How Long Is a Reader’s Memory?

In a novel with a dominant main plot, the ending may be seen from a long way off. A sense of inevitability starts to mount—we know he’s going to get his woman!—until the lack of anticipation becomes draining, and the book becomes put-downable. Part of the craft of writing is keeping the reader confused, off balance, so that its turns, and especially the ending, cannot be predicted.

The best way to create variety is to create multiple plot lines. When a reader finishes a chapter featuring plot line 1, she becomes diverted onto line 2, or 3, which may or may not have anything to do with plot line 1. Because the main plot line will still contain the most scenes, you might consider an arrangement in which the subplot is compartmentalized into 8-10 scenes during the course of the book. So the first step is to sketch out how the plot line will build from one scene to the next. Write a paragraph that summarizes what each scene is about.

Then you need to become a manager. That’s right. Your reader’s enjoyment depends on how well you alternate between a main plot and a subplot. Let’s say you want to write eight scenes in the subplot. How many pages do you have in the manuscript? Let’s say you have written 400 pages. You can do the math. If 400 is divided by 8, you should insert a subplot scene every 50 pages.

Yet you have another consideration. It’s important that you keep subplot characters on the reader’s radar screen enough that he does not forget them. Is 50 pages too long to keep these characters vital in the reader’s mind? I think the maximum number is closer to 40, and you might want to think in terms of 30-40 pages.

Last, numbers count when you’re considering length of scenes as well. If you run out a skein of main plot scenes for 33 pages and then drop in a 3-page subplot scene, is that long enough for the reader to care less about what is happening in the subplot? Think about it: 33 to 3. I’m not sure why I should be bothering with the people in those 3-page scenes. Why don’t you shoot for 6-7 pages per scene, long enough for your subplot guys to matter each time?

Exercise: Luckily, your intervals don’t have to be so far apart. That’s because you want the main plot to dominate the climax. How long should a strong climax sequence be? It depends on the writer, but I would guess that 40 pages is a goodly amount. So you subtract 40 from that 400. If you then count up how many of the remaining 360 pages consists of subplot scenes, your intervals may look pretty good. Now you will have a compelling alternative.

“If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.”
—Edgar Rice Burroughs

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


Eye Power

To judge by frequency of use in many neophyte writers’ manuscripts, “look” and “stare” are the two most common words in the English language. This usage is especially marked during dialogue passages. In some novels, the ability to speak seems inextricably intertwined with the gift of sight. “Get out!” he said, staring at Eileen. “I wish I could,” she said, looking up at Igor. Couplings of this form occur so often that I have wondered if there is a muscle connecting the mouth and the eyes that science has not yet discovered.

The primacy of eyesight among the five senses cannot be doubted. Characters do look away, look down, look through. An angry person does stare down an opposite party. Yet the other senses are unfairly neglected—chief among them, the sense of smell. As an editor I regularly cut three-quarters of all eye-related material, because I know that “look” or “stare” is an easy choice grabbed for in the heat of writing a first draft.  Everybody can look and stare, though; what is your main character doing that makes her stand out?

Your first option shouldn’t even be physical business of any type. You should develop the reflex to ask: What is my point-of-view character thinking? In a revision you should always probe for the emotion being felt inside. In the same way that reading is a mental exercise first, a physical one second, writing needs to convey mental causes first, physical effects second. The wonderful advantage of writing in thoughts lies in how much wider your scope for creating fresh material becomes. We have so many thoughts just in the course of a single day that we could fill up a book with ease. That’s a key element of good writing: continually surprising the reader with a new trick up your sleeve. 

Your lead character is not a human camera. That is the experience of the writer trying to imagine what a scene looks like. Go beyond the lens, to the thinker behind the glass. That’s where you’ll find your true character. 

Exercise: Enter the word “look” in a global search of your manuscript. Each time you find one, check to see how far away it is from the last “look.” If you used it only five lines up, ask yourself: Could either one be replaced by a thought? Could it be replaced by another piece of physical business? What is that smell coming from the couch cushion?

“The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.”    
—Flannery O'Connor 

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


Elevating Above Your Past

Contrary to popular opinion, some authors don’t spend their lives in the metaphorical equivalent of a closet. They engage in a string of spirited adventures and only later in life decide maybe those high jinks are worth writing down. A rudimentary record of a wild evening is succeeded by more writerly drafts. Dozens of these exploits evolve in this fashion, adding up to hundreds of pages. Yet a read-through of the whole book leads to the conclusion that it is a fun but disorganized mess.

You try to make the writing better—it must be your inadequate narrative style. You try adding more precise details—that will bring readers further inside the story. You add more personal stories for your main character—that’s you, so you know it will feel intimate. But the novel still seems to bounce all over the place.

When you see disparate pieces, your first thought should be: where are the timbers? You need joists that run from one end of the story to the other. The most important of these, the load bearers, are your main characters. Pick out the protagonist from the crowd. How often does she make it into the book? Draw up a chart: she appears on these pages, and they all add up to—what? How long is she absent from the book: chart each of these gaps. If placing the book under her helm would knock out too many great scenes, pick three protagonists. Can you coalesce all of the novel’s action so that only three people tell their stories?

Next, find the lovers and friends of your lead character(s). How long do those relationships last? If people are merely flitting in and out of the book, the reader will never get to know anybody to a depth that matters. Does each major relationship develop as the book goes on? If you have three leads, that may mean the histories of three marriages.

The connection to your real past is becoming blurred. The major characters are becoming less people you knew and more figments of your imagination. In order to give your leads more to do, you may grab an incident that happened to somebody else and assign it to one of your major story lines. It’s still bizarre, isn’t it? You see, that’s what people who live in closets do all the time. They make up stuff. Life is merely fodder for fiction. That’s what you want, you novelist.

Exercise: In this transitional process, you can’t allow any attachments to what really happened. It may be true that two people in your life committed suicide around the same time, but think about what that does in novelistic terms. The one steals from the thunder of the other. So pick: which one was a closer friend to the protagonist?

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
― Albert Camus

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.