“Our instinct as humans is to provide answers, to ease tension. As writers, our job is the opposite, to create tension and not dispel it immediately.”—Sol Stein
Your current project may not be a Hitchcockian thriller, but creating tension can ensure your reader stays with you to the final scene. I recognize that “craft a narrative that readers want to stick with” feels like impossible and vague guidance, so let’s bring in Sol Stein.
Stein offers some concrete ways of achieving tension in your writing: “short sentences step up pace . . . frequent paragraphing accelerates the pace. Short sentences plus frequent paragraphing step us pace even more.” Of course, shorter sentences means leaving some of your darlings on the floor. Or, as Stein puts it, “[f]lab-cutting is one of the best means for improving the pace of both fiction and nonfiction.”
Treat this week’s exercise as an experiment in pacing (you can regather your darlings after it's all over). Select a scene from your current project and first trim the fat. Start by removing “all adjectives and adverbs and then readmit the necessary few after careful testing.” The list of banned adverbs includes very, quite, really, always, almost…. Take one more pass, seeking out any extra bits that no longer have a home in this leaner, faster version.
Once your chapter is as svelte as Grace Kelly, it’s time to turn to the structural pacing. Begin again at the sentence level. Look for semicolons, em-dashes, and comma clusters. Break everything into shorter, brisker sentences. Then turn to the paragraph. Now that you have taut sentences it should be easier to break the paragraph apart. Start by splitting each paragraph into two, then see if three works. Read the new version of your scene aloud to better hear how your edits have altered the pacing and language.
You may not keep all of these changes. In fact, you may really hate them. Butthis exercise will force you to examine the pacing of your scene, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph. Playing with your structure, removed from the action or narrative, will help you isolate the mechanics of pacing. At a minimum, it should help you see the flab in your story. And I suspect you will keep some of your shorter sentences and more frequent paragraphing.