What Crosses the Finish Line

Along the long march to completing a draft lie pods of material you’ve written. At one time a mini background for the protagonist’s friend’s mother, for instance, may have seemed worthwhile because it helped to explain the friend’s motivation for a plot event. Dozens of similar explanations can dot a novel, all of which had a cogent reason at the time. Yet as you’re reading over the draft after completion, you notice that the first third of the story moves very slowly. How do you decide how to accelerate the pacing?

A useful practice is isolating a single character at a time. You can use a chart with columns that track: on which pages they appear, how many pages for each appearance, and the subject matter of the scene. Finally, create a column for background material. The entries can consist of two types—narrative summaries and flashback scenes—so use letters like NS and FL to indicate the difference. 

Numbers don’t lie. If you study the column that records when someone appears, you can see if those scenes are clustered earlier or later. What can often happen is that you were interested in a character for a while, such as when they were useful for the plot. Later, the character may become more of an also-ran—still showing up but not performing action of any note. When regarded from a reader’s perspective, they fall by the wayside because they are not continuing to command attention.

Now look at the background column. How many pages have you devoted to setting up that character? If you see a total of 6-7 pages, you might not think it’s that big a deal. The problem comes in when you consider how many pages you have devoted to all of the other characters. If you create charts for each, you can cross-check them and identify on which pages they all get background work. Since many authors place background material within the first third of a book, when you’re trying to set up distinctive characters, you may have unintentionally created a logjam. 

That’s when examining each of the charts for appearances later in the novel can bear fruit. Those characters with major roles later should dominate in the realm of background material as well. They are the ones paying off for the time the reader spent reading about them. If you cut back the early material to reflect that emphasis, you’ll find that not only does your pacing increase, your major characters stand out more because you’ve cleared away unnecessary brush.

Exercise: Often a minor character’s background involves the protagonist. What you may be able to do is substitute a major character in their place. If it is a childhood prank, for example, could you merely change the names and produce the same effect? 

“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” —Igor Stravinsky

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.