re: Why Does My Action “Read Slow”?

posted 3/9/15

Dear Editor…

The feedback on my mystery manuscript was that it has lots of action but “reads slow.” The reader gave one bit of elaboration: “Some of the paragraphs ‘feel’ long even though they aren’t.” I’m not sure what to do with that. Suggestions?

Sincerely,
Confused

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Dear Confused…

You might be overstuffing sentences to get it all in quickly. The action. The info. The setting. The revelations. This can lead to long, complex sentences with multiple actions, heavily modified nouns, interruptions, and copious commas, em-dashes, and parentheses. Example: “Digging my hand into my pocket, I ran to the huge, double-bolted, metal doors—just installed last week by my ultra-paranoid, hippie parents—hoping desperately that I could dig out the ancient bronze key in time.”  That might be fine amongst a variety of sentence lengths and styles (such as a direct statements or fragments). But sentence after sentence, page after page…. It’s a lot of work for a reader. Slow work. And it’s hard to pick out the most important action; everything has the same weight. Thus, dense text can feel flat. Increase sentence variety to create rhythmic ups/downs. Make some things stand out while others float in the background, creating depth. If a detail isn’t vital, ditch it. When using opening clauses, avoid repeatedly piling action upon action. Lastly, go easy on the adjectives. Inform, don’t bury.

Happy writing!
The Editor

P.S. For more on this topic, read Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar, General fiction, Narrative Voice, Plot
Comments to "re: Why Does My Action “Read Slow”?" | Add a Comment
    1. Ian Thomas Healy wrote (on 03/09/15 at 5:41 pm) :

      I actually wrote a short book on the subject of Action (called Writing Better Action Using Cinematic Techniques in case you want to find and download or buy it in print). One of the things I’ve found speeds up your action is to reduce the number of periods you use. It seems counterintuitive that longer sentences would read faster, but the telling is in HOW people read. Most people read aloud in their head, at least at some level, while their eyes track the words. Every time we see a period at the end of a sentence, we pause. It’s brief, but see how you read the following-try it out loud:

      “John drew his sword. His opponent did the same. They closed toward one another. John lunged. His opponent parried. Their first exchange was complete. They faced each other to consider their skills with the blade.”

      Does that feel ponderous and slow? It sure does to me. Here’s the same sequence, sped up by judicious use of clauses:

      “John drew his sword, as did his opponent. They closed toward one another and John lunged. His opponent parried. Their first exchange complete, they faced each other to consider their skills with the blade.”

      Happy actioning!

      [Reply]

      The Editor replied (on 03/09/15 at 6:15 pm) :

      Your revision has a smooth flow, Ian.

      [Reply]

    2. Chris Eboch wrote (on 03/28/15 at 9:56 am) :

      I once critiqued a manuscript where the pacing felt off, even though it had plenty of action and a good balance of action, description, etc. It took me a few chapters to realize the problem – every paragraph was 4 – 5 lines long, regardless of whether it was leisurely setting or intense action. Perhaps the author had gotten trained by writing essays to think paragraphs should be around the same length. But in fiction (and much nonfiction), a variety of sentence and paragraph lengths makes for better pacing.

      [Reply]

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