Pace Your Mystery, Sustain Tension
Mystery novel pacing guides how your reader feels as they read your mystery. Skilled pacing sustains reader interest from the beginning right up to the end of your story.
Too much action scene-after-scene and your reader will get tired. You may think you’re creating interest, but your reader needs emotional breaks where things slow down between the action.
On the other hand, passages filled with narrative description or your protagonist’s thinking can feel boring if you don’t spice up those scenes by surrounding them with action.
Balancing between action, narrative description, dialogue, and contemplation isn’t as difficult as it may seem.
Plus, clunky language, poor dialogue, and badly conceived scenes will all draw your reader out of the story. Pace will help keep them there.
Let’s look at how you can craft your mystery story to sustain a great pace to keep reader interest.
1. Alternate Active and Reactive Scenes
Control the pace for your reader by balancing action scenes with reflective, internal moments. You give your reader excitement and recovery. You are creating momentum.
Use quieter scenes to share relationship details or your character’s thoughts and memories. They can take a break from sleuthing. These scenes give readers a chance to orient themselves in the story and process their reactions. For example, James Lee Burke sends Dave Robicheaux fishing between dramatic moments.
The balance between action and reflection keeps your reader from tedium or overwhelm; too much of the same pace and your reader loses interest.
The purpose of each scene is to move the story forward. Beginning writers often wrestle with scenes filled with description or backstory because they feel the reader needs to know everything.
Active Scenes and Sequel Scenes
Randy Ingermanson outlines the three basic components of alternating active and reactive scenes.
Although the elements seem simplistic, you’ll find alternating the scenes creates the balance you need to maintain pacing throughout the story. Build tension by escalating the conflict and raising the stakes, but keep the scene alternation sequence.
2. Plan Your Story
A mystery is plot-driven, leading from the crime to the discovery of the villain. Throughout the story, you plant clues and introduce suspects. Planning will help you space the active and reactive scenes as they lead to the next major plot point in your mystery.
You’ll avoid piling on the action without giving your reader breathing space.
PRO TIP: If you like to write your first draft in discovery mode (pantsing), use plotting sequences to arrange what you’ve written. You can add scenes to balance the pacing.
3. Use Language to Pace Your Story
Your choice of language can speed up the story or slow it down. Dialogue and action speed things up. Keep paragraphs short. Visually your reader sees a lot of white space on the page and reads down.
Descriptive passages tend to slow down the story. If you need narrative description, break up the text into short paragraphs rather than one long passage. These shorter passages will help your reader keep going down the page.
Break up long passages with short dialogue. Even a brief exchange will liven the pace. On the other hand, if you have a long section of dialogue, insert brief narrative descriptions like what the characters see or how the weather affects their action. You’ll keep the reader grounded in time and place.
At the paragraph level, vary your sentence length. For example, a long sentence will slow down a reader. Surround that sentence with short sentences.
To create successful conflict in your story, first, your reader must be invested in the character. They must care about the character. Otherwise, they won’t care about the threat, large or small, to the character’s well-being.
Early on, introduce your reader to your character’s vulnerability and to their desire. Setting up this contrast introduces tension and prepares your reader for any obstacles confronting your character later in the story.
Each subsequent conflict, whether large or small, tests your character’s strengths and weaknesses.
As you introduce each character trait, opinion, and response, you give your reader more opportunity to care.
So, save the fight scenes and battles of wits for later in the story. First, give your reader moments to empathize and care for your hero.
5. Raise the Stakes
Along with character traits, your protagonist needs at least one goal. And the reader needs to know the consequences of not reaching the goal.
Mystery writers have a clear goal—catch the villain. But you also need to clarify what the stakes are if your sleuth fails.
As your sleuth tries to solve the mystery puzzle, smaller goals and accompanying stakes help you build conflict and tension in the long middle. And here’s where you can make the situation go from bad to worse. And just to add complication, what if your character gets what they want, but getting what they want puts them in an even worse position than they were before.
You can bump up the stakes by adding a ticking clock. Your sleuth must solve the crime before a certain time. For an amateur sleuth, you can invent a deadline related to their personal life. Be careful with law enforcement professionals and a ticking clock. For instance, a homicide detective would not take on a case one month before retirement.
Stakes build tension. When your protagonist meets an obstacle, and the reader knows the consequences of failure, they become emotionally invested in the scene.
6. Space Your Clues
Control the information you reveal to the reader to create suspense. How much you reveal and when you reveal it will keep your reader guessing until you plant the next clue.
Just like the incremental steps to raise the stakes, drip your clues. For instance, plant them in action scenes to help hide them or emphasize a clue in a sequel scene to create a false trail or red herring.
Each clue is a component that builds on the question of who the culprit could be. Those clues carry the reader through each chapter and sustain interest by raising questions.
7. Read Your Mystery Out Loud
Put yourself in the reader’s place. Notice how you feel as you read each scene. Pay attention to how the sentences flow. Do you find places to slow down? Do you build momentum? Does each chapter raise a new question at the end?
Pacing Is Under Your Control
Your writing is the vehicle for your reader to work their way through the mystery. Pacing helps them move forward and take quick breathers as they plunge ahead to the next action.
From murder to final reveal, your pacing sustains interest, builds tension, and builds reader interest. The mystery genre is all about creating puzzle pieces that at one point don’t seem to fit but fall into place as your sleuth puts everything in order.
Novel pacing can be one of the biggest challenges for beginning writers. These guidelines may seem simple—short and long sentences, action and dialogue, conflict and stakes, alternating scenes. But, master writers follow these same guidelines.