Friday, April 27, 2012

Mark Your Path To Balance In Writing

Last time I said I'd talk about a technique for making sure your stories have the proper balance. First, though, let's establish that balance is often a means to an end. Balancing plot, setting, and character is a good place to start, but adjusting the balance between the three elements is the real goal. As a writer of thrillers, I want my books to be slightly plot heavy, and I leave much of the narrative about setting out. I try to relegate my character development to the dialogue between my characters. 

But first there needs to be a reliable method for judging the writing, chapter by chapter, page by page, and sentence by sentence. I use the marker method, and it works very well. I first heard about this while talking to another writer, but I didn't really understand the system until I read a how-to article in one of the writing magazines. I tried it, and it worked like a charm!

Because we are looking for three different parameters within our writing, we need three different colours of magic markers: one for plot (I use red), one for character (blue), and one for setting (green). I tackle this job one page at a time, working from a printed copy. Here is a short excerpt  from "Judgment Tramp", and I've coloured the sentences according to how I think they relate to the story.

Agent Ricci was sitting in the driver's seat of a battered, government-issued Ford Crown Victoria with the driver's side front window down, making notes on a legal pad.
“Get in, Mr. Maclean,” she said. She started the car. “We need to talk.”
“Good morning to you too,” I said crossly as I closed the passenger door and buckled my seat belt.
“It hasn't been anything like a good morning,” she said as she backed out of the space. She gunned the engine and made a U-turn to go up the hill away from the beach. “Where can we get a decent breakfast?”
“I've already had breakfast.”
“I could care less. You can sit in a booth and watch me eat.” She looked away from the road for a moment and gave me a cold stare.And then you can tell me why you lied to me yesterday.”

The first sentence is solid blue, and it tells us a lot about Ricci, even without knowing anything about the book. The next sentence is more about plot--she needs to "talk", and given what the first sentence tells us, that means she has some questions for Eb Maclean, so this sentence is marked red. 

Eb isn't happy, and his reply shows it, so his response is marked blue for character, but then he is in the car, buckling his seat belt--the car has become the setting, and this part of the sentence is marked green.

The rest of the excerpt is marked accordingly, and the excerpted example shows a reasonable balance between plot, setting, and character.

Some sentences will be marked with more than one colour--perhaps red and blue if the sentence serves to reinforce plot and character at the same time. Once a chapter is marked it is easy to see if there is one predominant element in the writing, and if the balance isn't to your liking you can change it easily.

The marker method can be expanded if you wish. I know of one writer who uses the marker method  to check to see if the sensory aspects of writing are addressed. One colour would be used for auditory elements, another for olfaction (smells)..and so on.

I like to keep it simple and stay with the three marker system. Now that I've been writing a while, I tend to use this technique only when I have a chapter that gives me trouble. For example, when things are not flowing, I tend to go crazy with dialogue, and I don't do enough picture-painting with my language, or I get bogged down in character description.  There is a restaurant scene where Imme is talking about 9-11, and initially I got carried away and went off track with too much description that didn't add anything to the plot. The marker trick helped me see that, and I ended up cutting most of it out. Then the chapter started working.

Give it a try. It's an easy system to use, and it will help you keep your writing under control.

What other techniques do you use to keep yourself on track?

1 comment:

  1. What a great method. This post made me think about how I work out balance in my stories and I realised that I don't. I just do what seems right, concentrating on making every word move the story along. Maybe I should try this and see if it helps.