Welcome, Allison Brennan. I hear you have been working hard.  Please tell us what we can expect soon. 

I’m developing a workshop about writing thrillers and romantic suspense, and presented it once on line and once in person. I’ll be presenting it again at the RWA conference in Anaheim, and need to work through some bugs – namely, I needed more time!

So as I was going through my notes to figure out how to condense the workshop into a simple ten-point outline, I found this tidbit:

Years ago, I interviewed Linda McFall, former senior editor with MIRA, for something (I honestly can’t remember what!) and she told me once that what makes her want to acquire a book is 1) a great character she can root for and 2) perfect pacing. Likewise, she said, she can fix anything except character and pacing.

“Perfect pacing” doesn’t really say anything, does it? Fast, slow, it doesn’t matter—what matters is that the pacing is perfect for that story.

There are other editors who probably have other deal breakers and can fix pacing with their magic wand, but to me Linda nailed it about what makes me love a book – or a television show.

According to the Tennessee Screenwriting Association [LINK: http://www.tennscreen.com/thriller.htm], one of the pillars of a great thriller is tension:

“Tension must be maintained throughout the story through the conflicts (keeping it difficult for the hero to get what he/she wants) and through the writer's style and story pacing.”

Tension is, essentially, perfect pacing. It’s giving the reader enough conflict and information to keep them turning pages but not so much that they go into overload and hyperventilate!

If the hero gets what they want at the beginning of the book, there is no book – unless getting what they want sets up a chain of events where getting what they want makes their ULTIMATE goal unattainable (i.e. Monkey’s Paw syndrome, as well as subtext in dystopian literature, Star Trek storylines—perfect society with dark undertones, etc.) So then there really are two levels of goals and attaining one creates deeper, richer conflict.

What the hero wants can change over the course of the story. In THE PREY, my debut novel, the hero was a hired bodyguard. His goal was to keep the heroine safe while the police hunted down her stalker. When the killer goes after someone close to the hero, his goal changes to revenge—he now has a personal stake in finding the killer.

Tension means the reader does not know what will happen, or they think they know and it’s all bad for the characters they care about! Tension is largely psychological--something may or may not happen, depending on both things we know and things we don’t. Sort of like in 1980s horror movies, where you KNOW the teenagers are all going to be killed (or most of them) but you don’t know WHEN. So every time they walk on scene, you feel tense. Then when they survive three times, you feel relieved, then WHAM! They get beheaded and you scream. J … Tension is not necessarily action. When Donald Maass says “tension on every page” this doesn’t mean a constant state of action and reaction, just that the reader needs to be tense for the survival (real or emotional) of the characters they root for.

Have you seen THE AVENGERS yet? If not, what are you waiting for? One of the best movies of the decade, pitch perfect in every way from character to pacing to dialogue. Obviously, I’m not surprised – it’s Joss Whedon plus superheroes.

What I loved about this movie from a creative view was not just the special effects or the clear but complex plot, but how each scene built on the previous scenes, so that there was a constant state of tension without being overloaded in every scene. It was fluid and flawless and I can’t wait to go back so I can dissect it rather than simply enjoy it. You can learn a lot about pacing and tension from the movies!

But pacing isn’t just important in thrillers. It’s equally important in romantic comedies, for example. One of my favorite romantic comedies is WORKING GIRL with Harrison Ford and Melanie Griffith. Like THE AVENGERS, each scene builds on the previous scenes, so that you have a layered, textured, and flawless storyline. It doesn’t have superheroes or chases or explosions, but it has constant tension – is Melanie Griffith going to achieve her dreams, retain her integrity, and keep her man in the cutthroat business world?

In the world of television, crime shows usually focus on pacing because it’s critical to the genre. But comedies like NEW GIRL need pitch perfect pacing—it’s harder often because comedy is subjective, and you need to set up and tell the joke and immediately move on. No explanation to the audience. Great learning tools!

What movie or show have you seen recently where you were wowed by the way the story was told? I guarantee, it’s all in the pacing.

On Sale Now


  1. Judy // May 11, 2012 at 7:18 AM  

    Allison, great job of explaining pacing. I hope I get to attend one of your workshops! One of my all-time favorite fun movies was True Lies with Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnie...a great comedy with a lot of suspense.

  2. Mary Marvella // May 11, 2012 at 12:34 PM  

    Howdy, Allison!

  3. Linsey Lanier // May 11, 2012 at 1:49 PM  

    Excellent, excellent post, Allison. I hope you'll be giving that workshop online again. It sounds great. I will have to check out The Avengers!

  4. Mary Marvella // May 11, 2012 at 1:52 PM  

    Welcome Judy and Linsey! She did a good job, didn't she.

  5. Josie // May 11, 2012 at 2:04 PM  

    You, and the editor, are so right. It all comes down to pacing and tension. As writer, you've done a perfect job combining both.

    Thanks so much for visiting the PFS blog, and thanks to MM for inviting you.

  6. Autumn Jordon // May 11, 2012 at 2:12 PM  

    Welcome to the Fuzzies, Allison, and great blog. Please do the workshop on-line again. I wouldn't make nationals this year. ;>(

    Recently, I watched THE EDGE. Yes, 1997 film with Alex Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins. I've never seen it before, and boy, it is a study for pacing, tension and suspense. Even though I'll probably run from the room, again, I'm going to watch it again--with a note pad in my lap. Maybe a gun too.

    Again, thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  7. Larissa Reinhart // May 11, 2012 at 3:12 PM  

    Great post!

  8. Mary // May 11, 2012 at 3:43 PM  

    Always enjoy Allison's teaching.
    I hadn't looked at pacing as tension.

    I did see the Avengers and thoroughly enjoy it. My favorite part, Loki and the Hulk.

    That's all I'll mention as not to spoil the film for anyone else.

  9. Barbara Monajem // May 11, 2012 at 7:38 PM  

    I'm not much of a moviegoer, but I remember being blown away by the pacing in Taken, starring Liam Neeson. The topic was naturally suspenseful, though. Sleepless in Seattle didn't have a suspenseful topic as such, but the pacing was great in that, too.

    I will bear your advice in mind. :)

  10. Beth Trissel // May 11, 2012 at 9:39 PM  

    Hello Allison. Welcome to the Fuzzies. I hung on every word of your post. fascinating and so informative. Your book sounds fabulous too. I'm checking it out.

  11. Scarlet Pumpernickel // May 11, 2012 at 11:28 PM  

    Sorry to be late to the party! Welcome to the pink fuzzies, so nice of you to visit today. Pacing is a difficult issue. The last rejection I received was due to pacing. Just saw "Dark Shadows" with Johnny Depp. I loved it. What's not to love with Johnny on the screen?

  12. Pamela Varnado // May 12, 2012 at 12:10 AM  

    Hi Alison, thanks for stopping by the fuzzies. Pacing is important, especially when writing a suspense or thriller. I worry that i'm somethings adding too much constant tension. How do you know when enough is enough?

  13. Nightingale // May 12, 2012 at 7:01 AM  

    I'm a little late for this post, but I'm really glad I got round to it. Very interesting and informative. I'm going to put some of these tips to work in my current WIP.

  14. Nightingale // May 12, 2012 at 7:02 AM  
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  15. Janet Kerr // May 12, 2012 at 12:54 PM  

    This is an interesting post on tension Allison. I'm going to look at those movies.

  16. Mona Risk // May 12, 2012 at 9:29 PM  

    Thanks Allison for a great condensed workshop. It's coming at the right time for as I'm working on a romantic suspense.

  17. Allison Brennan // May 13, 2012 at 1:15 AM  

    Hi -- I had responded to many of these comments earlier, but evidently I messed something up because I don't see my comments! LOL

    Thanks so much for hosting me Mary!

    Judy -- I'll be presenting this workshop at RWA in Anaheim :) Love True Lies!

    Linsey -- You won't regret seeing the Avengers :)

    Josie -- Thank you!

    Autumn -- I may teach it again for the Kiss of Death, they usually host me once a year. I haven't seen THE EDGE, but it sounds right up my alley -- I learn a lot from the movies.

    Barbara -- you can learn a lot from television as well as movies. And I like to look at popular movies because they're popular for a reason -- they're never boring!

    Thanks Beth!

    Scarlet -- You can fix pacing. Sometimes it's looking at your work in a different way; read it out loud; look at each scene and make sure it's necessary for the advancement of the story, and not simply to impart information. Hope that your next letter isn't a rejection!

  18. Allison Brennan // May 13, 2012 at 1:21 AM  

    Pamela: To me, pacing is very organic. Meaning, if it feels right it's right, if it feels off, I know there's something wrong. If you think you have too much tension, look at each scene individually -- does each scene advance the story? Is it necessary? Is it repetitive? One of my pet peeves is the constant improbably -- I can suspend disbelief, for example, if a character has one dark incident in their past, but if everything bad has happened to them it gets to be a little overwhelming. Also, use either a comic character (not comedy, but a character who can lighten a scene) or sex or a lighter moment to ease up on the tension at key points.

    For example, in SILENCED I have two brutal murders fairly quickly. A secondary character, a detective, has a problem with swearing too much, so she has a deal with her grandson that every time she swears, she puts a quarter in his "purse" -- it's a running theme through the book, and lightens an otherwise very disturbing scene. When Lucy is overwhelmed by one of the scenes, she counts how much the detective owes.

    I actually think you can't have TOO much tension, as long as there's a little relief every now and again.

  19. Patrice // May 13, 2012 at 1:18 PM  

    Allison, I am such a fan of your books, and what a thrill it is to have you here at the Fuzzies. I was out at a writers meeting yesterday in Ft. Lauderdale, and didn't know we had a special guest. Thanks so much for the info on pacing. I write romance but love to read suspense, and will get there some day.