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.