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September 15, 2016

Balancing Elements: How Can We Know the Right Amount?

Many rocks balanced on their ends with text: What's the Right Balance for Our Story?

I’ve offered several posts here about balancing various elements of our story. Just last week, guest poster Janice Hardy discussed how to find the right balance of backstory (and I then wrote a follow-up post with my thoughts). I’ve also written about balancing the amount of story description, character emotions, plot obstacles, etc.

I could write several more posts about how to balance other elements of our stories: dialogue, action, plot vs. character, internal dialogue, etc. In other words, there’s a lot of balancing we have to do to find the right amount of all the elements for our story—not too little and not too much.

Even after those posts linked above, there’s still room for debate. How much is too much…backstory or whatever?

That “room for debate” is good. *smile*

We have to find the right balance for our voice, genre, characters, tone, and style—for our story. That means there is no perfect amount of backstory or description or emotion.

My posts give guidelines and things to think about. They give tips on how to decide whether our story will be stronger if we cut a section. They give advice for how to analyze when our story might need more of an element.

But they don’t give specifics, and they don’t establish hard-and-fast rules. And there’s a reason for that. *smile*

Only We Know the Story We Want to Write

With my editing clients, I try to give lots of disclaimers with my suggestions. I try not to tell them X must be changed or Y must be cut. I’m not in their head, so for all I know, they might have intended exactly the impression I have.

Instead, I inform them of my impression and what would be needed to create a different impression. My edit letters usually have paragraphs along the lines of:

“Currently, X is creating (a distant point of view, a feeling of sympathy rather than empathy, a sense of immaturity from the character, etc.). If that’s not what you intended, take a look at Y.”

Just because I as an editor (or our beta readers or editors) prefer books with certain styles (whether that’s point of view, depth of emotion, amount of action, etc.) doesn’t mean that’s the one-and-only way to approach a story idea. One way isn’t automatically right and all other ways wrong.

When I’m wearing my editor hat, it’s not my job to tell a client how I would write the book. It’s my job to provide advice about what might strengthen their story. Sometimes that means pointing out how the target audience for their genre might expect more X or less Y while also giving them the pros and cons of making the change.

They have the right to write with a shallower point of view or include fewer emotions or more backstory or whatever than I would. My responsibility is just to make sure it’s a conscious choice on their part.

I want them to consciously decide what they want their story to be. I can’t answer that for them, and neither can anyone else. Only they know the answer.

What’s the “Best” Type of Story?

I say all this about my editing philosophy because there’s no end to the advice out there making judgment calls on the “best” types of stories.

I’ve seen posts and statements like:

  • The best stories include lots of subtext to add layers to readers’ understanding.
    Great! I love subtext too.
    But what if an author is writing middle grade or YA? Or what if they’re writing a story about a neurodivergent character who doesn’t think in subtext? Or what if subtext doesn’t fit their voice or style or genre?
  • The best stories require readers to fill in the gaps themselves by minimizing the use of backstory, internal dialogue, etc.
    Agreed! We don’t want to spoonfeed our readers.
    But what if readers get confused because there’s not enough explanation? Or what if they fill in the gaps with ideas that are better than what we wrote, and they’re disappointed by our story choices? Or what if we don’t give enough information for them to connect to the characters?
  • The best stories put readers inside the protagonist’s head, where they fully experience the story.
    Absolutely! I love immersing myself in a story.
    But what if an author wanted to use a more distant point of view because of the plot structure? Or what if that distance was better for readers because of the negative emotions or tragedy of the story? Or what if it was more of an action-oriented story than a character journey?

In other words, there’s a huge gray area between including too little and too much of any element. In fact, a case could be made for just about any combination of elements.

All dialogue and omniscient? All subtext and internal thoughts? All backstory and flashback?

Sure, someone out there could make those approaches work for the right stories. The perfect story vehicle in the right author’s hands would probably be a memorable bestseller too.

Yet that doesn’t mean that story or approach would work for every reader. So before following advice claiming what the “right” amount of an element is, we should remind ourselves that no story—not those that follow the rules or those exceptions above—could ever find agreement of “best.”

Develop an Instinct for Judging Our Stories

All that is a long explanation for why we need to nod along to—but possibly ignore—advice like those bullet examples above. While they might have value in a generalized way, just about any advice can be taken to an extreme, hurting our work.

Backstory is not bad. Description is not bad. Even adverbs aren’t bad. *smile*

We wouldn’t want to eliminate any of those elements in our story, and yet those example statements above miss out on the nuance that we might encounter for our specific story and situation.

Instead, we’re usually going to be better off learning the risks and guidelines for various story elements and developing our self-editing ear for what feels right for our story, genre, voice, style, characters, etc.

For example, the romance genre I write expects that readers will be able to develop strong empathy for the main characters. While other genres might succeed based on interesting plot twists, romance stories live and die by relatable and likable characters.

The amount of emotion, internal dialogue, and backstory I include in my stories will be different from what would make sense for other stories and genres. And within my writing, the right amount will vary from character to character, scene to scene, story situation to story situation.

Guidelines for Judging the Right Amount of Any Element

The specifics of how I feel whether I’ve included too much of an element don’t cross over to others. However, the general guidelines might help:

  • Proper Balance Changes over a Story’s Structure
    In the beginning of a story, we might limit internal elements to short hints that establish reader empathy right away. At the Midpoint beat, the internal elements might be more straightforward to clearly lay out the stakes of the character arcs, as they realize the price involved with their current situation.
  • Match Elements to the Character, Genre, Style, etc.
    While the balance will change somewhat over a story, we should maintain some consistency too. Some characters will catalog their surroundings and others will be oblivious. That character trait would affect the amount of description in their point of view, and that’s not likely to change from the beginning to the end of a story. Primarily, think about matching elements to the needs of our story.
  • Pay Close Attention to “Impression” Feedback
    Just because only we know what type of story we want to tell doesn’t mean feedback should be ignored. *grin* As part of knowing our story, we should know what impression/reaction we want to create in the reader, and any feedback that indicates our words aren’t creating the effect we want should be heeded especially closely.
  • Learn Our Default Settings
    If we don’t naturally include a lot of emotions (or any other element), the “right” amount for the reader reaction we want might feel like too much. Feedback from critique partners, beta readers, and editors can be essential for learning where our defaults are off from what reaction we want from readers. I know many low-emotion-writing authors who say that when a scene feels melodramatic due to all the emotion, they know they’ve found the right amount for their reader-goals. *smile*
  • Check Pacing and Flow
    Often, the biggest aspect of whether an element feels right or wrong comes down to pacing and flow. Description that’s boring or static can slow down the pacing even if it’s only a couple of sentences. Backstory that’s shoehorned in without a transition will feel out of place no matter how relevant it is. Aim for a pace that works for the story and a flow that doesn’t bump readers’ immersion.
  • Make Elements Work Harder
    Any element will work better if it’s fulfilling multiple purposes. Think of description that’s full of voice and hints of backstory. (He hesitated, his knuckles an inch away from knocking. The plain red door shouldn’t have intimidated him, but years ago, this front porch had witnessed his biggest humiliation.) Or if an element would slow down a story, consider whether using a different element for sharing the information would work better, such as swapping backstory for a flashback.

The “right” balance of any element is strictly a judgment call based on the story we want to tell. However, it might take practice to develop that self-editing skill with good judgment, especially as we learn our default settings.

In the meantime, we can listen to feedback and learn everything we can from guidelines. But at no point should we believe advice that implies there’s a “best” hard-and-fast rule on what would be right for our story. *smile*

Have you seen advice about the “best” type of story before? Has advice like that ever made your question your writing style? How well are you able to feel when something is off in your story? Do you know your default settings for how much you naturally include different elements? Can you think of any other guidelines to add to this list?

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3 Comments on "Balancing Elements: How Can We Know the Right Amount?"

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Hoho, I definitely naturally include very little setting description, lol, and at one point, I wanted to have tons more description when I came to edit my work, because most other published books seem to be more descriptive. But then a friend reminded me to be true to my own style, and not add in more setting details just because “other books do it.” Lol. I realized later that some of my favorite romance writers use rather minimal descriptions, and I love their stories partly because they are so fast-paced thanks to their lack of setting descriptions, lol. So I think my “natural default” might be a minimalist approach as well when it comes to depicting my characters’ physical environment. None of my readers said there was too little setting in my work either, and one even said I already had more than enough in it! Thus, yeah, don’t imitate other authors just because “that’s the way everyone else seems to do it.” For emotion writing, I used to do a lot of this, complete with metaphors and emotionally-charged verbs. But I later learned that this style turns a lot of readers off, so I gradually got used to writing in a simpler, plainer way, but without making it look dry and bare. My writing is always heavy on dialogue, though. And these tend to be longer rather than shorter. Nevertheless, I know reader attention spans are short, so I aim to limit the length of those dialogues. BTW, I… Read more »
Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

If every author wrote in a formulaic ‘best’ way, books would come to feel very boring! Balance can mean variety as shown in your post.

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[…] When we’ve got that first draft in the bag, we need to revise to make it amazing. Janice Hardy looks at the different types of revisions you may be facing (and how to handle each one), Mark Nichols examines 5 types of punctuation problems, Susan Brooks talks about the importance and knowing your genre, and Jami Gold has guidelines for balancing all the elements of your story. […]

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