Five Things: Using Pace in Thriller Writing

Doug Johnstone Crash Land
Category: Writing

People tell me I write pacy novels. While that’s lovely to hear, of course, writing a thriller is not all about breakneck forward momentum at the cost of all else. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly get off on the bump-bump, running-and-explaining, helter-skelter of The Da Vinci Code, for example. For me, not every chapter has to be two pages long with a massive cliffhanger at the end. But I do like to keep it snappy for the most part. Here are some – hopefully – useful ways of using pace in your writing to create an effective and engaging story.


Start with your central character in action.

The great crime writer Elmore Leonard had an infamous Ten Rules of Writing. They are brilliant and funny and ornery, and I don’t agree with them all by a long way, but the first two are:

  1. Never open a book with weather
  2. Avoid prologues

Backstory is the bane of a writer’s life

Both of these hint at the same thing – start in the thick of the action with your main character up to their neck in some terrible shit. Too often, writers want to write their way into a story – set the scene, describe the clouds, tell the reader what the main character is thinking, what she had for breakfast, all that guff. Scrap it. Open with her getting into trouble, and fold in all that other stuff as you go along, if you have to.

Especially backstory. Backstory is the bane of a writer’s life – it’s clumsy and clunky. It’s essential information, but it slows things down. Provide the bare minimum to let the reader know what’s happening, and for the love of God don’t do it at the start of the opening chapter.


In each scene, arrive late and leave early.

In early drafts of my books quite a lot of scenes are flabby and meandering. I’m still trying to find out what I want my characters to do and say, what has to happen to move the story along. Then, once I’ve established all that, I hang around too long giving the reader some flannel about the local scenery, some aimless banter or worse.

Be ruthless. Cut all the stuff at the start and the end of the scene. When’s the last moment you, as the writer, can enter this scene and still have it make sense to the reader? Similarly, when can you get out of Dodge before the whole thing turns to sludge?

In later drafts I try to cut this down to the wire, but it’s never enough. Whenever I send what I think is a final draft to my editor, it always comes back with the last line of every single chapter scored out. Quite rightly.


Give the reader time to breathe.

I sent an early draft of one of my novels to my then agent, Allan Guthrie. Guthrie is also a brilliant noir writer and editor, and his advice has been invaluable. He had one brilliant piece of advice then: ‘add breathing space’.

What he meant was that I had my characters barreling from one catastrophe to the next with nothing in between. It doesn’t work. It leaves the reader with an experience that’s all surface and no depth – if the characters have no time to reflect on their experiences, then the reader doesn’t either.

I’m not talking about pages of existential introspection and internal monologue here, God forbid. But a brief moment of respite to absorb what’s just happened can add resonance and depth that would otherwise be missing. The flash-bang action stuff attracts readers, for sure, but if you want to pack an emotional punch, give the reader a chance to connect on that level with the main character.


Mix up your sentence length.

It’s amazing what a difference sentence length can make to the reading experience. I tend to use short, sharp, declarative sentences, and that usually heightens the speed at which the reader reads them. That obviously leads to an increase in the story’s pace. But if you do that all the time the reader becomes immune to the effect.

Always read everything you write out loud

Vary sentence length from time to time. Either have separate passages of short then long sentences, or mix them up together in a paragraph or section. Try reading the results out loud. In fact, always, ALWAYS read everything you write out loud, because otherwise there’s no way of telling if you’ve written something with natural rhythm or something with a tin-ear.

Cormac McCarthy is a master of this. The Road has passages of intensely abrupt sentences, barely a couple of words rubbed together. But then he’ll sweep into something else: long, poetic, flowing sentences that take your breath away, and the effect is like a shot in the arm.


Use dialogue. But sparingly.

Dialogue can be so much more than just characters expressing themselves if you use it correctly. When description or action or reflection won’t cut it, have the characters talk it out. But do it in as few words as possible.

Again, arrive as late as possible to the conversation, and leave as early as possible. Whatever you do, don’t have people explaining everything to each other, that’s boring and clunky and will make the reader throw the book into the fire. Have them talk obliquely past each other. Have them argue or refuse to answer each other’s questions, or have them say one thing but mean another. Have them move and scratch and touch and blink while they’re doing it, but not like they’re madmen having a seizure.

Dashiel Hammett is your go-to writer for dialogue. I remember picking up one of his books on a holiday and being blown away by the way he used dialogue to advance plot, reveal character, add sharpness and vary the pace of his story, all in a few lines.


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Doug Johnstone

Doug Johnstone is a writer, musician and journalist based in Edinburgh. He is one of the co-founders of the Scotland Writers Football Club, for whom he plays midfield. He sings and writes songs with several bands, including Northern Alliance. His most recent novel, Crash Land, is out now, published by Faber & Faber.