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Boiling It Down

Recently, I’ve posted two things that I firmly believe are the cornerstones of my fiction philosophy. First, writing must make me care. I need to care about character (most important) and then about their story. If I don’t care, you’re dead in the water. If you aren’t thinking about the emotional impact of your story, good luck to you in someone else’s inbox.

Second, fiction is a balance of action and information. Too much action and we don’t hook into the character or situation. (Especially if the breakneck action is at the beginning of your novel, like if you start with a hectic chase sequence, for example, we have a really hard time figuring out what’s going on or why.) Too much information (a first chapter where your character sits in their room thinking about his life, for example) and there’s no action, no plot, no forward momentum, and the whole thing drags. The two elements must always be in balance. In times when there’s a lot of information being introduced, you must also keep your characters moving. You can’t indulge in an info-dump. In times of action, you must also work hard to keep us invested by giving us context and information (later on in the novel, once character and situation are established, this usually means emotional context, ie: interiority).

I was at the Rutgers One-on-One Conference this past weekend, in a roundtable discussion with super agent Tina Wexler from ICM. We were talking about novel beginnings and, of course, I sprouted off my “action vs. information” line. Then Tina put the missing piece together and it fit perfectly: “But it needs to have emotion, too. Emotion is the third point of that triangle.”

I made a joke at the time about really working a metaphor to death, but a lightbulb definitely went off because of her comment, and now I think I have the perfect image for my two most important tenets of writing.

If fiction is a balance of action and information, the axis of the scale, the part that holds everything else together, is emotion. Without emotion to lord over the work and to keep everything else in check, your whole manuscript falls apart. (And you do not get to hold the Sword of the Awesome Manuscript.)

We should always be in touch with your character’s emotions (especially if you are writing in third person, as that is a challenge for many) and they should be legible and resonant for readers. Whether you’re writing a scene of action or dropping information in your manuscript, keep in mind your characters’ interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) near the surface. You can even indulge in some strategic Good Telling.

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