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Do your readers report that your narration is long-winded? Have they been skimming large paragraphs? If so, your prose may have a pacing problem.

A narration’s pace is most analogous to movement in a story. Problems occur when significant sections are stalling the action and keeping the story from progressing. This is distinct from story pacing, which mostly refers to the level of tension as the story goes on. However, if your story has less tension than it should, plodding prose will make the issue worse.

Let’s look at the six most common places where prose gets long-winded. You may have a big issue with one while the others are already trim, or you might go too long in each place.

1. Description of Scenery

Great description makes a story immersive and adds novelty to the story’s setting, but readers will only want to stare at the scenery for so long. They’ll be okay with more description if the subject matter is unusual, important to the story, or adds tension. Even so, we rarely have cause to use more than a medium-large paragraph worth of description at once.

When description is long, it’s often because the writer is trying to do too much with it. We may have commissioned elaborate and gorgeous art depicting our futuristic or fantasy city, but we can’t use words to give readers the same image. Conveying schematics is only going to overload them.

Let’s look at an example from Lord of the Rings.

In that dreadful light Sam stood aghast, for now, looking to his left, he could see the Tower of Cirith Ungol in all its strength. The horn that he had seen from the other side was only its topmost turret. Its eastern face stood up in three great tiers from a shelf in the mountain-wall far below; its back was to a great cliff behind, from which it jutted out in pointed bastions, one above the other, diminishing as they rose, with sheer sides of cunning masonry that looked north-east and south-east. About the lowest tier, two hundred feet below where Sam now stood, there was a battlemented wall enclosing a narrow court. Its gate, upon the near south-eastern side, opened on a broad road, the outer parapet of which ran upon the brink of a precipice, until it turned southward and went winding down into the darkness to join the road that came over the Morgul Pass. Then on it went through a jagged rift in the Morgai out into the valley of Gorgoroth and away to Barad-dûr. The narrow upper way on which Sam stood leapt swiftly down by stair and steep path to meet the main road under the frowning walls close to the Tower-gate.

Tolkien uses cardinal directions and exact numbers of feet as he describes what’s on each side of the Tower of Cirith Ungol. If I studied this for a while, I could probably sketch out what he’s describing. But guess what? I don’t want to! That’s work, not enjoyment. And without that work, most of this bounces right off my noggin. I suppose there’s some kind of steep cliffs and a road near this tower or something.

If you have good reason to include lots of description, don’t do it in a big chunk. You can have a brief paragraph when your viewpoint character first glimpses a city. Then you can describe the gate when they walk through it, and then describe the merchants when they buy something, and so on. Interweave your description with actions, and take a hatchet to overly large paragraphs or multiple paragraphs in a row.

Below is a more reasonable paragraph of description, though I’m not going to decipher Tolkien’s writing to ensure it conveys what’s important to the story.

Example

Sam could see the Tower of Cirith Ungol in all its strength. The tower stood up in three great tiers from a shelf in the mountain-wall far below, jutting out in pointed bastions that diminished as they rose. At the tower’s bottom, a gate opened on a broad road following the brink of a precipice, winding down into the darkness to join the road over the Morgul Pass. The path Sam traveled leapt swiftly down by stair and met the main road to the Tower-gate.

2. Belabored Summary

Too much summary can look similar to long description, because it often appears when characters are traveling and includes description of the landscape. Travel is particularly bad because many writers think they have to make it feel long and laborious to fit their setting. Then they do that by using too much summary.

Let’s look at an example of that from the beginning of The Sword of Shannara. Author Terry Brooks was clearly emulating Tolkien, and unfortunately he picked up some of Tolkien’s bad habits.

The stranger appeared to be unconcerned with the silence. His attention seemed to be focused on a constantly changing point on the ground some six feet in front of them. He did not look up and he did not look at his young guide for directions as they went. Instead, he seemed to know exactly where the other was going and walked confidently beside him.

After a while, Flick began to have trouble keeping pace with the tall man, who traveled the path with long, swinging strides that dwarfed Flick’s shorter ones. At times, the Valeman almost had to run to keep up. Once or twice the other man glanced down at his smaller companion and, seeing the difficulty he was having in trying to match strides, slowed to an easier pace. Finally, as the southern slopes of the valley drew near, the hills began to level off into shrub-covered grasslands that hinted at the appearance of new forests. The terrain began to dip downward at a gentle slope, and Flick located several familiar landmarks that bounded the outskirts of Shady Vale. He felt a surge of relief in spite of himself. The hamlet and his own warm home were just ahead.

The stranger did not speak a single word during the brief journey, and Flick was reluctant to attempt any conversation. Instead, he tried to study the giant in quick glimpses as they walked, without permitting the other to observe what he was doing.

Brooks describes this as a “brief journey,” yet this passage is only a small portion of the total summary he has in this chapter. What’s more, nothing particularly important is happening in this sequence. Three paragraphs is too long for that.

Summary should only be used to breeze past moments that are relatively uneventful. In turn, that means it should never be very long, because it’s by definition pretty boring. Below is a more reasonable length for this sequence.

Example

Flick struggled to keep up as the hillsides leveled off into the shrub-covered grasslands just outside the Shady Vale. The stranger did not speak a single word, nor did he seem to need guidance as to their direction. Rather than making poor attempts at conversation, Flick stole glances at the giant as they walked.

Besides travel, another cause of excessive summary is difficulty planning scenes. If you outline a story that covers a long period of time or has lots of gradual changes, it may not be easy to condense it into a series of pivotal moments to show in real time. But that work is necessary.

3. Exposition Dumps

Exposition is infamous for being excessive, so much so that I run into the occasional anti-exposition purist who tries to avoid it altogether. That can actually be worse, as it leaves readers confused and deprives the story of emotional power. Exposition is a careful balancing act.

It takes a lot of knowledge and practice to work out what exposition you should have and where it should go. However, a good start is simply being aware of when you are expositing and asking yourself how it will improve a reader’s experience.

Let’s look at a short excerpt from House of Earth and Blood. Unfortunately, author Sarah Maas appears to be a discovery writer who exposits to develop story elements. Then she clearly doesn’t remove all the excess when she’s done. In the excerpt, the main character, Bryce, is being visited by a friend at work. Jesiba is Bryce’s boss.

Bryce leaned against the lip of the desk and crossed her arms, fingers brushing against the stretchy black fabric of her skintight dress. “Your gym bag’s already stinking up the place. Jesiba’s due back later this afternoon—she’ll throw your shit in the dumpster again if it’s still here.”

It was the mildest Hel Jesiba Roga could unleash if provoked.

A four-hundred-year-old enchantress who’d been born a witch and defected, Jesiba had joined the House of Flame and Shadow and now answered only to the Under-King himself. Flame and Shadow suited her well—she possessed an arsenal of spells to rival any sorcerer or necromancer in the darkest of the Houses. She’d been known to change people into animals when irritated enough. Bryce had never dared ask if the small animals in the dozen tanks and terrariums had always been animals.

Some of this exposition actually works. If there really is a threat from Jesiba, that’s a good thing to establish. Mentioning how old Jesiba is and her reputation for turning people into animals is a constructive part of that. But it doesn’t help to tell readers that Jesiba used to be a witch or what house she serves. If the readers had enough context to know who the Under-King is, that part might matter, but this is the first mention of him.

Let’s look at this excerpt with a little trimming.

Example

Bryce leaned against the lip of the desk and crossed her arms, fingers brushing against the stretchy black fabric of her skintight dress. “Your gym bag’s already stinking up the place. Jesiba’s due back later this afternoon—she’ll throw your shit in the dumpster again if it’s still here.”

It was the mildest Hel Jesiba Roga could unleash if provoked.

A four-hundred-year-old enchantress, Jesiba had been known to change people into animals when irritated enough. Bryce had never dared ask if the small animals in the dozen tanks and terrariums had always been animals.

Of course, these problems are not just caused by writers who create exposition on the fly. Many writers are eager to share all the details they’ve created while doing separate worldbuilding or character development. Sometimes, writers will even insert interludes to hold more of this exposition.

It’s tough to create cool things only to keep them to yourself. Just remember that unless those details matter to the story, they won’t matter to readers. If they’re that important, write another story about them.

4. Dialogue Dumps

Most dialogue should only be a line or two. If you have a large paragraph of dialogue, especially several large paragraphs by the same character in the same conversation, that’s something to examine. This doesn’t mean you never want a paragraph of dialogue. Sometimes a character naturally has some explaining to do. But if they are explaining an entire page’s worth of content with minimal replies by the person they’re talking to, you might have turned your character into your mouthpiece.

Sometimes this happens because the writer has put exposition in their dialogue. If one of your characters is genuinely ignorant and truly needs this explanation, that can be okay in small amounts. But otherwise, narration is a better place for exposition.

The other common issue is that writers can be tempted to use a character as their soapbox. Writing stories is a great way to send messages, but those messages need to be shown in the form of a story, not told in a lecture by your character. Showing rather than telling messages means that there’s only so much you can cover in one story. Naturally, many writers want to insert more than their story can handle, and they do that by stuffing it into dialogue.

Let’s take an excerpt from a short story, The Perfect Match by Ken Liu. In it, Jenny has just driven Sai to stare at an impoverished part of town and talk about Centillion, a powerful tech company that gives users personalized recommendations on all aspects of life.

[Sai speaking about neighborhood] “What happened?”

[Jenny speaking] “Centillion noticed a certain tendency for people—some people, not all—to self-segregate by race when it came to where they wanted to live. The company tried to serve this need by prioritizing different real estate listings to searchers based on their race. Nothing illegal about what they were doing, since they were just satisfying a need and desire in their users. They weren’t hiding any listings, just pushing them far down the list, and in any event, you couldn’t ever pick apart their algorithm and prove that they were looking at race when it was just one out of hundreds of factors in their magical ranking formula.

“After a while, the process began to snowball, and the segregation got worse and worse. It became easier for the politicians to gerrymander districts based on race. And so here we are. Guess who got stuck in these parts of the town?”

Sai took a deep breath. “I had no idea.”

“If you ask Centillion, they’ll say that their algorithms just reflected and replicated the desire to self-segregate in some of their users, and that Centillion wasn’t in the business of policing thoughts. Oh, they’d claim that they were actually increasing freedom by giving people just what they wanted. They’d neglect to mention that they were profiting off of it through real estate commissions, of course.”

“I can’t believe no one ever says anything about this.”

“You’re forgetting again that everything you know now comes filtered through Centillion. Whenever you do a search, whenever you hear a news digest, it’s been curated by Centillion to fit what it thinks you want to hear. Someone upset by the news isn’t going to buy anything sold by the advertisers, so Centillion adjusts things to make it all okay.

This is only a piece of the whole conversation. But it’s notable that this issue of algorithm-exacerbated segregation doesn’t personally affect either Jenny or Sai. They don’t live here or have a direct stake in it. Since this is a short story, Liu doesn’t have time to show all of the wide-ranging effects he’d like Centillion to have. So he inserts a big lecture instead of choosing what to prioritize and making his story about that.

And in stuffing this in, he clumsily suggests that racial segregation didn’t exist before Centillion’s algorithm, which is pretty insensitive. If he hadn’t been trying to do too much, he might not have made such an error.

Below is what this conversation in a story that was properly about the issue might look like.

Example

Sai stared at the “Closed” sign on the glass doors and groaned. With the last grocery stores gone, he would have to drive across the highway just to get some eggs.

“Would you believe me if I told you Centillion did this?” Jenny said behind him.

Sai turned and rolled his eyes. “This isn’t the first time I’ve lived in a food desert. They happen all the time. Are you really going to tell me Centillion ordered my neighborhood grocery to close?”

“No, not exactly. Centillion offered different real estate listings depending on the user’s race, so they could increase their cut of the sales. Fewer white people moved into nearby homes, and then your racist grocery chain decided they didn’t want to serve the people left.”

“If Centillion’s real-estate listings were racist, I would have heard about it.”

“Have you ever checked a newsfeed that wasn’t curated by Centillion?”

Sai paused. Then he pulled out his phone. Did he even have an app that would show him the news without Centillion’s influence?

Altogether, it’s a good idea to audit large paragraphs of dialogue and examine whether you’re trying to stuff in too much information, overburdening your story.

5. Mundane Actions

If anyone is referring to your work as “slice of life,” then this is probably an issue for you. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to write an engaging story that feels like it’s a slice of life. But as a general rule, stories should feel more eventful than a normal day in our lives, because our normal lives are boring.

Writers commonly depict uneventful moments for two reasons. First, sometimes we don’t realize that we can summarize or skip ahead. Learning how to judge what should go in a scene and what shouldn’t takes a little practice. Until then, we might pad our eventful scenes with too many mundane or logistical details.

Second, the story might be lacking internal structure. Without story structure, there is little to distinguish slice-of-life content from important story events. When I have editing clients in this position, I generally focus on helping them create structure first. Once they have some structure in place, it’s much easier to tell which moments should stay and which should go.

Let’s look at an example, adapted from a client manuscript with permission. In it, a large crystalline stone is being delivered to the home of Silvia and her father, Francisco, who has been commissioned by the queen to cut and polish it into gems.

Silvia opened the door to find the inexpressive face of Maren, who motioned to the cart beside him. The canvas-covered stone had been wheeled in by a local miner, a man larger than any knight Silvia had ever seen.

Silvia stepped out, and her father was right behind her. For more than a month he’d wanted to see the stone, and he immediately reached out to remove the canvas.

“Hold!” said Maren, catching Francisco’s arm. “It must not be seen.”

“Not even the uncut stone?” Francisco said incredulously, pulling back his arm. “That’s going a bit far, don’t you think?”

Maren’s face fell even deeper into an uncompromising state. “These are not my orders, but the queen’s.”

Francisco signed. “Fine. Who will carry it in?”

They looked to the miner, who shrugged. “I can’t lift it, it took two of us to get it on the cart.”

“Then it goes in on the cart,” said Maren. Silvia rushed inside to see if anything might get in the cart’s way. Francisco and Maren stepped aside, and the miner’s arms strained as he lifted the cart’s handles as he moved it toward the door.

The writer has added some playfulness to this interaction, which helps make it a little more engaging. However, it doesn’t change that this is a relatively routine delivery. If the stone being hidden was an important plot point or something eventful happened immediately after this, this passage might be fine. But if scenes hold nothing more eventful than this, or there’s simply too much content like this in the manuscript altogether, it will slow down the story too much.

Below, I’ve changed most of this sequence to a brief summary.

Example

The stone arrived that afternoon, requiring two men and cart to wheel it through the door and haul it onto the table. Maren warned that on the queen’s orders, no one other than Silvia and Francisco was to see the stone, not even the uncut block or the discarded pieces.

6. Internalizing

In limited narration, character thoughts can be very similar to exposition. At any time, the narration can show how the character interprets what they experience or reasons through a situation. The problem is that while a character is thinking things over, they aren’t taking action or moving the story forward. That means internal narration will slow the pace.

This causes the most problems during fight scenes and dialogue, since they are the most time sensitive. However, having a surplus of internalizing anywhere can stall the pace and test reader patience.

Let’s look at another excerpt adapted from a client work, used with permission. There’s a powerful monster nearby, and the main character needs to figure out a plan to escape it. She has a magical stone she can use to help.

She had temporarily blinded it, and that gave them a moment to think.

She had learned three things: it was incredibly fast, its hearing wasn’t that special, and most importantly, it didn’t have a keen sense of smell. While she had speculated the latter, this confirmed it. Had the creature been able to smell them distinctively then it would have attacked them, but it had not. Now that she knew how fast it traveled, she ruled out simply rushing to the exit.

They would have to be as quiet as possible to avoid getting its attention. She pulled out her phone and put it on vibrate. At this point, she was on her own. She couldn’t risk anybody giving her a call, as that would alert the creature. She looked at John and Tim, who were still standing frozen in fear. She wondered how much they had assessed but she was willing to bet that they hadn’t figured anything out. She motioned to them pointing a finger at her phone and mumbling to turn the ringers on their phones off. Surprisingly, they understood.

Next was to come up with a plan. She had a vague idea of what she wanted to do, or needed to do to get them out of this. She looked at the stone. To what degree could she use it to help them? She could teleport the monster somewhere. But then again, that would only endanger the people in whatever area she threw it in.

Maybe she could send it off into the sun or a volcano. But each of those things was risky. She didn’t know what would happen if she opened a portal into outer space. Solar rays might seep in. And throwing it into a volcano was just as risky. Some factors were way too dangerous.

She considered wishing for a gun. But she didn’t even know if a gun could hurt the monster, and given the slight chance it didn’t, the monster would immediately strike back and kill them. Even considering the tight situation they were in, she could still figure a way out for them to use the stone at a minimum. She looked at the guys again and whispered for them to check their phones. She had a plan. It could probably save them, but they were going to have to play their cards right.

This is during a momentary lull in the escape sequence, so some strategizing is perfectly fine to do. The problem is that it goes on too long, which gives the impression that too much time has passed and will prompt readers to start skimming. A single paragraph is probably about the right size in this case.

Example

She had temporarily blinded it, and that gave them a moment to think. The monster clearly couldn’t smell them, but once it heard where they were, it would be on them in an instant. While it blocked the exit, they would have no chance to run past it. Could she use the stone to transport something? But she didn’t know what weapon could kill the monster, and depending on how the stone worked, transporting the monster into lava might also let lava back through.

She looked at John and Tim. She had a plan, but it would only work if they played their cards just right.

For more internalization, the writer could break the sequence up into more stages and have a little more strategizing between each stage. Finding more reasons for the action to pause would help. Even so, a manuscript can only hold so many thoughts before they overwhelm the story.


When we start writing, we’re not usually thinking about whether we’re writing exposition, action, or description. It’s natural for us to be verbose in certain areas. To achieve the right balance, it can be helpful to go through your draft and highlight the different components of prose in different colors. That way you’ll notice every big chunk of description, dialogue, or exposition, and you can check whether it’s stalling the story.

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