Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: How to Identify Dragging Narrative

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.

Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.


  1. Visual clues....great idea. I hadn't thought about the way the manuscript looks (white space) before. Thanks.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Great advice. I'm trying to think of something to add to it, but can't right now! Will tweat this. Good stuff.

  3. It's true that I'm drawn more to books that have a lot of white space. I don't like a lot of description in novels. In fact, I have to force myself to insert description when I write.

    Morgan Mandel

  4. I'm with Morgan. I skip large descriptive paragraphs. Great suggestion about looking for white space. Thanks.

  5. I'm like Morgan, I have to force myself to get descriptive. That one visual clue, lack of white space, is a great tool. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Good advice. I'm with Morgan and Karen. I tend to skip over or speed read long descriptions that seem to go on forever. I use a lot of dialogue in my writing. Great tip about the info dump too. One I have to careful of.

  7. This advice comes to you by way of some of the agent and editor panels I've attended. When agents tell us they sometimes begin by flipping through the pages of a partial, looking for the white space, they're telling us something very important.

    This is one hint I've taken to heart. When I critique a manuscript, I often break up longer paragraphs wherever a natural subject change allows.

    By the way, this also applies to blogs. We need to keep those paragraphs short and to the point.

  8. Thanks for the tips! Since I'm actively editing one novel, with a second waiting in the wings, these are excellent points that I'll have to keep in mind during the process.

  9. I usually have the other problem, I need to slow down. My plot cruises. I just finished the rough draft of a slightly complex thriller yesterday and I was sad to find the word count stopped at 55,000. I hate long passages of description just like most of you folks but it seems I'm running this plot like a race horse, the scenery is just a blur.

  10. I also never thought of visual clues. These are great points, thanks.

  11. Very good tips, Pat. Thanks so much.

    Lauri, I, too, tend to write just the bare bones, but often find that I can add a little description and depth in a rewrite. I don't like long passages of description either. Or the "pause for the list of items in a room" approach. But if the description comes from what the character notices that has some import or impact, then it works better.

  12. Another thing I look for are repetitions.

    When writing first drafts I often craft (with or without realizing it) several sentences that say the same thing. I suppose I'm looking for the best way to say it.

    However later when editing it's easy to skim over sections that sound fine to the ear without realizing the sentences may have the same meaning, paint the same picture, reiterate a specific purpose. (See what I mean?)

    These are more difficult to spot than some "drags" but no less important.

  13. That's another whole problem, Gay, and requires that sentence-by-sentence read and think, read and think technique. Reading the manuscript aloud helps. I'll have a short post about that later on in the series.

  14. Lauri and Maryann -- I also write bare bones and try to keep the action going, so it's definitely a balancing act. Personally, I envy those who write more and can cut, cut, cut. It's much harder, in my opinion, to write less and then go back to fill in the blanks.

  15. When writing, I tend to be more dialogue driven, which may explain why I prefer reading dialogue over description. I want to be put in the scene, but I'm more interested in the characters.

    Straight From Hel

  16. Cool. These ideas will really help.

  17. And then there's me - the odd woman out. I can't get enough description.


  18. Yes, bogland in the middle is the curse of the art.

    This is why I advise writers to make a copy of their ms and DELETE all exposition and internal dialog from it. Take it down to the skeleton. It's the most effective way to see whether or not you've got all the scenes you need in order to tell your story.

    Later you can go through and replace select bits of exposition, but only where it serves to either illuminate a scene or fill in essential backstory, giving the reader a breather after you've hung them from a chandelier.

    You might be interested in my post: Fearing the Grim Reaper of Cutting & Trimming: http://victoriamixon.com/2009/07/22/fearing-the-grim-reaper-of-cutting-and-trimming/.


  19. I tend to be very descriptive, in fact I have a couple of those waitress scenes. Guess I have some editing to do. Thanks for the info.

  20. These are some useful tips. In my own writing I have strived to improve over time how I handle the insertion of information and backstory in order to avoid the info dumps and memory dumps, and it really helps to keep the narrative moving when I succeed at it.

    I would add, however, (putting my other hat: editor) that I see a LOT of manuscripts at my zine where writers seem to have taken the white space/heavy on dialogue/light on descriptors things a bit too far and present me with long runs of nothing but dialogue and I have trouble getting into what's going on. I even see things where there will be a dozen lines of dialogue without so much as an occasional identifier as to who is speaking and I sometimes find myself backing up to the start of it to try to figure out who's saying what. Also, you need at least some detail of setting, so the place the conversation is set in is not as white as the page its displayed on. You need at least a couple visual clues here and there as to what the people look like and how they are behaving non-verbally.

    I think the brevity and spareness that so many people strive for in their blog posts and tweets and emails sometimes carries over rather too much into their narrative prose sometimes, leaving rather skeletal, two-dimensional stories.

  21. Good advice. I need to delete a description of the waitress in my book. Not needed. Thank you.

  22. I agree with Christopher about two-dimensional stories. Timing is everything. The writer's job is to take the reader through the experience. We should feel we've been there. If we tumble forward in the fast lane, noticing nothing along the way, having no time to ponder what's happening and what's to come,there may be breathless suspense but we'll never remember the story or the people. I have fun visualizing and describing characters and events.

  23. Ah, Dani, a woman after my own heart. More and more I'm finding my inner reader clapping her hands when I turn a page and see huge chunks of narrative. But I find that only applies to certain writers, the ones with the mastery of craft to create fully formed worlds populated with characters so vivid and complex it feels as if I'm getting the best gossip in town. As a writer, I need the white space :-) Research dumps are my pet peeve, and the ones I look for most often in my own writing. So much of the work we do as writers is hidden, known only to ourselves, and that's frustrating. There are a lot of good points in this post, ones I need to hear over and over again. Thank you.

  24. These are especially hard on the ADD reader ... I can testify to that.

  25. Because I tend to skip long, descriptive, or boring passages when I'm reading, I'm particularly sensitive to dragging narrative. This was a great post, Patricia, and most deserving of this "return engagement." :-)

  26. BRP gang -- Thanks for rerunning this post. I need to remind myself about these things from time to time too.

  27. Pat, I miss your posts, so I'm glad to have this one appear again. Great advice here that will stand the test of many more years!


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