How to keep your story moving by removing too much information (TMI) that is weighing down the action.
At that point, a reader might feel disappointed that a book they’d been enjoying becomes annoying. They might skip ahead, or they might give up. As you write or self-edit, identify bad choices that are affecting the pacing of your novel
Fiction Writing Tips: Pacing
1. Avoid TMI In Plot
More often than not, the writer has provided way too much information. We only need to know what we need to know; no more, no less. Measure the information doled out carefully, as one would measure ingredients in a delicious recipe. How much is too much?
2. Avoid The Information Dump
Consider this first paragraph of a hypothetical novel:
Johnny woke up in the hotel bed. His grandparents Merv and Jude were going to be buried today. They died in a tragic helicopter accident while on vacation. They always traveled to Hawaii, exploring each island individually. Now they would be buried there. Johnny’s parents were still asleep. His mother had taken the death of her parents hard because they had been very close all her life. Her brother, not so much.
My colleagues and I call this approach to the beginning of a story an “information dump.”
3. Journalism vs. Fiction Writing
In the news-reporting world, we share all the details at the top of the story, a writing approach that journalists call “the inverted pyramid.” Readers of news stories expect to discover who, what, when, where and why right beneath the headline.
Not so in fiction. Even in children’s literature, readers expect gradual accumulation of necessary storyline elements. It’s essential to drop the juicy nuggets of background information over the course of the story as a treat, like Easter eggs, for the reader.
Taking a balanced approach to distributing the relationship structures, along with elements of setting, character, and conflict, is key. It will help the story flow without hiccups or heavy chunks of background text to be absorbed all at once. Make the story unfold more as a series of appetizers rather than the main course right away.
For example, instead of the above, the story could include a paragraph to describe Johnny’s appearance and emotional state (character). Then, the writer could stretch that into relating to where Johnny is located (setting). Leave the reader wondering for a bit why he is in a hotel with his parents, feeling disoriented (plot). This will offer a puzzle to readers, who as a rule enjoy reading fiction to discover new things.
4. Beyond Mundane
Another case of TMI can happen when mundane actions are dragged out across the page with little point other than relating someone’s day-to-day routine.
Now Johnny was getting up. He pulled out his black button-down shirt. He buttoned it and then selected some trousers, which had been wrinkled from his suitcase travel. Next, he pulled on his socks and his dress shoes. He then realized he forgot to brush his teeth so he went to the bathroom and cleaned his teeth, along with flossing. He also combed and styled his hair.
If we have to read about every breath and step this character takes all day, the book will be way too long, and boring. To keep it moving, bypass all the everyday stuff with a summary to get to the important action quickly.
Johnny got himself dressed and groomed for the funeral. While he waited for his parents to wake up, the phone rang.
-Hi Uncle Jerome, what’s up?
-Something went wrong at the funeral home, Johnny. My parents’ bodies are missing.
5. Beware Of Excess Character Description
Most writers like to describe, which is why we write, and describing people is fun. It’s easy to get sucked into overwriting the details of a character’s physical appearance. But we need to rein it in at times to keep the story going.
Describing someone’s style, wardrobe, and identifying characteristics can be a useful method to keep characters separate. Signature features become a shorthand calling card for a character’s personality type. Where would Bella Swan be without the spell cast by her beloved vampire Edward’s piercing ochre eyes? (This being a descriptor that was used often by the author—maybe too often?—when mentioning the undead lad in the hyperpopular Twilight series.)
Consider this character description:
Tonya was a slim four-foot-eleven-inch woman. She had gold hair and blue-green eyes. Her skin was freckled with moles and she wore a black pair of flats that matched her black capris. Her floral print top was a variety of pastel colors mixed together. She had a couple bobby pins holding back her bangs, and she wore a light layer of makeup. Her pale pink lipstick was perfectly applied, and she bit her lip as she stood digging in her enormous black leather handbag, looking for something.
So what? We don’t need to know her measurements. The specifics might help create a mental picture. But most readers are savvy enough to fill in the details if you provide a general outline.
6. Specific vs. Too Specific
For the sake of pacing, I urge writers to limit extensive descriptors in order to get to the heart of the story. Most stories run on the character’s motives, not their shade of lip color or lackadaisical hairdo. While it aids visualization to be reminded that someone is unique looking, don’t mention their token tattoo every page.
Did we as readers learn much about this woman’s role in the story? It’s a catalog description of a person’s looks. Until this woman takes action, nothing compelling has been related about her. It would be better to introduce her quickly, focusing on one or two key characteristics, and get her interacting in the story right away so we can get a sense of her personality and role.
Tonya dug in her enormous handbag that made her petite frame seem even tinier. She rustled through the purse with growing impatience, shoving til she found the needful item: her smartphone. She thumbtyped her passcode quickly and slid the screen open to the call log, redialing the number that had just been buzzing her over and over.
—Who is this? Why are you calling me? She demanded.
Heavy breathing on the other end was pierced by shrieking in the background.
—Tonya, it’s me Lorie! I need your help—
The line cut out as Tonya was disconnected from her sister’s sobs.
See how pacing picks up with a little more action and a little less description? We now have a plot, where before we just had an inventory. We learn that she is a small lady with a big handbag (is that enough to give you a picture?) and that her sister is in trouble. We also have some info on setting in that she is using a smartphone, so it’s presumably the modern era.
7. Dead-end Dialogue
Imagine an agent looking for the next big thing. She sits down with her coffee and red pen and flips open a fresh manuscript to the following interaction:
The phone rang. “Hello,” answered Don.
“Hi, is Mark there?” said a voice.
“Sure, who’s calling?”
“This is Sam,” he said.
Mark put down the phone and yelled: “Mark! Phone!”
Mark walked down the hall and picked up the phone. “Hello?”
“Hi Mark, this is Sam,” said Sam.
“Hey Sam, how’s it going?” said Mark.
“Pretty good, how are you?”
“So what’s up?”
The agent has already tossed this in the “circular file,” a.k.a. trashcan (if she even got this far!).
8. Does It Say Anything?
The point is, make your dialogue SAY something. I’m not suggesting that the above isn’t how people actually communicate—we talk about nothing all the time. We all go through a hundred mundane communication pleasantries a week. But when you’re telling a story, this kind of exchange tells us nothing except character’s names and perhaps that Mark and Don live together.
Dialogue should reveal character or plot. If you’re going to bother with all that formatting (quotation marks, end punctuation, dialogue attribution tags, and new paragraphs for each speaker), you might as well tell your reader something significant.
Check out this revision:
The phone rang. Don picked it up. “New York Pizza, how can I feed you?”
“Hey Don, it’s Sam. Put Mark on.”
Don straightened up when he heard his boss’s voice. “Hold on, I’ll check for him in back.”
Don covered the mouth of the phone. “Hey, have you seen Mark yet?” he asked George, who was working the pizza oven.
“If I’d seen that jerk, I’d be out. My shift ended twenty minutes ago,” George said.
“Sorry Sam, Mark’s not in yet.”
“That’s the sixth time this month. Tell him to call me so I can fire his ass.” Sam hung up.
This rewrite gives us setting through dialogue, as well as shows relationships between characters. We learn about Mark through what other characters say about him, and Don’s character comes through in his hard language. Plot also moves forward because the reader learns Mark is now out of a job.
Try to make each bit of dialogue help paint the picture through what is being said. Make sure that every sentence makes an impact.
9. Where Are We?
Sometimes writers are pace driven and have a story they simply need to get out. Often their characters are floating in space, meeting midair without a notion of physical dimension. Time and place have been forgotten. To these writers, I suggest bumping up the setting. Show us where we are.
Other writers overextend into descriptives. Perhaps they’ll write a three-page segue through the history of the Seventies by way of locating the reader in time, or scribe a field guide to their new galaxy instead of touring the worlds via characters. I help these writers streamline location for plot’s sake.
10. Superspecific Settings Are Not Needed
When I say, “She’s in a room,” what do you see in your mind? Four walls and a doorway, maybe a window or three? Whatever you envision is cool with me. I don’t need to tell you all this:
In the living room, which was about 20 feet by 12 feet, longer than it was wide, she pulled the yellow velvet curtains open. The orange and green shag rug mismatched the golden morning so much so that June felt she would faint or vomit from the color clash. The time was 6:18 a.m., yet the sun already shone bright white. The mist yet hung in the air and sounds of rush-hour traffic screamed by in the outer realms heard through the leaky windows.
It might be a matter of taste, but the above just feels like TMI to me. We don’t need the dimensions of the room or the precise minute on the clock. Why does the color of the curtains matter? I’m not saying it doesn’t, but make sure you told us this minutiae for a reason.
11. Suggest Setting Instead Of Sculpting In Stone
Don’t be a control freak about the scene specifics. (As an editor, I know control freak.) Give the reader an outline for their imagination to color in. If you have too much detail, it can obfuscate the point of what’s going on:
It’s morning in the living room and June is ill.
This simple reportage gets the job done, even if it takes away the layered nuance. In general, stories move along more meaningfully when the characters are telling it, not the setting or other minor descriptors.
June staggered away from the window, shielding her eyes from the morning sun. She fell to the carpet and dry-heaved.
“David,” she croaked, “something’s not right.”
In these few lines, readers learn of a conflict, because the character shows us through actions and dialogue. All we need to get situated by way of locale is a window, and the morning sun locates us in time.
12. Simplify and Streamline
Our goal as fiction writers is to find a good balance between action and juicy details that are useful to moving the plot. The trick is to avoid wandering off the path into the thick underbrush of exhaustively descriptive weeds, a thirty-foot patch of them, full of thorns and fruit and bird nests, and white rabbits in waistcoats, oh my … where was I …\\Summary
—Recognize too much information (TMI) in your story. Where is it gumming up when you read?
—Avoid an information dump. Measure the details doled out carefully.
—Beware excess character description. Readers will fill in visuals if you provide the basics.
—Don’t do dead-end dialogue. Make sure it’s meaningful.
—Superspecific settings are not needed. Get readers situated, then try not to wander off into descriptives.
MARIE VALENTINE has edited diverse writers, from poets to romance novelists to engineers; her clients are often first-time authors and include mystery authors, Air Force pilots, family historians, and even a self-published congressman. Her experience as a business journalist and small press editor influences her professional work.