Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Question of Balance In Your Writing

Writing a story, a short story, novella, or a full length novel, is hard work. Most writers have a collection of unfinished novels and stories taking up space in the computer hard drive--stories that never got off the ground, or, just as likely, burned out after 100 pages or so.

Sometimes the story idea just isn't good enough, or the writer's attention is redirected elsewhere. Most writers have one or two stories that sit around in cyber never-never land, waiting to be finished.

At times, however, the story idea is fine--but the writer becomes overwhelmed in the middle of the first draft. Experienced writers are familiar with the "100 page curse", and often the writer is hard-pressed to understand why the story stalled out. Too often the writer blames "burnout", or "writer's block" for the problem, when in fact it is something very different; the real problem is that the story has been thrown out of balance, and the writer gives up and moves to another project.

Story balance is an important element of writing that is overlooked. A balanced story has just the right mixture of plot, character development, and setting. Most novel-length stories emphasize one of these elements over the others, but the best novels weave all three elements together in a way that elevates the entire work to a higher level.

That's great, but what about that unfinished manuscript? 

The first trick is to identify what type of writer you are. Some people write monumentally long first drafts and struggle to pare the finished manuscript down to size. Some writers throw a first draft together with the bare minimum...and then the challenge becomes fleshing out the finished product in a way that doesn't bury the original story.

Most writers do one or another at various times. I'm this type of writer, although I must confess that I tend to write a more streamlined first draft than I did back in the day. "Judgment Tramp" was purposefully written to be plot driven, and I tried to add just enough character development and setting to flesh the book out. 

The setting of "Judgment Tramp" was important to me--I love South Haven, Michigan, and I wanted it to be a big part of the book. I also made a decision to emulate Frederick Forsyth--I wanted my readers to have the opportunity to walk around in the town where my story was set and be able to find specific buildings and areas described in the book. But it was equally important to me that the setting of "Judgment Tramp" didn't take over from the story. I resisted the urge to write too much description of South Haven--and the finished book isn't bogged down by page after page of narrative that detracts from the plot (at least I hope it isn't!).

I also wanted my characters to be molded by the setting--we are all shaped by our locale, and Eb and Maggie are reflections of their upbringing. Michigan is a big part of who they are, and that's a key for a writer seeking balance; the characters and setting are to a great degree intertwined with each other. The plot of any story is dependent upon that character-setting relationship. Recognizing this is a huge step forward for a writer, and almost every first draft ever written needs tweaking to bring these elements into harmony with each other.

Next time I'll delve into techniques that will help writer's check their story for balance.


  1. Great post Jeff! Sometimes setting is as important as a character, but it's still tricky to balance description perfectly:)

  2. Thanks, Lindsay! Writers often have a tough time being objective about their work--anything that provides an objective means for evaluation has to be worthwhile.