You Can’t Look Away: Pacing & The Riveting Story

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes

My eyes!  My eyes!

How does great pacing so capture the reader’s attention that you can’t look away… even if you really don’t want to see what happens next? (It’s baaaaaad!  I can’t look away!)


Through every specific techniques, that’s how.

First, let’s talk about what the word riveting really means to the reader.  I believe a reader can only be riveted at the scene level, by action (including dialog) unfolding in real time.

When a reader is riveted, she’s captured by the story, hooked in a way that keeps her turning pages to see—not how the story will end—but what’s on the very next page.

The reader may be shocked at what happened in past scenes and worried about future outcomes, but to be riveted by a story requires that the current scene fully capture the reader’s attention RIGHT NOW. This holds for both stories that have a more languid pace and stories with a high-thrill, fast pace.

Riveting Techniques

1) Keep your characters off balance.

When characters interact with each other (or with the plot), it can be compared to dancing. There are steps that make sense, responses that are expected.  He says something, she makes a logical reply.  She does something, he counters.

The biggest trick to creating riveting fiction is to stop taking the expected next dance step.  Keep your characters and reader slightly off balance at all times in a way that is provocative, unexpected, and unscripted, yet totally believable and serves the story you’re telling.

If your character says to someone, “Good morning,” the boring response is an expected reply. Readers can skip that.  Instead, make the reply un-skip-able.

Possible replies to keep the scene off balance:

  • “Don’t you start with me!”
  • “You only say that because you like pain and suffering.”
  • “You’re fired.”

Another example: If your character is holding divorce papers and approaching her husband, you expect that she’ll say she has the papers and hold them out.  He’ll probably be pissed off or sad or remorseful.  It will be a standard scene we’ve seen hundreds of times before.

Let’s look at off-balance alternatives:

  • She puts the papers away and never mentions them.
  • She turns away from her husband, walks over to the woman she knows he’s seeing, and gives the papers to her.
  • She shows him the papers and says, “Do you think these will hold up?  After all, I know this isn’t your real name, is it?”

2) Make it clear that the very next word, the very next action matters.


  • By showing that your characters are paying attention. They’re worried.  They’re relying on what’s happening now to make choices and guidetheir  responses.
  • By focusing the scene–what’s actually being discussed or what’s happening–on a key puzzle piece that belongs to the picture of your plot.

3) Focus on the fascinating stuff.

Even mundane details can be fascinating in the hands of an adept writer.  So this isn’t about leaving out the small, rich details that make scenes authentic.

Fascinating stuff is the stuff that readers want to know more about because the detail creates a powerful mental image, changes what they thought they knew, or gives them access to an unknown world.

4) Go somewhere important with your details.

If your details (dialog, action, prose) never ends up anywhere, if it’s just there for the sake of words, then your readers will feel tricked.  They thought you were telling a riveting story.  Instead, you were just chatting over coffee.  “Shooting the breeze,” as my Dad used to say.

Don’t put divorce papers in a story where the divorce actually doesn’t matter and the character doesn’t care.

Enough said.

And now for a few pacing questions to help you create riveting scenes.

Riveting Questions of Perspective

In this scene, identify where your viewpoint character is truly riveted by what he/she is hearing, seeing, and doing.  Then identify where you hope your reader will be riveted.

  • If there’s a difference, how can you play up this difference to increase interest?
  • How can you make every element of the scene riveting to your character and/or your reader?
  • Look at the other characters present in the scene.  Where are they riveted by what’s unfolding?

Riveting Questions of Involvement

  • How can what’s happening pack a greater, more unexpected punch to your POV character?  Your reader?
  • How can you show that your POV character is being thrown off balance?  Losing control? Being forced into action?
  • Because your character is off-balance, what repercussion could this scene have on future scenes?
  • How does your character compensate for being thrown off balance?  How could the compensation backfire?

Riveting Questions of Scale

  • Look at the smallest details and mannerisms.   What could you show or tell the reader that’s even more fascinating?
  • Locate what your character would consider the largest, most riveting aspect of the scene.  Then locate what you as author have designed as the most riveting moment.  If these moments aren’t the same, look at how you can play up the “distance” or “stereo effect” of this discrepancy.
  • Lo again at the most riveting aspect of your scene (could be something small and quiet or large and loud).   Look backwards and forwards to see the chain reaction of what led to this and what is the result of this.  Increase the power of these moments.
  • Can you make your riveting moments matter to more people if they only knew?  Can you let any of them know?

Riveting Questions of Sincerity

  • Are you riveting in a way that is believable and complex as opposed to gimmicky and unrelated to known or hidden logic?
  • Do your riveting moments generate authentic conflict for the character? Keeping things off-balance does not mean being annoying, creating faux drama, or “filling space.”
  • How are the riveting moments full of truth and revelation?  Sincere disaster?  Hard-won hope?

A Riveting Truth

  • If your scene isn’t riveting, it may need to be cut or redesigned.  That’s an excellent thing to find out and resolve.

In my next Fiction-Zone column,  I’ll look at how pacing is directly linked to how much the scene emotionally threatens the key characters. It’s time to poke the bear.

This article is the 3nd in Diane’s craft-of-fiction-writing series on Pacing:

  1. How to Be a Pacing Genius
  2. Pacing and the Thirst for Something Fresh (Blood Optional)
  3. You Can’t Look Away: Pacing & The Riveting Story
  4. Shot Through the Heart: Threat, Consequences, and Emotions Equal Pacing
  5. The “Oh, Crap!” Factor: Pacing in Real Time
  6. Bam! Pow! Wham! Good Pacing Causes Immediate Reaction
  7. Situation Critical: Pacing’s Need for an Unknown Outcome
  8. Game Changers: Pacing, Plot Twits, and Reader Engagement
  9. Pacing that Matters: It All Comes Down to Characters
  10. Your True Opponent: Pacing’s Race to Outwit the Reader
  11. 9 Pacing Techniques, 1 Scene on Fire


Diane Holmes Crop 1Diane writes two alternating columns for Freelance-Zone:Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.

She’s the Founder and Chief Alchemist of Pitch University – “Learn to pitch your book from the AGENTS and EDITORS who make their living at it.  Learn.  Pitch.  Sell.”