Write like a bar code

My byword as an author is “feelings and vistas.” Word count too low? People aren’t connecting to your character? Stop a second. Isn’t there some stunning scenery around? Couldn’t your character look at it for a minute while feeling all emotional? It can help!

Of course the word of the day is action, and I think authors feel a lot of anxiety about including enough, and putting it in early enough. Pages of characters looking at a lovely valley and having feelings are boring, and it’s led, I think, to some unfair demonization of the very idea of descriptive scenes or a slower pace.

But a whole movie or book where stuff happens at a rapid pace, with no scenery and no emotional scenes, just doesn’t suck you in. I just watched Rise of Skywalker and . . . well. It took the whole first half of the movie for me to care about the characters, and I’d seen two whole movies of them already!

I’ve also seen some pushback from literary agents against the idea that you have to “start with action.” Sure, they don’t want you to start with your character waking up and making coffee, but they also don’t want to open up on a scene where somebody is being chased by something or other, but we have no connection at all to the characters. This can feel a little contradictory. Oh, we can’t start slow and we can’t start fast? How are we supposed to start? How are you supposed to feel connected to the character early on, when you don’t know anything about them yet?

So, let’s imagine this poor-quality Paint drawing is the novel of a new writer. Blue is vistas: descriptions, world-building stuff, scenes that exist only to help us get to know the characters. Yellow is action. Red is feelings: slow-paced scenes, including dialogue and introspection, that mainly convey emotion. You see the author has dropped a ton of exposition right at the front, because they’re afraid you won’t get what’s going on. Then some feelings, so we will like the character. And then they finally get into action and it’s pretty much all action till the midpoint. Big feelings at the midpoint, and then back to almost unrelieved action till the climax.

A mentor tells this author: look, you can’t start with a bunch of exposition. That’s boring. So they switch the initial block from blue to yellow. That doesn’t actually help that much, though. Unrelieved yellow can be as boring as solid blue. We now don’t know where we are, don’t care about the characters, but there is a lot of chasing and fighting going on. Maybe that’ll hold our interest for a while, but probably not.

This barcode-looking thing is what the author does when they have learned a bit more about pacing. Instead of just painting more of the novel yellow, they switch things up more. There’s an action scene right at the beginning, but it’s brief and there’s a pause in the middle where we find out something of what’s going on. That initial scene ends in some feelings, where the character experiences some consequences of the stuff that’s happened so far, feels the way they feel about it, and we hopefully relate.

This continues through the story. There’s still lots of action, but there are breaks also. A chapter here to tell us what planet we’re on and what the history is. An emotional dialogue there where our hero spells out their motivations a bit more. Maybe a scene where we see some of the characters working together, what their dynamic is. We can imagine the bars are even thinner than this–a couple paragraphs in the middle of an action scene where the character is afraid of dying. A description of the scary cave where the baddie is hiding. You don’t want to stick with any one color too long. Too much blue and red at once, and the reader gets bored. Too much yellow, and they can’t get their breath.

At the middle, as we near the climax, there’s a ton of action that needs to happen, so the other bars get thinner. But maybe there’s a new setting to describe, or increasing angst the hero has about what they might lose. We hit the climax and there are big feelings for a while. It’s probably in the middle of a scene that was full of action, but we might suspend it all for a page or more while the character turns over in their mind what they have to do. Do they make the choice they know they need to, or do they give up and go home? They’re gonna need a second to mourn the price they have to pay. Frodo and Sam can’t remember the taste of strawberries, or the sound of water. It doesn’t matter that we know there are orcs everywhere, we need this pause. The orcs everywhere only make that pause more poignant and important.

Then back to action, and feelings fall all over the place as we close all the conflicts. By now there’s probably not much exposition left to do, except maybe a pretty scene showing how things are now that things are fixed. Though, if there’s to be a sequel, there should be something left about this world we don’t know, or a setting we haven’t yet visited. That leaves blue for the next book. For example, at the end of The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin, we don’t know what the obelisks are or what the stone eaters want. That made me feel there was world left to explore, and I rushed out to get the next book and find out.

The book ends with feelings, hopefully nice feelings that make you close the book with a sigh. You can enjoy them, because you haven’t had too much, but they are also placed in a context of the other feelings the characters have had throughout the book, because they’ve been included throughout. It’s not just a sudden emotional about-face for no reason. *stares pointedly at Rise of Skywalker*

A good novel is balanced. So when you hear the advice “more action” or “more feelings,” this isn’t meant as permission to throw out the other stuff. Instead, somebody was reading your story and got bogged down in a solid block of one thing. They just want you to switch it up.