How to Keep the Reader Engaged without Confusing Them

Pacing is a huge deal, and authors usually have one of two problems: one, they get so wrapped up backstory and exposition that their story drags along like a twenty-five pound cat trying to limp its way upstairs; or two, they get so wrapped up in the action that the reader gets whiplash, sets the book down, and then can’t tell you anything about the story other than “there was a lot of action.” You may want to say, “But I need to spend four pages on Ronaldo thinking about the death of his parents!” but I promise you, you don’t.

First thing you need to know is pacing needs to be dynamic. Some moments call for a fast pace and some need a slower one, but you can’t keep one beat throughout your book. Your readers will get tired or bored. Make sure there’s alternation between them. If you just had three high-action chapters, you’re going to need to follow that up with a slower one so that the reader can catch a breath. And if you just had three low-action chapters, you’re going to need a high-action one or your reader’s going to put the book down.

Unlike the old Mother Goose tale, slow and steady does not win the race.

Unlike the old Mother Goose tale, slow and steady does not win the race.


  • Action: A fast story needs a lot of it, whether it’s physical action or plot advancement.
  • Dialog: You’re probably going to have a lot of this, too. Dialog helps speed things up and keeps the reader in the present and not in the character’s thoughts.
  • Shorter Sentences: Unless you’re watching anime, a villain is never going to give giant monologues in the middle of battle. Anything said is short and simple, and this should reflect your writing style as well. Long metaphors are going to take your reader out of the action to spend time imagining the perfect shade of yellow for the flowers your character just stepped on.
  • Significant Plot Advancement: Assuming your story is action-driven, the most significant advancements are in the more high-paced parts. This is where your turning points, plot twists, and revelations are made and the immediate consequences explored. This isn’t true 100% of the time, but does account for about 80% of the plot points in most genre fiction.
  • Present tense: As a general rule of thumb, if you want your story to be more urgent in general, you should go with present tense. This actively puts the characters in the action and forces you to write reactions rather than ruminate on the past.
    • First Person: That being said, first person can also help speed up the pace of your book. After all, people rarely stop in the middle of a conversation to actively think about their dead parents or the demon deal they made three years ago. Like present tense, first person keeps your character in the moment, leaving their reflections for some other, more appropriate time.
It's all about pacing.

It’s all about pacing.


  • Description: This is where you can get into all your pretty prose about the setting and the appearances of the character. This does not belong — at least in multi-paragraph form — in high-paced scenes.
  • Rumination: In slower scenes, this is when your character can think about the weird scratching noises that he heard under his bed last night and be reminded of the asshole cat he had when he was a kid that would use the bottom of his mattress as a scratching pad. Basically, slower scenes are where we’re allowed inside the character’s head.
  • Backstory and Exposition: While you should avoid doing any info dumping, it’s in these slower paced scenes where you can get into a little of the background and preliminary information that your reader needs for upcoming events so that you don’t have to explain during the action. There’s nothing worse than being in the middle of a battle and the narrator interrupts to give an in-depth history for why the fighting is on this field and not another one.
  • Emotional Impact: While fast-paced scenes are where your plot advancement takes place, slow-paced scenes are primarily where your scenes of deep, emotional impact reside. This ties in with description, rumination, and backstory, because these character developments use those elements to get across the enormity of these events.
  • Past Tense: If present tense is for fast-paced, past tense is for slow. This isn’t true for everything, but it does make it easier to give an overall slower pace. This is not an invitation to switch tenses in the middle of your story, because that is taboo always and forever do not pass go do not collect $200 no.
    • Third Person – This isn’t necessarily slower, either, but it makes the above elements easier to incorporate, easing the process of slowing down scenes and story.

What do you guys think? Do you have some other tips you’d like to share? Leave a comment below telling me what you think.

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