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Writing Pace and Rhythm And How To Control Them

Updated on January 12, 2014

Rev Your Engines

I love manual transmissions in cars and trucks. I love shifting and I love controlling the power of the engine as it flows to the wheels. Automatics are for wimps and those who speak on cell phones while driving. CVT’s are for those who would rather be chatting over a beer rather than driving. Manual transmissions are for those who want to feel the growl of the engine; they are for those who would love, just once, to take an adult lion out for a walk on a leash.

Just as a manual transmission allows the driver to control the pace at which they drive, there are techniques used by writers to control the pace of a story, book or article. For the sake of this article, let’s define pace as a tool that controls the speed and rhythm of the story. It is how fast or slow the story is told, and obviously it should reflect the nature of the story at different phases.

So what are those techniques? How can you, the writer, control the speed of your story without the use of a manual transmission?

Speeding Things Up

A story or article without patches of speed is a story or article that is doomed to a permanent state of drudgery, and drudgery is not something we want as writers. Speed moves things along. Speed is slipping into fourth or fifth gear and letting the engine whine at the rpm limit, and taking your readers along for a joyride.

Here are some techniques to help you gear up for a thrill ride.

Thoughts on rhythm from Ann Rice

ACTION

Action is exactly what it says. This is not a time for distractions. Something is happening and you are telling about it…no frills, no diversions….just straight ahead ,what’s happening, and it is best written in short and medium-length sentences.

HANGING FROM A CLIFF

Bring your readers right to the edge of the cliff and then leave it unresolved as you move on to the next chapter. I guarantee you that your readers will turn the pages quickly to find out what happened with the unresolved scene. In other words, leave the reader wanting more.

DIALOGUE

Think about a tennis match between two power players. No holds barred, nothing held back, just power against power as the ball streaks across the net over and over again. That is what a crisp dialogue can do for a story. If done correctly the reader will be left breathless and in need of CPR.

CUTTING TO NEW SCENES

As a reader I love short chapters, and I especially love short chapters that shift constantly from scene to scene. If you have three or four main characters involved in the story, then move from one to the next until you have covered all of them and then start over again. This technique keeps the reader engaged and it is a sure-fire page-turner.

RAPID FIRE INCIDENTS

Similar to shifting scenes, this technique shifts events at a breakneck speed. Transitions are rarely used if the foundation for the story was properly laid out early on. This is a popular tool used by the very good mystery writers, and as most mystery novel readers know, a good mystery flies down the highway with the windows down and the wind rifling your hair.

SHORT CHAPTERS

I alluded to this earlier, but nothing speeds a story along quickly like short chapters. Long chapters have a tendency to bog down unless the writer is exceptional. Short chapters are for those with ADHD who have far too much to do and don’t want to slog through quicksand to get to the end of the book.

WORD CHOICE AND SENTENCE STRUCTURE

Short sentences and short paragraphs…crisp, action verbs…words with harsh consonants…all add to a lively pace. Here is where you can trim out the fat and go with a slimmed down style.

A bit slower
A bit slower | Source

Slowing Things Down

No story can survive on speed alone, just as no car can last long when constantly driving 100 mph. We have to gear it down occasionally and give our readers a chance to catch their collective breath and let their heartbeat slow.

Think of your story as a simile of life. Nobody lives in constant turmoil, in life and in stories.

Tips from George Weir

This is where you control the pace
This is where you control the pace | Source

DESCRIPTIONS AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Describing the scene or describing the characters, both are ways to slow things up a bit and allow your readers to take a much-deserved break. To avoid rendering your readers comatose, however, put these descriptions in motion as in a character passing through a town or jogging through a neighborhood.

DISTRACT THE READER

These can be so subtle as to seem unimportant, but they are crucial for pacing. Have your character trim the hedge or take a shower. Let them take out the trash or watch a little mindless television. Again, remember that we are trying to imitate real life when writing a story or book, so toss in some real life.

FLASHBACKS AND DREAMS

The goal of a flashback or dream should be to add insight. Just having your characters randomly dreaming for no purpose whatsoever will confuse and at times infuriate your readers. A dream sequence is a wonderful way to slow the story but make darn sure it relates in some way.

REFLECTIONS

It’s always nice to get inside the mind of your characters and let your readers know what thoughts are occurring. Rambling introspections are tedious, but short sections that help us to better understand the character and, at the same time, help slow the story a bit, are marvelous.

WORD CHOICE AND SENTENCE STRUCTURE

Just the opposite of the speed sentence or paragraph, this type uses longer sentences and longer paragraphs to gently apply the brakes. Soft sounds are all slow in pace…..”the silence slowly shrouds the room”….and avoid hard consonants. One perfectly arranged sentence is all it takes to gear down the speed of a story.

Did I help or hinder you with this article?

See results

Now, Back in Your Cars

Drivers, start your engines! You are behind the wheel of your own story and you control the speed. It is up to you to decide when you need to hit the turbocharger and when to downshift, and you now have all the tools you need to accomplish that feat.

And no, I really don’t think automatic transmissions are for wimps. J

Happy motoring and I’ll see you at the finish line.

2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

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    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      LOL...thanks Paula! I would love to visit Amish country once....I long for a slower pace of life. Not mine in particular but the lifestyles around me. I need to move to the country. Two more years, Good Lord willin' and the creek don't rise. :)

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      You always make me think.....with your great "food for thought" hubs. I also find that I have happy thoughts as I read most of your hubs....like the fact that I learned to drive with an automatic car, but soon owned a standard, which I loved and drove for several years.....

      I'm through Amish Country quite often and all kidding aside, have decided, they definitely have the best means of transportation!

      Oh yeah.....the main gist of your hub.....interesting & educational as always. UP+++

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Diana, whenever you praise me I feel good because I know what a great teacher you are. Thank you my friend.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      I was on the every word of this post, Bill. I love your advice on the short chapters. Today, most readers want fast-paced action, similar to the movie script. There is not a buton for Excellent - but I vote this post more than that!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Glimmer, not only what the deal is, but it is exhausting. A book that never slows down is exhausting to read.

      I get a great deal with you; you write one article a month that I read, and you read my five articles each week...doesn't seem fair now does it? :)

      Thank you!

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 3 years ago

      If I ever write a book I'll remember this...especially the tip about having characters do something that regular guys do to slow down the book little bit. It definitely makes a character more real and I do read books from time to time where the character never slows down and I find myself wondering what the deal is.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you again Dahlia. I am having a very nice weekend and I hope you had one as well.

      hugs and blessings coming your way

      bill

    • livingsta profile image

      livingsta 3 years ago from United Kingdom

      Wow, these are great tips for a writer. Thank you for sharing this with us Bill.

      Hope you are having a lovely weekend. Sending you blessings and smiles :-)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      PS, maybe my attention span is getting shorter, but I really love short chapters. No, it has nothing to do with my age....I hated long chapters when I was younger, too. LOL

      blessings and a hug coming your way...and thank you!

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Vinaya, my guess is that you hit on the reason. If English is your second language then that makes it very difficult when it comes to dialogue. Thanks for sharing and for stopping by.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 3 years ago from sunny Florida

      Packed with more great tips, Bill. And you broke down your tips into short subtopics just like the short chapters you mentioned. I love books by authors that have short chapters. It can be an extremely long book but the short chapters make it fly by.

      Thanks for another writing workshop Bill.

      Have a lovely Sunday my Friend. Many Angels are on the way to you and Bev.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 3 years ago from Nepal

      Bill,

      My writing instructor always told me unless you are James Joyce never write long chapters, long sentences and long paragraphs. If I'm to judge my work, I think I write terrible dialogues. I know the techniques, but I cannot write crisp dialogues, perhaps because I don't use English in my everyday communication.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      vkwok, you are very welcome. Thanks for being here and enjoy your weekend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Let's see, drbj, I learned to drive in 1963 and our gears shift was on the steering column. Wow, I am really old. LOL

      Thank you my dear. Have a great weekend.

      bill

    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 3 years ago from Hawaii

      Great advice, bill! Thanks.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 3 years ago from south Florida

      Great metaphor, Bill, which provoked fun (?)-filled memories. I learned to drive (won't say what year it was) in a car with manual transmission - the gear shift was attached to the floor. Ah, those were the days!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      True words Deb! The key is knowing what gear you are in so you know what to shift to. :) Thank you!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Excellent! These are god ways to keep readers engauged, while you are aware of what gear you are in.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Glad to hear it, soconfident...thank you!

    • soconfident profile image

      Derrick Bennett 3 years ago

      Thanks I can use some of these techniques in my writing.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Suzie, I had heard that European cars were mostly stick. I wish I lived there. LOL As for the pace of writing, I think it is crucial to hold the attention of the reader...but so often ignored.

      Thank you my dear and have a great weekend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Faith, the guy is still probably trying to figure out where you went to. LOL

      Thank you! I think most of us over a certain age know how to drive stick....and now many will know how to control pace. :)

      blessings always

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Liz! Years of experience teaching have definitely helped me. I appreciate your kind words my friend.

    • Suzie HQ profile image

      Suzanne Ridgeway 3 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Hi Bill,

      What I find funny is that WE are not used to automatic here! LOL Most drive manual and do their test on manual. MJ has his Daimler which is automatic and so different to drive, pure luxury! Great idea comparing the driving and writing because it is true! How you come up so many different aspects to this wonderful craft is amazing. Changing pace keeps it interesting for the reader and the writer!

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      Yes, "billy boy" you have helped, as always. I just love driving a stick, as that is what I learned to drive on to begin with, and I think all should know how to drive one in case of an emergency when that may be what is only around.

      I know you will find this hard to believe, but when I was young, I actually considered being a female race car driver, as I was a little fast in those days ... hehehe ... that is ...when driving my stick shift vehicle. It was such fun, but I know better now to slow down. Boy, could I tell you some stories (well, there's a thought) of being young and living in Tampa, Flordia, after I was just married, and I had a person following me after I left the grocery store ... as I noticed him in the store and then when I came out, he was right there and he started driving his yellow beetle VW around in circles around my car, (before cellphone days : ) ..anyway, I ran to my car, locked the doors and left him in the dirt! LOL I knew not to go back to our little apartment for my husband was off on tour duty at the time, but I lost that weirdo in my dust .... We still have one stick shift.

      Anyway, back to the subject, I love it when I read a poem and it feels like I am reading so very face due to the pace and then WOW ... the end! Exhilarating!!!

      Blessings, Faith Reaper

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      Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Awesome hub, Bill and fantastic advice. I especially like the voting options- those were hilarious! Your description on how to control pace was extremely well-written and easy to follow. Not an easy thing to explain, but you pulled it off wonderfully.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Liz

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Carol, you are so nice. Thank you! I'll make you a deal...I'll give you a copy of the book when it comes out if you write a review for it. How's that sound?

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 3 years ago from Arizona

      Since I have been reading all of your writing hubs I have paid more attention to other's writing...I was reading a new mystery writer and getting bored very quickly with trite language and unnecessary comments by the characters. Probably will not finish the book even though it started out good..way downhill. I love all the advice ....Cannot wait till the total book is out...

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great example Crafty....yes, I can see the parallel for sure. Thanks for sharing that. I hope you are having a great day my friend.

    • CraftytotheCore profile image

      CraftytotheCore 3 years ago

      Great advice as usual Billy! I like to think about when I was on a mock crime scene in my criminal law class. Everything was in the details. You had to write fast descriptions to not miss any notes while moving carefully around the evidence.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      LK, that's music to my ears. Thanks...now go for a drive. :)

      Thank you!

    • LKMore01 profile image

      LKMore01 3 years ago

      LOVE THIS, BILL! As a race car fan and as a creative person this got me firing all cylinders this evening.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sheila, I read several authors regularly and they always use dream sequences. I think they are very useful if written well.

      Thanks once again for the visit and your perspective.

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      sheilamyers 3 years ago

      Once again, great advice. When I got to the part about dream sequences I'm glad to see you're not one of those people who yell about not using them at all. I think that was one element of my first novel that may have been a turn off to agents, but my readers seem to like them because they tell the back-story of the characters in context with the overall plot.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Heidi, good to see you again and your point is an excellent one about cutting and editing....we have so many tools at our disposal if we would just use them. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      LOL....Maria, rev your engine and have a nice drive. :) Thank you dear lady, and blessings to you always.

      bill

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      Maria Magdalena Ruiz O'Farrill 3 years ago from Borikén the great land of the valiant and noble Lord

      I feel like leaving the gas station with the tank full.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      So true no matter what you're writing! Even business writing does not have to be boring. Using some of these pacing techniques can be useful.

      Interestingly, when you were talking about cutting to new scenes, the principle also applies to video editing. One would think that every scene should artfully blend from one to the next with fades and other tricks. But that actually looks unnatural, odd as that sounds. Quick cuts actually emulate human attention more than one would expect.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well DDE, take your time and learn at your own pace and practice, practice and then practice some more. Thank you for always being here.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Mark indeed that experience translates well with my metaphor. Once you've driven one of those beasts you will always pay attention to rpms. :) Thanks my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      drpennypincher, very cool that I chose that one. Thanks for sharing that.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Jaye! I'm working on metaphors intentionally so it's nice to receive some affirmation about them.

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Melissa, pace is something I think a lot of readers learn by practice and from reading....it develops over time just as the rest of our writing prowess does.

      Thanks as always for the visit and I hope you and your family are doing well. Winter is coming my friend. :)

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Great hub filled with most useful, points in the writing field lots to learn from you.

    • Curiad profile image

      Mark G Weller 3 years ago from Lake Charles, LA.

      Excellent suggestions Bill. I know what you mean about a manual transmission as well. Driving 80,000 Lb. tractor trailers makes one well versed in the sounds of the engine and the road!

      Mark

    • drpennypincher profile image

      Dr Penny Pincher 3 years ago from Iowa, USA

      Writing with Power by Peter Elbow was a textbook from my honors English class in college. Fun to see it mentioned and remember college days!

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 3 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Bill - It's so much fun to read your hubs for the dazzling metaphors that I sometimes read one through quickly for the enjoyment aspect, then re-read to grasp the ideas.

      Another excellent lesson. Voted Up+++

      Jaye

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      Melissa Propp 3 years ago from Minnesota

      Hi Bill, this is a really helpful article! You have great suggestions and your explanations are thorough. Its one of those topics that you don't necessarily think about when you are in the moment writing, but if you were blessed to have an editor--they most definitely would be checking. I'm bookmarking this one! Thanks again!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Lizz! I'm actually trying to include more of them so I really appreciate that....and as for driving a stick...just one more reason why I love you.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Bill, I'm like an old river...I just keep flowing. :) I'll be here whenever, and I'm glad to see you back....best wishes and prayers to you during this difficult time.

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      DJ, I think we learn a good deal by osmosis....we see good writing and we emulate it without thinking about it...you hear new ideas like this and you learn it, again without thinking about it. I, too, just sit down and write, but I notice my writing has changed greatly over the past three years.

      Anyway, you are very welcome and thank you!

    • Radcliff profile image

      Liz Davis 3 years ago from Hudson, FL

      I've been driving a stick shift since I was 18. It's real driving.

      You've become a master of metaphors!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Pearl, I suspect you know a great deal more than you think or admit. Most of this we all do naturally without thought...we were, after all, raised during an era when education still meant something. :) Anyway, thank you as always and now go start your engine.

    • profile image

      DJ Anderson 3 years ago

      Bill, I read and re-read all of your wonderful informative hubs. But,

      when I go into the 'zone' and my head is down looking at the keypad, I write by instinct alone. When I go back through to edit, I check for obvious errors and thought clarity. I honestly cannot be sure I am following all this great advice.

      So much to learn---so little time.

      I will keep on keeping on.

      Thanks again for all this good advice.

      DJ.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Bill. Even though I've been gone for a few weeks I see nothing has changed, you are still helping other to become better writers. As I slowly transition back into my daily routine I look forward to reading your words of wisdom. Thanks for all you do, it's great to be back. Bill

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      Connie Smith 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      billy, I am likening this to an exercise routine: first the warmup, then the rev up, then the cool down....and then you do it all over again! Love all your advice and wisdom, having never even thought about pace before. It's amazing how much I don't know about this writing gig, and how much you are elevating me as I continue to ascend on this journey!

      Blessings my friend ;) Pearl

      Voted Up++++

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      MDavis, it's just in our blood. The fun of shifting will always be with us.

      Thank you for stopping by and for your kind words, and have a great day.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 3 years ago from Georgia

      Once more, you have written a helpful Hub. Combined with your humor, it makes it all the more useful.

      By the way, I drive a Sonoma truck with manual, although it does have a light to tell me when to shift. I still prefer to listen to the rhythm and rev of the motor as my prompt. After all, I see the hill up ahead and the light does not have a clue, nor does it tell me when to downshift.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      LOL....Mel, I have the feeling the CHP is doing the same thing. It is, after all, Southern California. :) Thanks my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much Monis!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I do too, Sha! I love the feel of controlling the tempo of the car...plus I just get bored driving an automatic. LOL

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Glad to hear it, Janine! Thanks as always for gracing my site with your wonderful presence. :)

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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      As someone who lives life barreling down the California Interstates with a cup of hot coffee in one hand, texting with the other and steering with my knees I take umbrage with your comments about automatic transmissions and what they say about my manhood. Obviously I could take your advice about controlling the pace, however. Please don't forward this message to the CHP. Outstanding hub!

    • Monis Mas profile image

      Aga 3 years ago

      Bill, you are a pro, when it comes to writing advice!

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      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      Bill, at 56 I should know how to drive a stick. I learned how to drive in a 1962 Cadillac (try parallel parking that monster!) and have driven automatics since. My sister, who is 10 years younger than I, insists on manual transmissions.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 3 years ago from New York, New York

      Huge help and great tips. I just pinned this, because I so referring back to when I need to. Thanks Bill and hoping you are having a wonderful day now!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sha, every once in a while I run across someone who has never driven manual and I'm always surprised, which gives you an indication of how old I am. LOL There was a day when we had no choice.

      Thanks my dear friend and have a great Thursday.

      love,

      bill

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      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      I'm relieved you added the disclaimer about automatic transmissions, Bill. I don't know how to drive a stick! Anyway, I love your advice. I never really correlated hard consonants with speed, but you're absolutely right. The natural reaction is to quicken your pace as you read. The heart gets pumping and anticipation keeps the reader turning the pages until the story slows long enough to catch his breath.

      Great tips! Now, I'm going to see what George Weir has to say.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Hey Marissa, glad I could provide a giggle for ya. Thanks for your thoughts and yes, it of course depends on the genre....and the author. No rules are set in stone. :)

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      Marissa D. Carnahan 3 years ago from Nevada

      LOL the buggy made me giggle. I see quite a bit of those in Sugarcreek/Amish Country near where I live.

      Anyway, short chapters are nice. However I think it really depends on the genre. Nora Robert's books would not have the same feel if she shortened her chapters. But suspense/thriller writer Dean Koontz uses this technique - carries the reader swiftly from one scene to the next.