Tag Archives: Plotting a novel

Narrative Pace: Too Much Information

Even a thriller can drag.

Knowing how much information to provide is one of the skills a writer hones to get really good at his or her craft. A love scene may require a different set of data—light, scent, the nuances of sound, the shape and degree of moisture present in a human eye. A torture-style interrogation may also use light, stink, noise, and the amount of white showing in a human eye, not to mention the beads of sweat. However, not only is the choice of details different in the two scenes but also the choice of words. Furthermore, the rate, number, and length of words controls the pace—scene by scene and chapter by chapter.

The Slog

For example, a scene in which the gumshoe is cornered by a dangerous thug and his two wing men:

Heroguy eased himself back into the Herman Miller Aeron chair Magda had given him as a little joke last Secretaries Day.

“True Black,” she had said, referring to the proprietary color of the ergonomic chair, a private dig at his preference for public radio in the afternoon.

There was going to be nothing ergonomic about the chair today. He could tell by the size of the fists balled up in the coat pockets of Mutt and Jeff.

“Nice view,” Badman said. He waved vaguely at the open door, and Mutt strolled over and closed it while his boss stood tensely looking out the window at the ninth floor view of the Miracle Mile. Mutt rejoined Jeff and the two of them settled their hind ends on the dusty surface of Magda’s credenza. Heroguy thought of all the fine whiskeys stored in that improvised seating and how much he was going to need a Scotch when this was all over. Mutt and Jeff looked at Badman for some direction, then seeing that they would not be needed immediately, they began examining the various objects in the room. The unused vintage coat rack kept for effect, the mini-fridge, the sharp edge of the tape dispenser.

“I like it.”

“I suppose you do.”

“What can I do for you?”

“The question is, what am I going to do to you?”

“I dunno. I need a little more information on that. For example, what do I have that you want, and how bad do you want it?”

“I think you know,” he said, and Heroguy did. He knew it all, and he was counting on there being more than a single helping left in the Scotch bottle. Badman turned to his bat boys. “Beat it out of him.”

Ugh! Wit aimed at a public radio audience. The problems pile up from the beginning: Heroguy should be thinking fast and furious about how to defend himself and what he can learn from this encounter. He should be on heightened alert because he is about to get beaten to a pulp. (The scene continues with a brutal assault upon Heroguy that leaves him scarred and humorless. The leisurely comedy is an inappropriate lead up.) The writer may be developing his character by building his radio leanings and relationship with his secretary into the scene, but this is sooooo not the time. The details are mostly random, as is the movement of the chess pieces around the room. The repartee is imitative of noir cinema dialog, but here it just feels like the racehorses have lined up at the gate and started to graze. Good films don’t have bad dialog for the same reason good novels don’t, but with this difference—an actor can sometimes infuse meaningless speech with subtext using face and voice and body language. In novels, dialog and its accompanying cues must be precise in order for the reader to supply the mental imagery that brings a character in a scene to life.

Stepping Up the Narrative Pace

[Move details desccribing  Magda and her reasons for giving Heroguy an ergonomic chair to some earlier, more appropriate character building scene.]

Heroguy eased himself back into his chair.

There was going to be nothing ergonomic about the chair today. He could tell by the size of the fists balled up in the coat pockets of Mutt and Jeff.

“Nice view,” Badman said and settled his hind end on the liquor cabinet, his back to the window. Heroguy thought of all the fine whiskeys stored in that improvised seating and how much he was going to need a Scotch when this was all over.

“I like it.”

“I suppose you do.”

He turned to his bat boys. “Beat it out of him.” Meaning, everything he wanted to know.

All the aimless wandering is gone. Badman’s character is sharpened by making his position the anchor and giving his placement a bit of subtext—he sits with his back to the window, so that his comment on the view refers to his being able to watch the forthcoming beating. He is laconic (though not quite the silent type—he does engage the protagonist) and goes directly to his business. His thugs are shadowy and undefined—mere fists in pockets with no details to distract the reader from the nature of the threat. Heroguy’s wry humor is preserved without the cumbersome brand names and inside jokes.  Badman sits on a liquor cabinet instead of the pointlessly pretentious credenza, a perfectly fine word that will nevertheless make the reader hesitate.

Narrative Pace and Point of View

One further refinement would increase the immediacy of the action and more closely identify the reader with our Heroguy: Make the POV first person.

“Nice view,” Badman said and settled his hind end on my liquor cabinet, his back to the window. I thought of all the fine whiskeys stored in that improvised seating and how much I was going to need a Scotch when this was all over.

This is not a generalization. First person POV is for when you want the reader to be the protagonist.


By extension, the practice of not cluttering up scenes with unimportant movement and detail should be applied to the book as a whole. How important is it that Heroguy’s chair is a Herman Miller and was a gift from Magda? It may be very important (only the author knows), but in weighing whether to build a whole scene around the origins of Heroguy’s chair, the author should consider whether Heroguy’s character and his relationship with Magda have already been pretty well defined—is the scene redundant? And can Magda afford to buy a Herman Miller chair on her salary? Does she like her boss that much? Does she often make exorbitant sacrifices for him? Is the author deliberately targeting a niche audience? Does the brand of chair somehow tie into the resolution of the mystery? Or is this level of detail, however funny or sublimely described or minutely researched, a drag on a story that should simply crack on?

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Outlining Your Novel: Spreadsheets

Outlining a novel helps to structure the plot and keep the time line straight. There are many methods and forms. The goal is not to freeze-dry the plot before it is even composed, but to prevent the writer from losing sight of the universe he or she is constructing.

Spreadsheets for Outlining

There are a variety of strategies for outlining aside from the I., A., 1., a., method. Spreadsheets are an excellent way of visualizing the structure and flow of a novel. Below is a spreadsheet created by J. K. Rowling, jotted down by hand, wobbly lines and all, on a sideways piece of ruled notebook paper.

J. K. Rowling spreadsheet outlining The Order of the Phoenix

I lifted the image from the Paperblanks blog.

Rowling made columns for chapter number and title, with the corresponding month, a column for plot (overview), and columns for the different plot strands. At a glance, she could see when a character is introduced, at what point critical events take place, and importantly, what else is going on around the same time. She could see how the various subplots were flowing and how they were intersecting with each other and with the main plot. The chart is full of scribbles, arrows, scratches, and insertions. Rowling maintained it as a live document as the writing progressed.

The spreadsheet is a very handy writer’s tool, even for novels with only two or three subplots. Rowling worked with a pen and notebook paper, but a writer working in Word or WordPerfect can use the table feature. Scrivener also has tables. And there is always Excel. The virtue of Excel, aside from the ability to build very wide documents, is that you can get pretty OCD with colors and formulas and subworksheets. Here is a link to How to Get a God’s-Eye View of Your Story in Excel from Jeffrey Scott’s blog post on Animation World Network. His example pertains to scriptwriting but is adaptable to novel writing.