by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
In my last post, I wrote about books equalling stories about stuff happening. It’s all about the action, you see? No one wants characters sitting around thinking to themselves or talking but never doing anything. No one wants to read pages and pages of words describing a place in which nothing happens. Action is the chocolate to our reading taste buds – we want it, we crave it, we will stay up all night consuming it (damn the guilt we feel the next morning). But, not all chocolate is the same. Well-written action is like a bar of perfectly-crafted Valrhona Noir; Poorly-written action is like the compound chocolate that coats your tongue in ickiness after polishing off another 10c easter egg. You know it when you see it (the bad action writing, that is) – it reads like that scene in Dude, Where’s My Car? – “And then she went here, and then she did this, and then she saw that, and then she asked this, and then she felt better, and then she thought, and then…”
Please, for the love of all that is holy in writing – NO ‘AND THEN’!!
Usually, the ‘and then’ affliction that plagues your novel is the result of poor editing – you’ve done a quick, rough draft to create your plot, get a sense of your story, and capture all the key milestones and character movements. But, you’ve forgotten to go back and add some shade to that draft, to intersperse the action with the dialogue, internalisation and description needed to add context and clarification. Like most things, even the good stuff turns bad in the presence of overkill. Even the best things look better when cast in comparison with something different.
It’s all about balance. And balance is a difficult thing to achieve. There is no golden ratio in this (although maybe there is…? Anyone out there want to see if ‘great’ novels balance their action with dialogue and description to a ration of 1.618 : 1 ? …)
So, until we crack this mystery of whether phi is represented in great novels or identify some other universal cheat sheet, we are left to ponder what clues we can use to determine whether our stories are out of balance. I offer these:
1. You actually find the word “then” or the phrase “and then” in your manuscript.
2. You lose sense of how the action is uniquely affecting the character, how it is changing them or making them respond in a way that is different to any other character.
3. You lose sense of how the setting – the environment, infrastructure, objects in the story – creates a mood that sees the action interpreted in a different way (e.g. running in dark, empty streets has a different feel to running lakeside with a hundred other people in broad daylight) or directly impacts on how the action takes place and indirectly explains why the action is happening that way (e.g. singing softly in a quiet house full of sleeping friends provides context, whereas singing softly provides none).
What about you? What clues give you the hint that your story is out of balance?
Good advice – how do you feel about ‘scene / scene sequel’ in this context?
I think the scene/sequel approach definitely fits this mould – balancing motivation, stimulus, reaction and response. The level of balance (and overall pacing), however, would still depend on the execution – how is the motivation and stimulus presented, how does the character engage with them, how is the response characterised?
I think avoiding the ‘and then’ affliction also has a lot to do with focus on tense – writers are so keen to get to the end of their story that they are constantly focused on the future. The story becomes one dimensional in the sense that it only ever looks (and moves) forward. More balanced novels appreciate the context and balance generated by a short stay in the present (reflection, internalisation, commentary/dialogue) and/or a brief detour to the past (recollection, reminiscence, remembrance).