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.

23 Replies to “Boiling It Down”

  1. I agree with Christina. I love the diagram! But more importantly I think you’re right on with what you are saying!

  2. So is the sword of awesomeness what an agent or editor uses to chop down a writer when they don’t balance action and information correctly? But I digress…

  3. You never cease to learn from this blog. That picture with the awesome manuscript sword should definitely stay in every writers head.

  4. Sword of the Awesome Manuscript? I want one!

    Currently I’m working on a rewrite. This is a perfect reminder for me to make sure the action, information, and emotion are blended well. (Get ready for a new metaphor.) You will need a teaspoon of info with a 1/2 cup of action and a sprinkle of emotion (recipe may vary depending on scene). Stir and let stand…

    ..Okay, maybe it’s not that easy either, but you get what I mean.

    I need to find all those places where I dumped a pound of info and followed it up with a ton of action. Not as graceful, and really awkward to read.

  5. Thank you for this post it was very helpful. Especially the image. Hopefully I will master these elements one day and hold the sword of the awesome manuscript in my worn-out hands.

  6. I’m very curious about whether or not minimalism has a place in YA, since one of its trademarks is a psychological/emotional distance.

    I think Courtney Summers manages this really well because she gets the point across without resorting to paragraphs of involved interiority. But in general, I don’t see a lot of this type of writing in kidit and I wonder if it just doesn’t resonate with young readers?

    I think there’s

  7. oops.

    Haha, anyway, I think there’s a way to have emotion while writing minimally, but I’ve noticed it’s an acquired taste because a lot of readers just need more.

    Interesting post.

  8. Perfect timing for a reminder of this.

    I’ve been sketching out chapters today with a mind to balancing action vs information. Now I have to go back and consider where the emotion is coming from.

    Writing is like juggling 99 balls at the same time. Or maybe, less dramatically, it’s three balls – emotion, action and information.

    Oh. AND A SWORD! πŸ™‚

  9. You have found the holy grail of fiction writing! I am revising my mss, and each of the two extended scenes that feel flat lacks one of the points of the triangle. One lacks action, the other, emotion–for your information (sorry, couldn’t resist : )
    Oh, could you please make the Sword the prize of a blog giveaway?
    Thanks again for useful advice!

  10. This is great. I didn’t realize until reading this post that applying that “emotion” attribute to writing will surely add substance to a character. Not only does it allow the readers to relate to the characters, but it has the potential to influence the impact of a story’s climax. Thanks! πŸ™‚

    Louis Slade

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