1/25/2016

Proportion

First off, I'd like to apologize for taking a break last week, I've been trying to wrap up some freelance work that's been hanging over my head. But I'm back, and I've got a lot cooking.

Next week, I'm going to debut a new series of posts called The Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing. They'll likely be shorter posts than usual, but hopefully it'll be a fun way to look at some fundamental issues. Stay tuned!
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This week I want to talk about a concept that revolutionized my understand of fiction: Proportion. Like many important concepts, proportion was first introduced to me by Dave King and Renni Browne, in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which is one of the most important parts of my Writing Bible. It's another one of those ideas that seems obvious once you've been told about it, but before that you probably never thought of it.

Simply put, proportion is about controlling how many words/paragraphs/pages you spend on what. The more time you spend talking about a thing, the more important it will seem to readers, and the more likely they'll be to remember it after they finish the book. Proportion works on a macro scale and a micro scale. Let's take a look at the macro scale first.

In Self-Editing, Browne and King give a great example of proportion on a macro scale. It goes something like this: A woman wrote a very long novel, and her editor told her to trim it down by cutting out some of the less relevant scenes. So the writer cut out all the cooking scenes, all the shopping scenes, all the driving scenes, and everything that she had added 'just for flavor'. The book, while not necessarily 'romance', centered on a romantic relationship, so the author left all the sex scenes in, as she felt they were relevant to the plot. The result was that by simply cutting a handful of scenes out, her novel had transformed from a work of contemporary fiction into a steamy work of erotica. Her editing had thrown the book out of proportion.

When you're writing a novel, it's easy to forget exactly what you've already written. We don't write novels in one go, it's a process of weeks, months, years, even decades. But for readers, a novel is a much more compressed experience, and if they hear about a thing over and over during that time, they will naturally assume it's important.

If you write with an awareness of proportion, this can work to your advantage. Your main character is the most important, so you spend the most time in his or her point of view. If your theme revolves around the ugliness of war, you can and should spend a lot of page time depicting grisly scenes of battle and human suffering. If your theme is about love, you can and should spend more page time on scenes of your romantically-entangled characters doing whatever brings them together.

But since we write novels over a period of time, we sometimes forget what we've already emphasized, and this can lead to proportion problems. In my current work-in-progress, I'm exploring my character's motivations for remaining faithful to his religion, even though he's a bit of a misfit in the church. I have a number of scenes where he introspects about how the church (and God) saved his life when he was younger, and how he feels a great debt and responsibility to the church because of this. After having several people beta-read the novel, a couple of them asked if this novel was just my way of proselytizing about Christianity. And that wasn't my aim at all. But because I spent so much page time on a character affirming his faith, the book seems like an endorsement of that faith.

Now that I'm to the editing stage, I can go back and trim out, or at least trim down a few of these scenes. I can make sure I don't repeat myself, and ultimately I'll bring everything back into proportion.

On a micro scale, proportion affects how easily a scene reads. Many of us have read books where the author gives us a blow-by-blow account of something relatively mundane.

Jason inserted his key into the lock and turned the knob to the right, The door opened and he stepped inside. The smell of roasting chicken greeted him. He set the mail and his keys on the table by the door, then rounded the corner into the kitchen.
"Smells amazing," he said. 

This passage could just as easily have read:

The smell of roasting chicken greeted Jason when he walked inside.
"Smells amazing," he said as he rounded the corner into the kitchen.

Even if the facts are important, we don't always need to read about them in detail. Readers are smart, on the whole (because reading makes you smart), and they can fill in some of the details themselves. Browne and King use an example where a man is rescuing another man from a river. The scene describes the rescuer's movements as he throws the injured man over his shoulders and traverses a series of logs to get to shore. It's an exciting moment, but the author spends so much time detailing how the rescuer hops from one log to another that you start to get bored. Browne and King suggested the author condense all that action down into a single sentence: "He made his way across the logs."

There are two good reasons to watch your micro scale proportion. First, you don't want to bore readers by making them read every physical action your character goes through, or every thought that passes through their head (that's one I see a lot in my editing career). Second, you don't want to rob the reader of the opportunity to fill in the gaps themselves. It's one of the joys of reading. If an author writes a tense dialogue between two characters, but leaves out most of the internal monologue, I get to experience the pleasure of imagining what each character might be feeling.

Take this famously tense scene from Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. In it, we watch in horror as Hans "The Jew Hunter" Landa has a seemingly civil conversation with a farmer about a missing Jewish family. As the scene develops, we see the farmer growing more and more nervous, yet Landa remains cool and calm. By the time we're a couple minutes into their exchange, we know the farmer is either hiding the missing family, or knows where they are. But the conversation never explicitly tells us that. We pick it up purely on subtext, by watching the characters' body language. Imagine if Tarantino had cut into that scene with an obnoxious voice-over and explained what each character was thinking. Wouldn't that completely take the wind out of the scene's sails?

That type of voice over would be the cinematic equivalent of author intrusion (which I touch on in this article), but it's a proportion issue as well. Don't spend precious page time telling readers the things you could be showing them. And don't waste time showing them anything they can supply on their own, because it saps the joy out of the experience.

Properly proportioned stories hold our attention. They don't take detours explaining things we don't need to know, or waste our time showing us things we could skip.