Balance and the In-Between Bits

It’s sometimes tempting to me as a writer to continue the thread of a chapter organically–to follow a bell curve of sorts, with rising action, a climax, and falling action.  In other words, when Karthanas the Lesser fights escapes the disaster at the Akkian Mass, my instinct is to follow him out the door, down the path, into the woods, to his campsite…you get the picture.  Obviously the stronger decision at this point would be to cut the action off sooner rather than later.  After all, does how your protagonist gets from one place to another really matter that much?  Does it move the plot forward?  Sometimes it does.  Road stories, river stories, quest tales…those are about the adventures the characters have along the way as much as they’re about the end goal.  But most of the time it doesn’t matter how your characters get from Point A to Point B.

One of the hardest lessons to learn for me has been that you can and should edit your novel in the same way that a film editor edits a film.  I studied the Modernists a lot in college–Hemingway, Faulker, Joyce.  I often feel an ingrained literary tendency to focus on the mundane, even when the story isn’t, strictly speaking, a “literary” one.  Even writing in the third person, I often begin to follow an inadvertently stream-of-consciousness pattern if I get too distracted.  This isn’t always a bad thing: sometimes it produces a pretty turn of phrase or a useful insight into the emotions of the character.  But most of the time I find myself writing about the irrelevant quotidian activities of the character in question–the to’s and fro’s, the in-between bits.  What they did before and after the big fight, the romantic interlude, the startling realization.  Leopold Bloom takes a shit in his outhouse.  That sort of thing.

This sort of indulgence is both overdone and extremely hard to do well, so while it isn’t something to dismiss entirely, it is a habit to be aware of and use sparingly, especially when you’re writing fiction primarily intended to entertain.  There’s a fine line between exciting sword and sorcery with an existential tone and a mind-numbing navel-gaze that happens to feature swords.

The readers who are apt to find the misadventures of Karthanas of Lanthea interesting are unlikely to be terribly interested in a detailed exploration of his private thoughts while trimming his fingernails.  They want–and I want, at the end of the day–action.  Tension.  Drama.  Violence.  Desperate last stands.  And they want them strung fairly close together, with maybe a few quiet moments in between.  You’ve got to earn that moment where your antihero looks out over the desolate ruins of a forgotten city and thinks about the cycle of history, or the futility of progress.

The best video games (the Half-Life series comes to mind, particularly Half-Life 2 and its episodes) tell their story through a balance of action (usually combat) and downtime (usually solo roaming adventure).  Both types of content are engaging, and the downtime content is necessary to give the player a break from the relentless adrenaline.  But if I had to put a ratio to that balance, I’d say that what you’re looking for is 70/30 action to downtime.  Keep in mind that “action,” in the context of a novel, can mean spirited dialogue, dynamic plot revelations, and major decisions made as well as something obvious like combat.

Oddly enough, I do find that the slower moments are often my favorite: I’m one of the few people I’ve known who actually likes the first third of The Fellowship of the Ring.  I like build-ups.  But you still need that balance.  Adventure?  Excitement?  A Jedi craves not these things.  Except when she does.

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