Is Unputdownable Even a Word?

The concept of pacing complex.  You’ll hear it thrown around a lot in book reviews that a book was gripping, or a very fast read despite being the size of a brick.  This is a result of good pacing, or at least quick pacing– it depends on the novel whether quick pacing is good or bad.

That being said, however, it is a valuable tool.  It’s a testament to the writer when they can rip you through a thick book almost without stopping, as Rick Riordan managed to do for me in his Kane Chronicles.  Thrillers depend on quick pacing a lot, and even epic fantasies suffer occasionally when pacing is done badly.

Pacing depends a lot on structure.  My cardinal rule– when you can’t think of anything to do next, add a duck or some explosions– deals with pacing, as does my general rule about ending chapters with plot twists.  When you can’t think of anything to do next, that’s a sign that you’ve let stuff sit for too long, that the story is becoming boring.  When a story is boring, the reader slows down, maybe even coming to a complete stop.  Thus, there’s nothing better for that than to add action– that will pick up the pace again and hopefully make things more interesting.

Ending chapters with plot twists, on the other hand, is important in another way.  As I’ve explained before, chapters are invitations for the reader to put down the book– thus, you want to give them something that will propel them through the chapter break.  A gripping book is often one that keeps you reading even when you ought to stop.

With that logic, there are a few other techniques for pacing that are worth mentioning.  Plot twists are not the only ways to end chapters.  Brandon Sanderson, for instance, gave each chapter of The Way of Kings an individual plot arc, as if it were a novella or short story.  (That might be why I stopped reading after each chapter, even though I loved the story– and why the same thing didn’t happen for me in Elantris.)  That’s a viable solution, but not for much else than the enormous epic fantasy he was writing.  He kept things interesting without forcing me to read on.

But even for smaller things, where you don’t want the reader to take breaks after chapters, you can end with something other than plot twists.  The reveal to a mystery, for example, works well– often that seems like a plot twist anyway, but they can be separate things.  The trick you want to avoid, however, is asking the question and then giving the answer, or another unsatisfactory answer, at the beginning of the next chapter, just to keep people reading.  That’s like leaving a sentence unfinished.  Instead, make sure the answer to the mystery is interesting enough to make the readers read on.

Another way to keep people reading is to introduce a plan of action, or to end with the character doing something.  It always annoyed me when Brian Jacques would end a chapter with, “Listen closely; this is our plan…”  That always seemed like a cheap trick to me, just to keep the plan in the dark.  However, you can circumvent that dissatisfaction by having the character begin something or deciding something just before the chapter break, such as picking up a sword (obviously to fight the enemy, even without any training), drawing a schematic on a chalkboard (obviously to outline their new plan, but you don’t have to say so), or beginning to study (obviously for their looming finals).  No one wants to hear about the main character chasing after the enemy before he can get a few good swipes in, or studying.  We just want to see that the protagonist is being proactive, and that is often enough to carry us through the chapter break.

Another thing is to keep chapters short.  Long chapters mean less chapter breaks, but they also mean the reader can get bored easily.  Shorter chapters make the reader feel like they are flying through the story, especially when things actually happen in those chapters– also, they encourage the thought that the reader can read “just one more” before stopping.  Shorter chapters can keep the reader going pretty effectively.

Here’s a trick that isn’t really a trick, which I mentioned in my review of The Way of Kings: start chapters with a few of the same keywords with which the last chapter ended.  It isn’t a crucial element of pacing, of course, but it does help continue ideas from one chapter to another.  I think the Divergent trilogy did this well, although I never actually looked for it specifically– I just remember leaving off one chapter, then reading the first sentence of the next and feeling like the chapter break didn’t exist.  Perhaps that was just good plot twists.

One last thing that might help: in late, out early.  Come into the scene late, after all the boring stuff happens but before all the fun stuff does.  Leave the scene early, before all the farewells and useless summaries of a conversation.  I’ve never consciously applied this technique to my chapters, however, so I have no idea how successful it is.

For books that do this well, try Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Rithmatist, or The Red Pyramid.  For extra research about it, you might as well try the Writing Excuses Pacing episode (season four, episode six), from which most of this post was unashamedly stolen.  Often pacing feels almost instinctual, but it can be practiced, thus becoming unputdownable… which, no, I don’t believe is a word.


58 thoughts on “Is Unputdownable Even a Word?

  1. Unputdownable first of all sounds like it means you can’t insult it. Second, my iPod recognizes it as a word with the dictionary definition of describing a book so engrossing that you can’t put it down. Congratulations on using it correctly without even being aware that it’s a word.

    As for pacing (might as well have part of this comment be about the post), for me it has been instinctual.

    1. I know some people accept it as a word. The title was rhetorical, and the last sentence was my opinion on it.

      Same for me. With Wise I seemed to do a lot of things without thinking about them, but Fathoming Egression was the first time I ever thought of my cardinal rule and ending chapters with plot twists.

  2. This post made me feel great because I already do most of things you suggested. My novel has many flaws, but at least it’s well paced.

    And I feel the same way about chapters that end like Brian Jacques’. I think the worst offender of this was Dan Brown, who is the most annoyingly coy author I’ve ever read.

      1. Didn’t you write something along these lines in a previous post? I think it was about Rick Riordan and his numbering/naming of chapters and how he wasn’t doing it properly in HoO?

  3. Great post, very inspirational and helpful. I have been wanting to read a Brandon Sanderson book. Steelheart in particular.

  4. It’s kind of hard to keep the pace moving. My style is more reminiscent of Tolkien and Jacques than anything else. I think that my secret is to keep the readers curious about the characters for the first few chapters until the story is progressing at the right rate.

  5. And that is exactly why House of Hades didn’t work for me and took me a month to trudge through. Sorry, I just had to throw in an example where the author didn’t do this very well.

    On a different note, I agree. Usually, when I’m writing and not thinking about chapters consciously, they end up rather short (I think, on average, about one to two thousand words) but for the most part, they end with cliff-hangers/plot twists and such, because it just feels right to me in the moment. Sometimes I wonder if they’re too short, but thinking about it, I think it depends on the particular chapter. Some need to be long and some should be cut short, right?

    1. Yes, exactly. Riordan messed with the pacing there, and it suffered.

      Definitely. Every chapter works its own way, and there really is no right length for a chapter to be. It depends on you and what’s supposed to happen in the story.

  6. Hmmmm. Lots of options. I usually like lots of options. Thanks–this is something my poor book needed some help with, and I think I’ve done okay fixing that in editing, and done much better with the ones I haven’t edited/finished yet. So…yay!

    Agreed about “leaving a sentence unfinished,” and “in late out early”…well, it made me laugh and agreed there too. Agreement is good, indeed?

      1. No, just have a lot of work to do. Gr. Okay. Starting…now. Let’s see if I can get it done in half an hour or less. READY, SET, GO!

  7. Good post. Something I noticed about the pacing for murder mysteries (or just mysteries in general) is that a continuous flow of new information regarding clues and suspects etc. keeps the reader/viewer interested.

    Agree that pacing feels instinctual. Or, at least it does to me. Didn’t really get the concept of pacing until recently, so that may change.

  8. I *know* you published this a long time ago, but… thanks. A duck or some explosions – genius. Result: three stories I had thought would never get finished are now off the Dormant list and back to Active status. Thanks again.

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