Each novel follows a rhythm. It’s in the fabric of the sentences, sewn into the pauses between scenes, woven into the rhythms of the plot. Tied together, these threads create the rhythm – or speed – of a novel.
In a psychological thriller, the death count doesn’t have to be high. We don’t necessarily need gruesome crimes or high-speed chases to keep readers’ hearts racing. Rhythm, first and foremost, comes from character. If readers care about our characters, then they put themselves in their shoes, taking this wild ride not only with them, but as their.
After a decade of creating psychological thrillers, here are seven things I’ve learned about creating a sense of rhythm and propulsion in a novel.
The ticking time bomb
I like the challenge of analyzing my scenes, of asking, How can I raise the auction? What does the character want here? How are they going to get it? What can I put in their way? How can I push further by adding more conflict? A simple and straightforward solution to adding rhythm to a scene is to introduce a time limit. The ticking time bomb; the train leaving the station; the last call at the boarding gate. Credible time pressure can turn a simple conversation or action into a thrilling interaction.
Move the lens
I admire those subtle little moments in a novel that send a shiver down your spine, the tingling of the hairs on the back of your neck. It can be a simple description note. A pause in a moment that makes the reader reevaluate what they thought they knew. A look between two characters that we had assumed to be strangers. This lens shift draws readers’ attention to a specific detail, shining a light so they can see something illuminated in a whole new way. This zoom in can deliberately slow the pace to great dramatic effect.
Have you heard the writer’s adage: Get in late, get out early? Great thriller writers know that omitting unnecessary descriptions and starting scenes late – at a point of interest or action – is a clever way to create rhythm. I grab a highlighter for the openings and endings of my scenes, asking, Can I start the scene later? Can I go out earlier? I’m looking for a closing line that leaves the reader at a plot point or raises a new question that needs to be answered. Often the perfect place to end the scene is in its penultimate paragraph.
Sentence, paragraph and chapter length
When we’re involved in an argument, a fight, or a high-stress situation, our natural tendency is to speak in short sentences. It can be helpful to reflect this brevity when writing dramatic scenes, as short sentences allow readers to skim words and skim paragraphs.
Short chapters have the same effect – and feel like you’re turning the pages quickly. Keeping them short and punchy provides a propulsive playback experience, like a good piece of music with the perfectly placed breaks between beats.
In a psychological thriller, we can expect the pacing to explode, propelling us on an ever upward trajectory of thrills and spills, but there’s great power in the pause. We need the rise and fall of tension. After a big hunt, we crave those quieter scenes to catch our breath, process the action. Let the drama settle in and allow the reader to feel comfortable again – before sticking it with the next reveal or twist.
Reheat Slow Burn
Fast is not the only speed. There’s value in a slow burn – that gradual, delicious build of characterization and care, the simmering tensions that heat up to an inferno. In my latest novel, One of the girls, six women rent a secluded clifftop villa in Greece and enjoy a perfect bachelor’s weekend – until a body is found on the rocks below. There are six characters to introduce, to care for, to build a relationship with. I wanted to give readers time to get to know each of them – but I also wanted to point out that the heat is rising. To do this, I played with structure, introducing short, fast-paced interludes, adding new clues to the story, and creating the sense of danger ahead.
In Stephen King’s fantasy book On writing, he talks about applying the ten percent rule. An editor once wrote of Stephen’s fiction: “Not bad, but PUFFY”. You need to revise the length. Formula: second draft = first draft – 10%. Good luck.’ Stephen taped this advice on the wall next to his typewriter and said, “Good things started happening to me soon after.” When you know there’s a distinct rhythm shift, first look at your delete key and think: ten percent.