The Balancing Act

An author cannot be blamed for writing to her strengths. Some excel at drawing thumbnail portraits of characters. Others understand the value of gossip to pull a reader into a story. Some assiduously hunt down interesting details of a hot new subject. Yet the pursuit of what makes your engine rev can also mask a less attractive goal: avoiding what you don’t do well.

For many authors, that weakness is plotting. Thinking up interesting stories, with enough complications and twists to involve a full handful of leading characters, is hard work. The inevitable conflicts you have to write, particularly of the weapon-wielding sort, can feel hackneyed, like a TV script gone wrong. You’re more comfortable, for instance, writing about all the cool stuff people don’t know about fracking. 

Why is plot so essential? One reason is that it provides through-lines, from beginning to end, that hold a novel together. They also allow it to build the drama step by step. That is not true of a character sketch, or incidental gossip, or terrific research. All of these are disparate elements that have no staying power. Indeed, they tend to pull the book in centrifugal directions: a bunch of scattered pieces without a mold.

Regarded in plot terms, they are low-level elements, useful for setting up a subject but not for carrying through on it. I’m interested in rural law enforcement near the Standing Rock protest, for example, but only up to a limited point. If I can’t follow one crazy-ass sheriff who has a vendetta against one Sioux leader, I’m going to lose interest. By page 200, if I’m still reading commentary on how natural gas drillers have added tremendous economic pressure to get the pipeline finished, I’ll be falling asleep in my chair. 

There is a reason they call it storytelling. It consists of setting out your chosen group of players on a stage with certain furniture, and letting them pursue their competing aims. Keep employing your strengths, but balance them with a tale that keeps adding pressure. A building plot can carry lesser elements, but (unless you’re exceptionally gifted with character building) it doesn’t work the other way around. What you’ll find, as you get later in the book, is that the interpersonal conflicts assume their rightful place: front stage center.

Exercise: If you have finished the manuscript, divide it in four quarters—four acts. Your first act should contain most of the setup material, such as research. In each successive quarter, write down how many pages are devoted to incidental setup material and how much to fights among the characters. That ratio should be reversed at least by the third quarter—or your readers will be nodding off.

“It’s my responsibility to find the research. It’s my responsibility to digest it and do the best that I can with it. But at a certain point that responsibility will become an interpretation.”
—Oliver Stone

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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