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 man!—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, they become 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 know you want to start and end with the main plot, so that’s two more units. Then do the math. If 400 is divided by 10, you should insert a subplot scene every 40 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 40 pages too long to keep these characters vital in the reader’s mind? I think the maximum number is closer to 30, 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: The tricky part comes in when you have more than one subplot. You still want a maximum of 30 pages of separation. If the main plot is A, and the two subplots are B and C, you might aim for an alternation pattern that roughly runs: A-B, A-C, A-B, A-C, etc.

“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 @ 2023, John Paine



Cap the Gushing Well

Anyone with a modicum of experience in romantic attraction knows that devotion goes only so far. This is particularly true during the courtship phase of a relationship. If either party shows an inclination toward slavery to the other, the one being worshipped tends to edge away. This reluctance stems not so much from feeling unworthy of such adulation as the fact that faithfulness quickly becomes tiresome. 

I raise this point because in my profession, I am often exposed to a paradox. Most men I know in real life are akin to statues. You can say just about anything to them and they don’t flinch. That stoicism intrigues the opposite sex, who see mystery when most times it is a void. A guy just will not admit he has feelings, even to himself.

Now let’s look at books. I find myself frequently telling male authors not to make their romantic swains too steadfast. It’s a puzzling phenomenon, since I know how many books have been written about men’s inability to commit. I know guys are the reason we have the term “midlife crisis.” So I’m not sure why writing a novel brings out the tender side in my sex. 

Love at first sight may actually happen, but it is not interesting to read about. When I bring this to a male author’s attention, what tends to occur is the opposite of what I am advising. I use the word “fun” a lot: make the romance fun. You know, do a cartwheel on Fifth Avenue. Delight your new amour with your spontaneity and cheer. Yet the revised scene I get back is deathly serious. The author doubles down on the character’s fealty. Entire paragraphs are written about how incredibly sensitive the hero is—not like a statue at all. 

Do us all a favor. Develop a sense of humor. Lighten up. You’re in the business of entertainment. Rather than going inward, think of fun things your character can do outwardly. Have him buy ballet tickets on the spur of the moment. Have him suggest they go out for an ice cream cone. Heck, have him direct their walk past a local playground to watch all the little kids running around. But whatever you do, get him off his emoting ass.

Exercise: Guys are good at writing action scenes. If you know this is a strength of yours, pursue the course of romance this way. If a guy feels attracted to a gal, have him do something embarrassing to prove he isn’t. If he feels the gal is attracted to him, have him remark on it—and then write out her reaction. Don’t pine away for the reader’s benefit. We’re waiting for the fireworks.

“The only sin passion can commit is to be joyless.”  —Dorothy L. Sayers

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


Dated Drafts

No author writes a masterpiece the first time around. There are just too many words to be improved. Many authors run four or five drafts or more as the characters and plot lines emerge from the shrouded recesses of the mind. Since the writing process takes place over a period of months, an early draft can easily be a few years old by the time you’re wrapping up the latest installment. 

You think you can’t do anything with the old material. You review a scene and shake your head. The lead character isn’t like that anymore. The clue that the scene divulges doesn’t work in the revised plot scheme. The whole shebang, down to the chirpy prose that now seems positively antediluvian, seems to belong on sepia-toned paper, ready for the archive if anyone ever realizes your greatness.

That’s when you have to think in terms of a treasure hunt. You have to data-mine your dated draft. You know very well that, over the course of writing for so many days, you have come up with numerous bon mots or striking turns of phrase, crisp personifications or smile-inducing ironic comments. Sure, in some cases these nuggets really can’t be lifted out of their context, but you’d be surprised, with a little bit of fix-it, how many times they’ll slip seamlessly into a new draft.

Think in terms of the sheer volume of your words. Let’s say you have 80,000 words in the novel. You’re trying to make every sentence sing. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could grab a few hundred from material you’ve already written? Even if you didn’t know where the book was going back then, you still had flashes of brilliance. You need to pile up as many of them as you can.

As you’re reviewing an earlier draft, be pro-active. Don’t be lulled into enjoying the story. Keep your fingers on the copy and paste buttons. You don’t even have to decide right away where the smart bits have to go. You can place them on a list in a separate file. The right homes for them will come to you as you read your latest draft. 

Exercise: The curated turns of phrase may not even make it into your present book. The list can be reviewed every time you write another novel. That’s because so many human experiences are common; what’s unique is your take on the event. The rain pelting down on the Boston Common will be just as stinging in Central Park. 

“Uncommon thinkers reuse what common thinkers refuse.” —J.R.D. Tata

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


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