjoys networking with other authors. Donna resides on a country property near Guelph, Ontario, Canada and spends summers at their cottage — kayaking, boating, and fishing. She is a member of the International Thriller Writers and the Crime Writers of Canada.


Lost King by H.B. MooreHeather B. Moore is a USA Today bestselling author of more than a dozen historical novels and thrillers, written under pen name H.B. Moore. She writes women’s fiction, romance and inspirational non-fiction under Heather B. Moore. This can all be confusing, so her kids just call her Mom. Heather attended Cairo American College in Egypt, the Anglican School of Jerusalem in Israel, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Brigham Young University in Utah.





  1. Thank goodness for the changes in style! I remember all-too well the set studies at school, in books like Great Expectations. Dickens, God love him, liked to give readers their penny’s worth. But it meant ploughing through vast tracts of stuff that, for a teenage boy who wanted to be outside, was a brand of very slow torture.
    With the current fashion for brevity and pace, the ‘get to the point!’ approach helps keep the story flowing. As a writer, when a wad of text on the page sits there like an over-stuffed sofa, I know it’s time to get cutting and slashing. Because if I think it’s too much, then the reader will certainly do so, too. And that’s where they start skimming, which, as we all know, is the death of any story.
    In my own work I take the short breath approach, especially when the story needs some pep and I can’t afford to hang about. I look for ways of shortening sentences wherever I can, and that usually allows the paragraphs to look after themselves, and by extension, each chapter.
    Visually, it all contributes to an increase in pace, reducing the block of text and drawing the reader to go on rather than losing heart halfway down the page.

  2. Reading THE HUNGER GAMES a few years ago reminded me to appreciate the art of the cliffhanger, chapter by chapter, page by page. Suzanne Collins really delivered, grabbing me by the guts and yanking me around without mercy. Where once I may have wanted to withhold things or slow the pacing in my own work, THE HUNGER GAMES prodded me with an elbow to the ribs to burn through story. When I wrote THE BEAST OF BARCROFT, if I felt myself stalling, I challenged myself to step on the gas rather than pump the brakes, to get to what was around the next bend even faster. (Caveat: Strong pacing doesn’t always mean fast pacing, and I won’t accelerate at the expense of character.) As for conciseness, partial clues, short chapters: yes, yes, and yes. And you can never go wrong with the tried and true dictum of “enter scenes late and leave early.”

    1. Good example of a series that was rich with cliff hangers, Bill. I found myself doing deep breathing exercises to lower my blood pressure after reading all novels of Hunger Games in succession.

      1. Agreed! She managed to lace every page with dread. You can’t do a cliffhanger with every chapter, but when each page seems like life or death, it has a hell of a momentum! And with some superhuman willpower, I swore to myself I wouldn’t read CATCHING FIRE until after I finished writing THE BEAST OF BARCROFT. And I wouldn’t read MOCKINGJAY until I wrote NORTHWOODS. Willpower or masochism…

  3. Back when I wrote my first thriller, MAXIMUM IMPACT, there were points in the manuscript where I got stuck on where to go next. So I wrote test scenes to see what worked until I hit on the right one. Trouble was, I didn’t go back and cut all the scenes that didn’t work. So the final manuscript was close to 900 pages. Under the direction of an excellent editor at St. Martin’s Press, I finally got the story down to a manageable length. It will be re-released later this year, but before it is, I plan to cut even more. It’s still too long.

    I tell this story to point up what I find one of the most irritating ways writers slow their stories down. Even the great Evan Hunter, writing as Ed McBain, used to drive me crazy when he diverted from the mystery to write long asides about New York or some other subjects. I finally learned to skip over those parts.

    I think writers sometimes fail to cut material, whether lines, sentences, paragraphs, or whole scenes that don’t drive the story forward. In my current thriller, THE SOMEDAY FILE, there are a few scenes where nothing special happens, but they serve to introduce characters and situations that are critically important later. And more to the point, these scenes are brief.

    No matter how much I like an element in a story, if it doesn’t serve the story, if it doesn’t drive the story forward, I cut it.

    I have to disagree just a little bit with Bill. I like cliffhangers and ominous foretellings at the end of chapters, but not every chapter. Not even most chapters. They become overused devices that lose their impact.

    My favorite devices to keep a story’s pace up are: short sentences, mostly short chapters, and storytelling that promises something big coming. I will throw in a cliffhanger chapter ending or an ominous foretelling if they fit organically. But I won’t force them. Another way to drive a story along is the use of emotional dialogue, whether spirited, funny, or angry. Readers will follow a verbal sparring match just to see where it leads.

    1. Cutting is key! I had to cut the first 50 pages in my current WIP. It was painful, but I realized I had much too much set up, and I wasn’t getting to the story.

  4. It’s a privilege to exchange ideas with this group of highly successful authors. Enjoyed reading the first three Sunday posts from Adrian, Bill, and Jean. Looking forward to learning lots more writing tips this week.

    To add to the thesis statement we’ve been assigned, I’m sharing a definition for “pacing” that I found interesting from a Writers’ Digest post: http://tinyurl.com/opcrbkz.

    “Pacing is a tool that controls the speed and rhythm at which a story is told and the readers are pulled through the events.”

  5. Hello, everyone, it’s great to be here with you. This is my 4th roundtable and second in a row (I was on last week’s, too). For me, pacing has been a war between the mostly British thrillers I grew up on, the much sparser style of the best mystery and noir (and some pulp) writers, and the horror writers I wanted to emulate starting with James Herbert and Stephen King and extending through the 80s rebels (the “splatterpunks”), and the more contemporary style of thriller writing. That is to say, I’m pulled every which way when I write. I have trained myself to write more shorter scenes — keeping them “punchier” rather than letting them drag out as my idols such as Alistair MacLean tended to do — and to remember to write shorter chapters, though not making them all cliffhangers (indeed, many are not). In my Lupo series of horror-thrillers, I early on adopted Faulkner’s technique in AS I LAY DYING of writing sections with the name of that section’s POV character at the top. I wanted to do that instead of chapters, but both my publishers balked and we compromised with chapters that contain multiple POV sections. Sometimes the POVs conflict as characters perceive the same action differently. This allows me to change pace in various ways, even if some of the action is sometimes repeated but from a different “camera angle,” as it were. More dialogue, more white space, less description using the “right” details rather than ALL details (as I am always tempted to do), and hopefully a lot more plot and action than sedentary scenes are all techniques I use, though I try to use them organically and not force them. Sometimes slow also works!

    1. Totally agree, Jean! A cliffhanger every chapter would wear me out as a writer and a reader! Sometimes I just need to remind myself to kill my darlings and keep things humming along.

  6. Great to join all of you! I need to go back and read what everyone has posted, but I’ll weigh in quickly before the night is over. For pacing, I learned three things when writing Nation of Enemies:

    1. Every scene *must* have a cliffhanger.
    2. There should be no “fluff” during action scenes. Be concise, have an economy with words overall but most importantly with fast-paced passages.
    3. I, personally, like to keep sections on the short side. Rarely does a chapter or section go beyond 6 – 8 pages. Especially in this book, which is told in different perspectives. To keep the story moving and also to allow my reader to retain the action from the previous characters, scenes needed to be memorable and to the point.

    With that said, there are places I slowed down. During character development, during scenes that are helping to build the mystery and also in setting the near future world that I created. Those bits take time and that’s when it’s good to slow the pace.

    1. Good explanation of point #2.

      Although internal dialogue pumps life into our characters, I try to avoid overusing it during action scenes so suspense isn’t stalled.

  7. Just went back and saw the earlier comments about NOT having a cliffhanger at the end of each scene. For me, I needed/wanted it. They didn’t need to be enormous, pull-your-hair-out kind of cliffhangers, but thoughtful, leading endings that (hopefully) made my readers want to stay up all night and read!

    1. I read that too after posting! I like to think of them as “mini-cliffhangers.” They don’t have to be life or death, but I do feel like there should be something that makes the reader keep reading.

  8. Who was it that said that good writing means using as few words as possible? Of course, they have to be the right words. Partial clues keep the reader guessing. Short chapters, especially if each chapter ends with a mini-cliffhanger, keep the pages turning.

    Sometimes, it is necessary to slow things down. Strong pacing doesn’t mean that the story needs to plow forward at the expense of developing a rich and absorbing world. Characters need to get developed. Back stories, at times, need to be explained. Settings need to get described. The trick is to do all these things without slowing things down too much. As a writer, I am always searching to find the perfect balance.

    1. Yes, balance in pacing is certainly the key.

      I tell my English as a Second Language students to avoid wordiness in their business communication. Yet, when I tackle editing my own manuscript drafts, I cringe when I see overuse of pronouns that should be eliminated in fiction writing. As the saying goes, I need to practice what I preach.

  9. I’m a strong advocate for writing what you love to read. Way back when, I was attracted to Hemingway’s sparse, crystal clear prose, devoid of any flowery or even pretty language. Sentences were short, and so were the paragraphs. Simple, declarative and descriptive, the vignettes that created the masterpiece In Our Time, was and remains a particular favorite. This is not a genre book of short stories, but there is a heightened sense of action because of the brevity of language and the use of almost micro chapters. You can’t wait to see what happens next. The pacing is brilliant, and swift even if the subject matter is heavy.

    Later on, when I delved into genre fiction, I became enamored with Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series not only for the mystery, adventure, and hard-boiled intrigue, but his short chapters and sparse writing style…a style clearly influenced by Papa Hemingway and that didn’t get in the way of the story…provided a kind of pile-driving pacing that made me want to read each and every novel in one setting. James Patterson’s earlier works provided the same kind of excitement for me, precisely due to chapter brevity and simplicity in language and sentence structure.

    These, and other minimalist influences, some of whom were my writing teachers, (Ray Carver, Tim O’Brien, Amy Hempel, Max Frisch, Douglas Glover, etc.), helped me form my own style of short, tight chapters, that keep the reader peeled to the page. As a writer, especially a full-time writer, it always helps to finish the work day knowing where you’re heading with the story come the next morning. This methodology lends itself well to writing short chapters that contain a three act structure. An intro, a conflict, and a resolution that at the same time, provides a kind of cliffhanger scenario for the reader. If you’re doing your job right, the reader won’t feel compelled to check his emails or Facebook while reading your novel. They’ll hesitate to answer the door or the phone. They’ll go without lunch. He or she will be so absorbed, what they’re reading will feel like it’s actually happening to them on the page. That’s magic.

    Short chapters don’t necessarily mean you also need to write short books. We’re not talking comic books here. Not by a long shot. One of the greatest examples of unputdownable crime writing that also serves as Pulitzer Prize winning literature, is Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. Constructed of thousands of stunningly penned, short vignettes that make up longer chapters, the novel (a nonfiction narrative), runs well over a thousand pages. Just one look at its sheer size and the slow reader might find himself running for the television remote. But I defy anyone to put that book down once he’s started. The vignettes are as tasty and irresistible as potato chips, but far healthier.

    We live in an age in which distractions are all around us all the time. Poking at us like hungry sharks. It’s so easy to put a book down these days and play with a smartphone app, or bury yourself into a time-suck like Facebook or Twitter. Writers need to compete with these forms of entertainment by drawing the reader in immediately, and by digging their claws into their brains so deep, there isn’t a chance in hell of their going anywhere. The best way to accomplish that? Tight, sparse, language. Short, sharp sentences, brief but hard-hitting paragraphs, and short chapters that end on with cliffhanger. It’s all about the pacing.

    1. I agree. There are so many distractions that it’s more difficult to keep a reader focused. There’s pressure on every word. My high school writing teacher always encouraged us to write as if we were paying for each word.

    2. I agree. So many distractions! I think we all strive to write something that will keep the reader hooked.

      And btw, Vincent Zandri, great hearing you read at Noir at the Bar NYC last night!

      1. Hi Nina,

        Ahhh you were there…Too small a world…It was a fun night. If you’re around I’m at Mysterious Bookshop on Wednesday evening reading from Orchard Grove once more. The launch party…Free booze! Would love to see your there…:)

  10. Hi all! Another great discussion. This is my fourth roundtable as well! There are a number of devices I try in An Unbeaten Man, most of which I’ve modeled after all the great thriller writers I love to read:
    1. Varying the length of chapters. My chapters are rarely longer than 6-10 pages and sometimes I pop a one page chapter in.
    2. Ending each chapter with something unfinished and some present and imminent danger that hopefully pulls the reader to “one more page.” Clive Cussler is great at always keeping the action flowing.
    3. Action scenes require less description and less expression of thought; usually shorter sentences too.
    4. To heighten the sense of dread leading into an action sequence, one interesting technique is to lay out emotional or psychological minefields earlier in the story that the reader will then be waiting to blow up in the hero’s face. In An Unbeaten Man, the main character, Michael McKeon, had a horrific childhood. His father abandoned them. His mother was a drug addict who got his younger sister addicted and then would trade her for drugs. After his mother died, Michael drove away the dealers, but, one time when he left his sister, one returned and killed her with a fatal overdose. Michael believes that people die when he’s not watching. When we meet him, he is now a microbiologist who has created a microbe that can clean up any oil spill, no matter the size. That should be the breakthrough that defines a career, but international bad guys figure out a way to weaponize it and kidnap MIchael’s wife and adopted daughter to force him to deploy the microbe against Saudi Arabia and Russia to destroy their oil reserves, cripple their countries, and throw the world into chaos. Having lost one family, Michael is panicked that he will lose another. As he races around the world, the reader waits for another land mine to blow up at him.
    5. Another interesting technique is moving the action sequence inside the hero’s head. The chase scenes in Marathon Man are a fantastic example of this as we’re inside the hero’s head as he runs through the streets of NYC. We know his fears and limitations and we don’t have an omniscient narrator letting us know when something is going to jump out or blow up! I’ve worked with this a little in An Unbeaten Man and just used it in the second book in the series.

    Fun stuff!

  11. With so much pressure on pacing, a thought to toss out: do we skimp on setting, character and description? The language used by a LeCarre or a Silva is captivating and sometimes almost lyrical. I also love a thriller that takes me to places that I might not see, so when I read a thriller, I’d like to feel like I just walked the streets of Copenhagen or swam Lake Baikal.

    1. Great question, Brendan. I think there is a fine line and while we need to be concise and move the plot, our readers still need to SEE where our characters live and feel what they’re feeling, hear what they’re thinking and so on. So I think it’s all in the editing. I usually overwrite the first time and go back and cut, cut, cut!

  12. I’m working on the sequel to my debut book, Targeted. Since this new series is written as novellas, I need to pay strict attention to comments from all of you, especially the avoid “fluff” one.

  13. I’m a little late to the party that started yesterday here 🙂 I’m excited to be a part of roundtable this week! I’m published in quite a few genres, such as historical fiction, women’s fiction, non-fiction, romance, and (my favorite genre) thrillers. Pacing is different for each genre. But as we know, strong pacing is one of the key elements of writing thrillers, suspense, and mystery novels. Jack Bickham gives a great example of how to speed up pacing in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, in which he compares the pacing of a scene to the speed limit of a road. If you are increasing your pace, you’ll have less description, less details, less internal thoughts, and your dialog will ping pong back and forth, and your action will ratchet up a notch. We know a novel can’t maintain intense pacing all of the time, but how do you keep it from getting too slow? Here are some questions that I ask myself as I’m going through the second draft stage (first draft stage has no restrictions—just write): Does this scene or chapter move the plot forward? As I read the second draft, is my interest still intact? Does this scene “dump” in information that can be explained or shown in smaller bits in other scenes or in a conversation? Is the Point of View character in the scene the one who experiences the greater impact or has the most to lose? Would this scene be more compelling if I cut it off sooner—as a cliffhanger? Should I turn my longer chapter into two chapters to create a feeling of more immediacy?

  14. It just occurred to me that we could discuss how scene cuts improve pacing by eliminating blow by blow descriptions of how our characters move from scene to scene. Others thoughts on this?

  15. And, without sounding like a total suck-up, I just blocked off some time to look over all your websites (now I sound like a total creeper) and, wow, I feel completely inadequate. I am constantly amazed at the quality of writing out there. I will be ordering a bunch of books! My list of books to read keeps growing longer, but it would be strange not to have a pile of books waiting.

  16. I feel like an interloper given the wealth of talent represented in this discussion and the richness of advice they’ve offered. Still, having no sense of shame, I’ll offer a few thoughts that deal more with the strategy rather than the tactics of pacing.

    Naked, pacing is rhythm, not as necessarily applied to a sentence or a paragraph but to something lengthier—a chapter or, better, a book. If we accept this premise, at least for argument’s sake, then it seems to me that a novelist can gain much by studying various longer-form musical compositions, ideally symphonies, to see how these are paced.

    Before writing, stories were spoken, or rather chanted, Storytellers/story-singers/story-sayers preceded story-showers and they held their public by pacing their plots. This they accomplished through skill in varying rhythm. There remains something in our historical unconscious that responds still to the music of words, including those put on a page. Pacing through rhythm is primal. It cuts through all those tenets that novelists hold dear—appeal to all the senses—and gets to the heart of what really holds a reader, just as it held a listener so long ago—feeling. The other became, if you will, a part of the rhythmic flow, as involved with and in the content as the self who was conveying it. Could we hope for anything more as writers?

    Understand, I’m not downplaying the importance of incorporating the senses in story, but simply saying that capturing this primal rhythm in our work will produce a form of pseudo-synesthesia, which will then pull all of the senses into play. Sit back, listen to a symphony and experience—that’s the key word, experience—it’s powerful gravity. Then remember, this is the power that accrued to words spoken/sung millennia before being set down on paper. That’s why composers can provide novelists with an excellent roadmap. Besides being creative in their own medium, they’re preservers of an earlier creative practice, one that we can and should lay claim to.

    So, again, listen to and, if you can, look at the score of different symphonies (and other musical forms, of course) and learn from the pacing—why, when and how it changes throughout the course of the work to sweep in, not up the listener. Then ask yourself: how can my symphony of words accomplish this wonderful result for readers.

    Thanks for your time and for indulging my foolishness. Now back to hitting a few more wrong notes.

    1. Hi Gary –

      I very much like your comparison of a novel to a symphony! Not remotely musical myself, I completely understand your explanation and I can see the rhythms you speak of in the flow of a story. A compelling point of view.


      1. Hi H.A.:

        Don’t sell yourself short! For example, not being able to play an instrument or carry a tune means you’re not musically trained not that your not musical. If you feel the power–or the message–of a musical work, then you’re musical and that’s the power that you want to harness in your writing.

        Your success tells me that you already have!


  17. It’s fascinating reading all your posts, and showing the passion that drives everybody.
    The mention of ‘fluff’ reminds me that I learned all about this writing short fiction and features for women’s magazines many years ago. It wasn’t my market of first choice, but it paid money while I was trying to get that first book deal. There was no room for over-description, or colourful language or anything ‘below the chin’ or overt violence, and you had to get to the point very quickly or face rejection. Boy, much of that was hard for a wannabe crime and spy thriller author – although I think I’ve made up for some of that enforced drought since then! It also taught me about writing for a specific market and ALWAYS meeting deadlines.
    In case I don’t get to say it later, continued good luck to everyone!

  18. A technique, my co-author, Gloria Ferris, and I sometimes use when editing our work and editing her solo work, is to save our draft manuscript in PDF. Then click on “View” at top left of the PDF screen and select the, “Read Out Loud” feature on the drop down tab. This editing tool complements traditional proofreading techniques. It can give weary eyes a break and flag editing mistakes that may occur when eyes register what we remember rather than what we see on the page. We’ve also found this tool useful to identify scenes that require an adjustment in pacing.

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