Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Writing for Beginners (6)

The Wave Effect.

I was asked recently how to judge the balance of a story, placing description versus action. In other words, how to avoid warbling on too much about the leaves on the trees or the texture of a person’s skin, rather than getting down to the exciting bits like emotion, action, conflict and all that good, gory stuff.

Each story is different, of course, and balance isn’t something you can set in advance, like bass and treble on a hi-fi system. You can plan, certainly, but most plans vary to one degree or another as the storyline develops. For example, you can't easily say, well, I’ll have ten lines of nice descriptive prose, followed by fifteen lines of a chase scene, followed by a bit more prose, a bit of lovey-dovey stuff, followed by…

That would become so formulaic and unrealistic as to render the story unbalanced rather than the other way round.

As in real life, nothing is a flat line; there are ups and downs all the time. It’s like waves in the sea – with peaks and troughs making for a fascinating, varied outlook, where you wait to see what happens next. Compare this to a motionless lake, which may be scenic, even calming, for a while, but after a bit, you want to see something happening… unless you're alongside Loch Ness and have an over-imaginative frame of mind. (What am I saying? We're writers... )

The fact is, a story can't remain on a single level throughout. Too much low and it becomes boring and static – and readers begin skimming to the good bits; too much high and it leaves little room for plot or character development and background setting. Either way, the story needs to move in order to capture the reader.


These might be compared to the descriptive narrative – the part dealing with setting, characters and background. This doesn’t mean boring, because setting and character is important to give background and realism to people and place, and allows us to build a picture for the reader.


These are the underbelly of the story, sitting quietly but ready to burst through to the surface. These undercurrents, by their nature, are turbulent and dangerous, waiting to catch the unwary.


The part dealing with the build-up of emotion, setting the scene for impending action, the raising of tension as a key plot-piece unfolds and the protagonists prepare to meet danger and conflict.


Finally, sitting at the crest of the waves, come the fast-moving, unpredictable white caps, where we encounter the heights of tension and action, either on a physical or emotional level, which carry the reader along, past their bed-time… or past their train stop, as has happened to me on a couple of occasions.

But while a story can be exciting from start to finish, it can’t reasonably stay on an unrelenting high. The reader needs an occasional break, otherwise the pitch of tension can lose its edge… and pretty soon, you’re in danger of losing your reader.

Thus, on the other side of the wave, we allow the tension to slide a little, letting the reader gather breath before the next build-up, the next burst of action or drama.

Again, you can't prepare a formula for this wave effect, because more often than not this is determined by the pace of your story. What you can do is check your writing as you go to see if you've spent too long on either a high or a low.

A simple, visual way of doing this is to draw a flat line across a piece of paper (or the living-room wall if your partner has an unusually forbearing nature), marking off points at intervals. These become, in effect, the markers of your story – the points at which you have a peak or a trough in the storyline.

The first marker would be chapter one, where your main characters might first meet, for example. Depending on how you want to open the story, this would be on or above the line. If you decide on a low-tempo encounter, your marker would sit on the line and be headed ‘A&B meet’, with start-to-end page numbers as a running guide.

The next marker might be the introduction of the villain of the piece. This would be on or slightly above the line, to show a rise in tension or conflict. Thus each marker would represent highs or lows according to the flow and pace of your story, in effect charting the waves throughout – and giving you a quick visual check of how your plot is unfolding as you go.

It will also allow you to go straight to a page number if further editing is needed, without searching through your manuscript for the appropriate section or paragraph.

The wave pattern, incidentally, might change as you re-work the story and either insert or take out a particular scene or event. But the one thing this visual check does allow you to do is to keep an eye on the ups and downs of your plot, and ensure you don’t get stuck in the doldrums.
·        Varying the pace keeps the reader interested – and makes the writing fun.
·        A line of markers allows you to scan the ups and downs of your story.
·        Don’t ignore the undercurrents, part of the build-up to action and tension.
·        If the writing excites you, think what it will do for the reader.
Originally published in Writing Magazine, this article also appears in 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' - available in paperback and ebook:
UK -

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