Blog-Off Entry Commentary: Balanced Storytelling
Okay, so you guys totally had to know that another one of these was coming your direction. It’s been way too long since we’ve been able to pontificate on yet another reason why there is so much crap out there in the self-published world. Or, at least, stories that feel like crap when you read them. Because, let’s be honest, the overwhelmingly large majority of story ideas out there could turn into absolutely amazing novels–heck, entire series for that matter–if they were only dropped into the head of a great author instead of an ignorant noob. That’s why it’s uber important, in our vaulted opinions, that everyone understand a few key concepts when starting out: because everyone starts out as a noob. Yes, even we at EBR were once citizens of noobdom. And yet, no one ever picks up their three-thousand dollar Facebook machine (MacBook) for the first time, says to themselves, “Self? You’re about to sit down and write an amazing novel,” and is then able to sit down and actually deliver. A lot of them make particular mistakes, and it doesn’t take long for readers like us to become painfully aware of what’s holding those stories back from making a reader’s day. So grab your notebooks, sit your own butt in a chair, and get ready for yet another round of goodness from your Friendly Neighborhood Elitists.
There is a trifecta of storytelling elements that are crucial to every tale: plot, setting, and character. No story can stand without all three. Yes, there are other elements, but none so essential as these, and yes there are also exceptions to this rule, but trust us you are likely not one of them. The difficulty inherent in being able to include all three of these elements in a story is that there are few authors who can do all of them very, very well. You all know who we’re talking about. Right now you could probably rattle off the name of that one book that just completes you, and we’d be willing to wager that not only are each of these three elements present in it, but that they’re also likely done pretty well. Thus, instead of putting that book down when you reach its end, you either go straight back to the start and read it again or decide to mope around for the next week.
When writing fantasy novels, however, there’s this massive conundrum hanging over the author’s head because so much of the storytelling relies on the setting. The author has to explain enough so that the reader doesn’t get lost, and this can sometimes be a very tall order, indeed. Because if you tell too much the reader will get bored because the author can only do this explanation at the expense of time spent on plot and characterization. Remember those exceptions we mentioned? In this case think Tolkien and Le Guin. Authors of milieu-based setting-heavy books who are successful at it are a rare breed.
And yet, self-published authors are continually churning out stories that make exactly this mistake: sacrificing plot and characterization for the sake of world building. This year’s Blog-Off entries had plenty of examples of this, which is regrettable but really not all that surprising. Hey, we get it, there’s this exciting new world you’ve imagined and you want to share it in all of its glorious detail. You’re certain that if you don’t describe all ten roadside inns the hero visits and all the drunks he meets there, then your readers won’t get a feel for the time and place. We have one word for you:
Don’t get caught up in the minutiae of a character’s routine such that you end up telling us so much more about the castle they’re living in than what makes that person tick.
Don’t forget that fantasy readers are voracious, and they’ve seen much of this stuff before. Save your breath for what’s really important.
Don’t sacrifice forward movement of the plot for an extended flashback/backstory. Extended flashbacks/backstory are stinking boring. We can’t even utilize all the fingers on one hand counting the authors who’ve done them right, because other authors learned long ago that they’re stinking boring and not to use them.
Now, we don’t want to hear any ‘buts’ called out in rejoinder until you’re willing to listen to useful feedback, preferably from a writing group. You may need to cut up your baby [novel] for the sake of maintaining this balance and not for the sake of putting in every darn thing you’ve imagined about this world into the lines of the story. The cutting floor is exactly the best place for that twenty-page historical account of The Place and The People Who Lived There. We don’t want to read it. If we did, we’d pick up a Ken Follett.
On the other hand, don’t cut too much out just because we’re on a soap box here. Balance, remember? There’s this brilliant piece of a Daniel Abraham interview by Peter Orullian on Peter’s site where Abraham talks about setting:
“I heard [Kim Stanley Robinson] talking about his Mars trilogy a little over a decade ago, and one of the things he said was that the trick was to put everything you knew on the page and make it *seem* like you only put ten percent. (I paraphrase–he may not have said that, but it’s what I heard.)
“I have a map, and I have a lot of the small details and a general idea of the economics, but the details grow out of that, and the best ones are almost always small, concrete, and specific in a way that implies another ninety percent of the world behind it. When I find myself writing things like ‘The city was cluttered and cosmopolitan.’ I know I’m doing it wrong. When I write ‘A pair of grey dogs dodged between the crushing wagon wheels and the hooves of uneasy horses, navigating the close-packed, dust-aired street with the ease of fish in a river. When the priestess’s wailing call to prayer cut through the clatter of cobblestones and the shouting of carters, the men in the street nodded to the north and touched paired fingers to their throats without apparent thought or even awareness.’ then I feel better.”
(This interview is no longer available online. So you’ll have to take our word for it.)
Dan has referred to this concept in the past as the “iceberg principle.” Starting authors can implement this rule as “only include 10 percent of your world-building and imply the rest,” while for established authors it’s more like “include all your world-building to imply 90 percent.” Are you seeing our point? As a writer you probably spend more time on setting than any other element, so of course you want to include as many details as possible since you’ve spent so much effort figuring them out. Just don’t over-balance it. It’s even okay to have a separate document with all your gaggle of information in order to keep track of it–heck, write a whole glossary or Silmarillion equivalent if you want–but unless it also forwards plot and/or enhances characterization, leave it out.
Remember that this hack-and-slash rule for your babies [novels] is not for forever. It’s just until you get a better handle of what balanced storytelling really looks like. So what does it look like? Balanced storytelling enables more fluid reading, which is the result of constant forward movement with the world building spread out for easier digestion. Info-dumping? Yeah, not fluid. This concept of fluidity is really important for those of us (or 99% of readers) who can’t sit down for hours at a time, absorbing every detail. Occasionally, you’ll come across a LARCOUT or a GARDENS OF THE MOON where you’re dumped into the world and you either sink or swim, but that’s a risk few will find successful.
Balanced storytelling is hard, otherwise more new writers would have less trouble with it and they’d all be writing brilliant stories and getting published earlier. We suggest that you pick up that book that completes you, and read it again. But really read it, with a critical eye toward setting, plot, and characterization. Maybe even take some notes, while asking yourself the following questions:
- How much time is spent on each trifecta element? How does the author balance the storytelling?
- Does the author ever implement all three in one sentence? Dissect how that’s done and see if you can do that for your story.
- How do the setting elements relate to the story and/or characters? If they don’t, why is the author adding them?
Your time to write is precious, don’t waste it by making the same mistakes over and over. Our time spent reviewing is precious, don’t waste it on unbalanced storytelling. Your reader’s time is precious, don’t give them something they’re going to be able to put down and walk away from.
Write the book that completes its reader. Just remember to keep it balanced.