Many of the questions asked about fiction writing – such as how do I know how many chapters to have, how much description should I write, is there enough dialogue or enough conflict? – can all be answered with just one word: balance.Story writing is all about balance and finding stability within the writing. It’s what keeps everything in check, so that writers don’t go overboard with one element over another, thus leading to an imbalance.
Why have balance?Balance allows the writer to keep control of many writing elements – like those mentioned above. There are no set rules where fiction is concerned, but it is purely a guide for writers to help them write better.
Whether it’s dialogue, description, the amount of scenes or chapters, the amount of tension and conflict that is balanced against the relief and emotion, whether there is enough background balanced with foreground, or whether you have action and inaction within the story, there should be some definitive balance of all these elements to make up a well structured, enjoyable and cohesive story.I’ve touched on this in previous articles, but balance of dialogue, narrative and description is quite important, especially for those new to writing. Too much of either of these elements threatens the overall effect of the story, and unless the writer is very experienced, the result – too much of one and not enough of the other – will look badly written and unprofessional. More importantly, your reader won’t enjoy the story either.
Balance should also exist for scenes and chapters – having the right amount of chapters to tell the story, balanced against the right amount of key scenes. This is a good way of keeping in check a writer’s penchant for ‘waffling’, i.e. writing scenes that are unnecessary and irrelevant to the story (and pose a danger of boring the reader).Know what story you are telling, and how long it is likely to be, then you can plan your chapters (not having too many or too few), along with the amount of major, important scenes that you will eventually write.
Balance also keeps in check any inadvertent ‘padding’ that sometimes creeps into the narrative. When writers find themselves in a situation where a story falls short of their intended target length, they tend to ‘pad’ the narrative with inconsequential scenes, which means that the balanced ratio of dialogue, narrative and description is ignored and the story becomes completely disproportionate.Aim to have a good balance of all three.
Conflict and emotion – these sound difficult to balance, but in truth, it’s not that hard. For every moment of conflict, tension and atmosphere, there should also be some light relief, some happier, more relaxed moments. Don’t let the entire story become full with tension. That has to be lighter moments, so balance conflict and tense scenes with lighter scenes.Background and foreground should have equilibrium, too. But what exactly does that mean?
The stuff that happens in the foreground – the key scenes, like action scenes, emotional scenes etc, should always lend themselves to the background. In other words, don’t forget to involve the reader within your scenes wherever you can; impart details of the setting, the backdrop, the environment etc. However small these details might seem, they help the reader visualise the whole thing, they draw in the reader.
It’s surprising how many writers forget this completely and simply launch into key/action scenes without letting the reader in. For instance, picture Constable’s portrait, ‘The Hay Wain’, but imagine it without the river, the lush greenery and trees, the cosy cottage or the dog on the riverside. There is just the hay wain and horses and nothing else.
There isn’t much to stimulate or look at is there?In fiction, you shouldn’t have foreground without a background - have a fair balance of both so that the reader can jump into the scene.
What about action versus inaction? Stories shouldn’t steam along at breakneck speed for the duration without allowing the reader to breathe and reflect about the story, so make sure you slow things down a little. Find a balance between fast-paced scenes and softer, slower scenes.Vary it so that the reader doesn’t feel rushed by the narrative, or, conversely, doesn’t fall sleep through boredom brought on by nothing much happening within the story. That way you engage and excite the reader, but never bore them.
Finding balance can help you control the ratio of dialogue, description and narrative. You can control the amount of conflict/tension/action scenes with softer, slower, emotional scenes. You can create a balanced pace – sometimes fast, sometimes slow. You can give the reader background as well as foreground detail.By keeping an eye on all these elements, you can see if one aspect appears to be stronger or more apparent than the other, and then you can correct it.
We don’t always think about it, but stories work better with the right sense of balance. That’s because they are fine-tuned and structured well, but more importantly, it means they are appealing to editors and publishers alike, and you stand more chance of becoming published (and staying published).
Next week: Quality or quantity?