2 pacing techniques that grab reader emotions

2 Simple Pacing Techniques That Grab Reader Emotions

2 pacing techniques that grab reader emotionsWhether or not we care to admit it, much of what we do as writers is manipulation. With careful characterization, we manipulate readers into believing the characters lived before the book began and continue living long afterward. We create settings they long to escape to and plots that keep them wrapped up until long past midnight. When we’ve done our jobs right, we’ve manipulated our readers into turning one more page… one more page…

As writers, we also manipulate readers’ emotions—assuming we know what we’re doing. It’s a tricky business. We can’t simply tell readers the character is crying and expect them to cry too. We can’t have a character laugh and expect the same from the reader. Naming the emotion rarely elicits the response we’re looking for. This means we must learn some tricks of the trade.

Show, don’t tell!” tops the list of writer tricks, followed by “Kill all adverbs!” and “Choose strong verbs!” But did you realize sentence and paragraph structure can also help elicit the emotions you’re looking for?

Here are a couple of subtle techniques—yes, manipulation techniques—your readers won’t even notice.

Pacing Technique #1: Short Sentence, Short Paragraph

Short sentences are quick to read. Short paragraphs leave a lot of white space. What happens when you throw them both together? You create a pace. Readers speed along at a quick clip, which mimics the emotion you’re trying to elicit.

Take this clip from award-winning suspense writer Joseph Finder’s Company Man. Moments before this scene, the bad guy was snooping around the hero’s home. He’d already proven himself a threat, so the hero shot him. This scene happens afterward:

The man’s chest was not moving; he was not breathing. Nick leaned over him, the pistol now dangling in his left hand by his side. He placed his right forefinger on the man’s throat and felt no pulse. This was no surprise; the staring eyes had already announced that the maniac lay dead.

He’s dead, Nick thought. I’ve killed him.

He was suffused with terror. I killed this guy. Another voice in his head began to plead, defensive and frightened as a little boy.

I had to. I had no choice. I had no… choice.

I had to stop him.

Maybe he’s just unconscious, Nick thought desperately. He felt the man’s throat again, couldn’t find the pulse. He grabbed one of the man’s rough, dry hands, pressed against the inside of his wrist, felt nothing.

He let go of the hand. It dropped to the ground.

He poked again at the man’s chest with his toes, but he knew the truth.

The man was dead.

The crazy man, this stalker, this man who would’ve dismembered my children the way he butchered my dog, lay dead on the freshly seeded lawn, surrounded by tiny sprouts of grass that poked out sparsely from the moist black earth.

Oh, Jesus God, Nick thought. I’ve just killed a man.

He stood up but felt his knees give way. He sank to the ground, felt tears running down his cheeks. Tears of relief? Of terror? Not, certainly not, of despair or sadness.

Oh, please, Jesus, he thought. What do I do now?

What do I do now?

We’ve moved beyond the adrenaline of actually killing the man. Now we’re watching the hero’s response as he degenerates from intentionally protecting his household to realizing what he’s done. He’d never killed a man before, and within moments of realizing the bad guy was dead, he flashed through a myriad of emotions.

Let’s overlook some of the adverbs, emotion-naming, and the (deliberate) lack of italics for internal monologue, and look at the sentence structures.

In the first paragraph, Nick is stunned, unsure of his situation. The author portrayed this with longer sentences than what you’ll see as we go along. Notice he even used semicolons to avoid short sentences.

There are a couple of paragraphs like that, but as reality digs its fangs into him, you’ll see his sentences getting shorter. The paragraphs get shorter. Lots of white space on the page. Nick’s emotions are degenerating into panic and almost a despair—and we the readers are taking that plunge along with him.

Pacing Technique #2: Short Sentences, Long Paragraphs

Putting short sentences in longer paragraphs creates a different effect. In the next excerpt, from Ethan Canin’s America, America, the hero’s mother died while he was away at college. He went to the funeral, then returned to college. Now, after a period of time, he’s back, visiting with his father:

“Made a salad. Have you ever made a salad?”

“A couple times.”

“You wash the lettuce. Then you have to dry it. If you don’t dry it, the dressing comes out watery. I hate drying it. But I do it. On a paper towel. That’s the way she showed me how. She showed me a lot of this stuff, you know.”

“And then she would dry the paper towel on the windowsill,” I said, “so she could use it the next day.”

“That’s right. So I do it now too. Come look.”

He went back into the kitchen.

When I came up behind him, he said, “There it is,” and pointed to the sill.

There it was. Damp. Folded over the top stile of the sash to catch the sun.

“I’ve used the same one every day now since—since it happened,” he said. “She’d like that. Dries good as new.” He pulled the roll from the shelf. “They’re Scott, see? She always bought Scott. So now I do too.” Her apron was still hanging on the stove handle, and after he set the towels back he reached to straighten it. “Wish I could tell her.”

This starts off with the short sentences—terse communication between father and son. His father tends to use short sentences more often, as evidenced in the first long paragraph. The son’s line illustrates that he hasn’t felt the level of loss his father has. Then notice later: “There it was. Damp.” Short, as if the son has started to realize the loss himself.

Notice the father’s last paragraph. Along with the short sentences, he adjusts his wife’s apron still hanging on the stove handle. The emptiness he feels is almost tangible.

Whenever I present this excerpt in a speech, at least one person ends up swiping tears from her eyes. Usually more. Not once was the reader told “he cried.” Word choice and sentence structure illustrate his loss greater than any “telling” an author could do. And showing him adjust an apron he’d never stored away is the clincher.

Watch What You’re Reading

These are only a couple of the techniques using sentence and paragraph structures. I’ve discovered many more while reading. The best way to discover these techniques for yourself is to read, often and widely. Read books that teach you how to write, then read writers who have already excelled in their fields to see those techniques put into practice. If, as you read, you find yourself feeling some emotion, realize the authors manipulated that emotion from you. Then go back and see how they did it!


Note From K.M. Weiland: This is a guest post by my critique partner Linda Yezak. To celebrate the release of her latest contemporary western romance Ride to the Altar, she is offering a prize package to one lucky entrant in her blog-tour giveaway! As pictured below, the prize includes a signed print version of her Circle Bar Ranch series, a 16-ounce Christian cowboy mug, a horseshoe picture frame, a Ph. 4:13 stretch bracelet, a cute set of magnetic page markers, and a Texas Rubiks cube just for fun.

Winner Announced: Linda Orr

All you have to do to enter is to leave a comment! The more posts you comment on during her tour, the better the chance you have of winning the drawing! If you’d like to play along, the next blog stop is with mystery/YA author, Mary Hamilton. The winner will be announced Monday, August 6, on Linda’s blog, 777 Peppermint Place.

Sign Up Today

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Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About Linda Yezak

Linda W. Yezak lives with her husband and their funky feline, PB, in a forest in deep East Texas, where tall tales abound and exaggeration is an art form. She has a deep and abiding love for her Lord, her family, and salted caramel. And coffee---with a caramel creamer. Author of award-winning books and short stories, she didn't begin writing professionally until she turned fifty. Taking on a new career every half century is a good thing.


  1. Donna Fields says

    It’s always fun to meet and read an author I haven’t seen before.

  2. Marianne says

    I loved the post! It came in a perfect moment! I wonder if we, authors, are skilled to fix the necessary editings in a novel. We are so emotionally attached to every detail and story that this needed editing may go unnoticed by ourselves.

    One thing I noticed while watching the movie “Avengers: Infinity War”. There are two scenes in action at the same time (at the end). How do I know when to cut to the next and then, go back to the previous one? Or is this just intuitive?
    Because I’m immersed in an action scene and, in the next moment, I must be immersed in another scene. In a movie, this sounds easy, but what about in a novel?

    PS: I’m not being redirected to the “Ride to the Altar” link, but to the Amazon home page 😉

    • Marianne, with simultaneous action, the best times to cut from one scene to another are when 1. you’re leaving the reader with a form of “cliff hanger,” 2. you run the risk of becoming redundant in your description of the action, and 3. the opposing scene’s relevance to the story amps up.

      The biggest risk of simultaneous action is frustrating the reader, so be sure to limit these scenes as much as possible.

      As to your first point, authors are notorious blind to their own work. Effective self-editing happens at least a month after you’ve typed “the end.” But I’m still a strong advocate for experienced critique partners, beta readers, and editors. The more professional/experienced eyes you have on the piece, the better.

      Thanks for the warning about the link. Try this one: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07DZW5Y4Z/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0

      • Thank you so much for the answer, Linda!

        In fact, in the movie, for example, this happens only once. Marvel knows how to lead a story. This is proof that a professional/experienced eye is important to a work.
        (The link is working now 🙂 )

  3. Awesome insight! I love the second one — short sentences, long paragraphs. Pacing is fun to experiment with. 🙂

    • It is! Until I started noticing it among more experienced authors, I’d never thought of sentence and paragraph structures as having a double function.

      These techniques are so easy, the problem lies not in learning how to use them, but in using them too often. Like any author specialty tool, overuse dilutes the effect.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Thanks for sharing! I’ve learned so much from your articles. I like that they are in digestable bites where I can just read one or two at a time and not be overwhelmed. Thanks!

  5. That’s a very good post, Linda.
    You have a point in saying that we manipulate the Readers emotions.
    And with this comes the responsibility to use the tool of “Show don’t tell” carefully.
    In my humble opinion it should be used only when something important happens to the protagonist or in the story.
    In that case also the impact is bigger.
    In the past I used the “Show don’t tell” too much.
    By reading Autors who master the trade, I finally learn to balance the “Show” and the “tell”.

    • There are times when it’s smarter to “tell,” I agree, and sometimes, you simply can’t get around it. But I prefer “showing” much more often because it deepens the POV and gives the reader the enhanced experience of living under the character’s skin. May not be mandatory in every genre, but deepening the POV is vital for the ones I write in.

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Thalia M says

    Good to remember. Thanks for the advice.

  7. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Linda!

  8. Thanks for the post!

  9. John Millstead says

    Thank you for your reminder on pacing. I recently finished a book by James Scott Bell. I felt the thump-thump in my heart turn into thump-thump-thump and realized he was being a master at pacing. I look forward to checking out your work. Have a blessed day!

  10. Great and powerful stuff, Linda.

  11. Thanks for sharing your insight. I must admit, pacing in sentence/paragraph structure is not something I’ve given much conscious thought to. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for the patterns now.

  12. Robin Stevens says

    Great tips on pacing! Thanks for sharing. I’m also looking forward to checking out a new-to-me author. Heading to Amazon now….

  13. Great insight! Thanks so much!

  14. Very helpful post. Love short paragraphs.

  15. Great tips and I’ve been needing to find out how to do this. Thank you!

  16. Renae Mackley says

    Good info and a cute bio. Your second half-a-century career change applies to me as well.

  17. A Howitt says

    I love how some stories really get pacing right to create impact. I’m not as good as I’d like to be at it. Thanks for the article! Good reminders of how important sentence length is.

  18. Susan Bricker says

    Linda, I loved this post and found it helpful I’ll be keeping your great pointers in mind as I write. I love the idea of getting a rhythm going for the reader using shorter paragraphs and sentences. I can’t wait to read your book! Thank you for the wonderful writing ideas!

  19. Thanks, Linda. Short sentences in longer paragraphs is new to me. The example you gave truly is powerful. I learned a lot. Blessings on your tour.

    • Thank you so much, Rebecca. I found the books I used for the examples through Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction. I’d made it a resolution to read all the books he’d listed. Little did I realize just how many that was! 😀

  20. Ahhh East Texas, iz you as far as Vidor? Vidor is almost clear to the Louisiana border. That is the land of bayous of moonshine and of big bugs. I knows the difference between da swamps and de bayous, you know. Bayous has waters that runs through it and is it, Swamps has water too you know but that water just sits, collects things and stinks. I am not sure which way my writings go. I guess I have chopped my sentences up a bit, makin statements, not really carrying on. And I have meandered like a lazy river also dragging the idea to its conclusion.

    • You’re so funny. No I’m farther north than Vidor, but still close enough to the LA border to smell the crawfish boil. 😉

      As far as writing, the meanderin’ has a place too. I show examples of it when I teach on this subject at conferences and such.

  21. This is just the article I needed! God bless you as you launch your next book. And thanks, K.M. Weiland, for all your tremendous resources.

  22. Julian Cox says

    I also found this post to be very informative. I am a strong believer that another powerful way to manipulate the reader is to dump them right into the body of the character by focusing on a scene through that character’s perspective. This way the reader will naturally smell, feel, taste and touch and so on, through that character’s senses. Then you add in their personality and mental hang ups into the situation and further agitate those through the plot and locations and other characters and you already have a lot to work with for building a strong emotional connection.

    I think the biggest part is mixing the use of things that come natural with those senses in a proper manner. Consider this, not very many people feel without using some type of gesture, especially ones that are opposite of their emotional state if they are tactful, for those baser types of personalities their gestures will easily mirror their emotions. A tactful angry person may put on a very tight-lipped smile while one who is not may have that finger or fist jabbing in the other persons face.

    Also, people naturally have a certain thought patterns that accompany such. As a writer we have so much to work with to display a beautiful emotional work of art to infuse into the minds and body of our readers.

    I suppose my shameless plug is I am a very passionate person, so it is easy for me to spit this all out and it very easily spills into my own writing, whether I realize it or not.

    Something funny is back in middle school I had a sci fi story I was writing and one day realized one of the people getting beat up represented some guy I fought after lunch, after he pushed me backwards across a few concrete benches and the bottoms of my legs got a bit shredded. I laughed to myself since in my mind I was still pommeling him, at least the character in my story which just happened to have all my characteristics but looked nothing like me.

    Anyhow thank you very much for your insight on this subject.

    • Writing in deep POV (dumping your reader into your character) is a favorite of mine, as is using my experiences in my works. Makes the scenes more authentic when you’ve been through the event yourself.

      Thanks for the comment.

  23. On a last self-edit of my WIP before it goes to a pro, I have seen some of this in my style and was wondering if it was wrong because it sounded …juvenile? choppy? Now I know it doesn’t, but instead some of my short sentences need more OOPMH. Going to keep that in mind!

    • To determine whether your work is “choppy,” decide what you want those short sentences to accomplish. Are they intended to ramp up your reader’s pulse? Do the represent the way your character speaks? Does it enhance what you’re portraying of your character’s mood? All are valid uses of this technique.

      Of course, if your *editor* says they’re choppy, that’ll settle the point right fast.

      For more OOMPH–use stronger verbs. Works every time.

      Thanks for the comment!

  24. One of my absolute favorite examples of pacing comes from David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The chapter’s protagonist, Timothy Cavendish, is talking to Dermot ‘Duster’ Hoggins, a retired police chief who published his book through Cavendish’s vanity press.

    They’re at a literary awards party at a rooftop garden in London, where Felix Finch — a literary critic who had savaged the police chief’s book — was holding court. Timothy Cavendish tries to calm Dermot down, telling him no one pays attention to Finch’s reviews:

    “‘Come now, what’s a reviewer?’ I reasoned. ‘One who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely.’

    The jazz sextet finished their number, and Dermot left my sentence dangling. I was drunk enough to justify a taxi and was about to leave when a Cockney town crier soundalike silenced the entire gathering: ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury! Your attention, please!’

    Saints preserve us, Dermot was clanging a couple of trays together. ‘We have an additional award tonight, fellow book fairies!’ he bellowed. Ignoring arch chuckles and ‘Ooooo!s’, he produced an envelope from his jacket pocket, slit it open, and pretended to read: ‘Award for Most Eminent Literary Critic.’

    His audience looked on, cockatooed, booed, or turned away in embarrassment. ‘Competition was fierce, but the panel was unanimous in choosing His Imperial Majesty of the Trafalgar Review of Books, Mr. — beg pudding, Sir — Felix Finch, O, B, and E, come — on — darn!’

    Stirrers crowed. ‘Bravo, Felix! Bravo!’ Finch wouldn’t have been a critic if he didn’t love unearned attention. Doubtless he was already composing copy in his head for his Sunday Times column, ‘A Finch About Town.’ For his part, Dermot was all sincerity and smiles.

    ‘What might be my prize, I wonder?’ Finch smirked as the applause subsided. ‘A signed copy of an unpulped Knuckle Sandwich? Can’t be many of those left!’ Finch’s coterie chorused hooty laughter, spurring on their commissar. ‘Or do I win a free flight to a South American country with leaky extradition treaties?’

    ‘Yeah, lovie’ — Dermot winked — ‘a free flight is exactly what you won.’

    My author grabbed Finch’s labels, rolled backwards, sank his feet into Finch’s girth, and judo-propelled the shorter-than-generally-realized media personality high into the night air! High above the pansies lining the balcony railing.

    Finch’s shriek — his life — ended in crumpled metal, twelve floors down.

    Someone’s drink poured onto the carpet.

    Dermot ‘Duster’ Hoggins brushed his lapels, leaned over the balcony, and yelled: ‘So who’s expired in an ending flat and inane quite beyond belief now?”

    The dumbstruck crowd parted as the murderer made his way to the nibblies table. Several witnesses later recalled a dark halo. He selected a Belgian cracker adorned with Biscay anchovies and parsley drizzled with sesame oil.”

    I mean, damn. That’s a masterclass in pacing right there. It’s one of the reasons why Mitchell is so captivating as a writer. But after I’d read the sequence a few times, when I could finally see past my own admiration for his work, I thought about how that sequence could have gone. It’s an author throwing a literary critic off a roof because the critic ripped his book. It’s ridiculous. It could easily have come off as absurd as it sounds on its face.

    But no. In Mitchell’s hands, with his impeccable comic timing, it becomes hilarious. And not only does it set up the plot of that chapter, I’m sure it’s also given pause to literary critics holding that very book in their hands, wondering what might happen to them if they savage Mitchell’s book the way Finch tore up Hoggins’. Luckily Mitchell is a nice guy to a fault, but you never know. 🙂

    Thanks for the reminder about pacing, KM. It’s so overlooked, yet so critical to how a sequence “moves” in a reader’s mind. We tend to think things like pace don’t exist in books, but they most certainly do.


    • Oh, my! I *love* that! And I love the strength of his imagery and the impact of his verb choices.

      Thank you for providing the excerpt. I’m going to have to find that book.

      • Linda — I’m so sorry about skipping over the byline! I tend to just assume KM’s written the posts here. Thanks for the great post and information. I just bookmarked your blog as well, as this New Yorker could learn a bit more about Texas twang.


  25. Kelly Lundgren says

    Great post!

    I’ve actually been experimenting with this a lot more, actually. I wrote an informative exploration with words describing the feelings potrayed by the certain sentace and paragraph structures. It was extremely fun.

  26. Great tips, thank you!

  27. I’ve noticed that when I read Austin or Bronte, etc. the sentences often meander much longer than many modern works in the first place. It seems like writers of the past gave more importance to evocative atmosphere and beautifully crafted individual sentences. (Maybe I’m just not reading the right modern works, I don’t know.) I wonder, though, how much of this phenomenon is because of generally shortening attention spans and devolving language skills? (My extreme example of the latter is the fact that I have trouble “reading” laundry tags because I can’t remember the symbols and wish with all my might that manufacturers would just write it out, for heaven’s sake!!) Is there still a place in the market for delightfully thorough, if lengthy, descriptions that leave the reader blinking around, wondering how they got back to the real world when they close the book? (Naturally I stipulate “if done well.”)

    • People who read novels have a longer attention span and can follow a well-crafted sentence, even if it’s long. Modern style argues against it, though, so now it’s more of a specialty tool.

      In my speech, I give examples of long sentences and explain their purpose. For instance, in The Road, Carmac McCarthy has long sentences containing one-syllable words and several “ands” to link actions together. The effect is one of panic and terror and hurry, hurry, hurry! But Kathleen Y’Barbo uses the same technique to mimic the roll of the Mississippi River in Flora’s Wish. The rhythm is entirely different because of the syllable count: Mississippi, New Orleans, etc.

      It’s a fun study for word nerds like me. 😀

  28. Just the information I need as I come to the conclusion of another first draft, it’ll be something to look for in the revision phase. Thank, Linda, for clearly stating this technique.

  29. Linda, thank you for your post. I’ve experimented with short sentences previously to evoke a quickening pace, but I haven’t seen the result of the longer paragraph contrasted so directly before. Much subtler than my attempts!

  30. All the best for your new manuscript!

  31. I’ not doing if I’ve read a writing book before. Maybe I should try it.

    • Studying books about the craft can be an eye-opening experience, and it can definitely kick in the old muse and get the creative juices flowing. I highly recommend it. Katie’s books on outlining and structure are great. So are the Writer’s Digest books.

  32. Helpful article and tips you posted, I would appreciate for this valuable post. Thanks for sharing informative article with us.

  33. What a great article! Learning how to craft pacing–other than suspense–is exciting and has me going back to several sections of my new book, to see how I handled the pacing and if it needs editing–which I’m sure it will! LOL!

    I always enjoy reading KM’s articles and learn a great deal from all of them.

    Thanks again!


  34. Thanks for this, very helpful. I enjoy learning more about how to communicate in different ways without spelling it out.


  1. […] eyes: June Casagrande’s assertion that grammar purity is one big Ponzi scheme, Lisa Yezak’s 5 simple pacing techniques that grab reader emotions, and Ruth Harris’ list of new opportunities for old […]

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