This article first ran here on July 28, 2009.
In an earlier post about charting the novel story arc, I advised the writer to watch out for sections where the story's tension level drops and stays low across several pages or, even worse, several chapters. How do you identify passages that slow down the story and perhaps cause an agent or editor to toss your manuscript aside?
When viewing the novel as a whole, I use these visual clues to identify scenes or chapters that might need work:
1. Very little white space (not counting the margins) – This indicates that your paragraphs might be too long, or you have an opportunity to break up the narrative with dialogue, if appropriate for the scene.
2. Backstory or flashbacks that last more than one page – If you set these insertions apart from the rest of the book by putting text in italics, or using asterisks or hash marks as separators, they’re easy to spot. Without these clues, however, you’ll need to read carefully and mark the beginning and end of such passages. If too long, move part of the backstory to another chapter, or tighten the prose so the section doesn’t drag.
While doing a page-by-page read of your manuscript, can you find examples like these?
1. Detailed descriptions of the waitress Sally Mae, who appears only once in Billy Jim’s life story when she brings him his biscuits and gravy; a tree the cowboy rides past on his way to the ranch; or a room the hero passes through on his way to the deadly dragon’s lair. If the information is not relevant to the story, and it’s not needed to further the reader’s understanding of the plot or characters, it probably shouldn’t be in your manuscript.
2. Moment by moment reports of the three-day fish festival in Fon’dor; every detail of each attack by the Goobles on the humans (especially if the Goobles attack in exactly the same way every time); or librarian Millie’s reaction when Big Joe walks into the library, especially if he does that a lot, and poor Millie always emits the same sighs and has the same palpitations.
3. Information dumps. If you use historical facts, real natural disasters, scientific or technical knowledge, or current facts and figures in your novel, find ways to weave the essential information into the narrative or dialogue throughout the story without disrupting the story arc. Avoid putting large chunks of information in one place.
4. Memory dumps. This is similar to the information dump, but involves your memories of a place or event, especially if you’re describing a fictional town strangely identical to your town, or a family scene that reminds you of the way Aunt Sissie chugs her wine. We get caught up in the memories and tend to go on and on. This is a good spot to use that red pencil.
Using these identifiers can help you evaluate and fine-tune the pacing in your novel, regardless of genre.
Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting Colorado authors, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revision and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).