If you ever submit the first draft of your story to an editor or critique group, they’re guaranteed to find mistakes. No doubt about it, they’ll find something “wrong” and tell you about it. Hurtful? Often. Necessary? Heck, yeah.
One of the biggest struggles I’ve encountered with writers is finding a balance between progressing the plot and inserting interior monologue, descriptions…basically everything non-action. So, there’s action and non-action: plot and prose. Plot moves forward; prose stalls the progression. Like yin and yang, you need both. You can’t have one without the other, or your story will get off-balance.
However, young writers often find themselves on one end of the extremes: either there is so much action that the story is zooming forward, but the reader doesn’t get a pause to catch their breath, absorb who the characters are, and take in the world; or there is so much prose that it lags and drags on and on, and the reader is left thinking, “Why is this relevant? When is something actually going to happen?”
I want to help you avoid both extremes and strike a balance in your writing.
1. Start your novel with prose, in a moment of action.
Many writers choose one of two ways to start their novel:
a) BAM! His fist flew through the air, collided with the mugger’s jaw, and knocked him to the ground.
b) The sky was a muted blue. The breeze tickled my skin as I lied in the grass, analyzing the course of events that had just taken place. Dizzying, confusing thoughts raced through my head.
Now, neither of these are truly bad ways to set up the first sentence/opening scene of your story, but they’re definitely not great. You can do so much better.
How about trying this:
My lungs were on fire. The muscles in my legs were screaming for me to stop, but I kept running. The events I just witnessed – all the horror, shock, and confusion – reeled through my mind like an old movie on a projection screen.
By putting your character in a moment of action and including their thoughts, you’ve just accelerated a reader’s interest. What is this character doing? What are they thinking? What’s going on? All these questions get sparked when you introduce your story in this way. Click here for more tips on how to write a killer first sentence and opening scene.
2. Break up the plot with prose.
Integrating prose into a plot-heavy story is easier said than done. It requires splicing scenes up and inserting thoughts, recollections, and revelations, which can sometimes seem strange. Why would a character, in the middle of a heavy moment (say they’re confronting their antagonist), be thinking of anything else but the moment? Why pause to put in some soliloquy?
a) Because it makes the scene more dramatic and builds tension. By slowing down or pausing the action, you up the ante.
b) Because the reader doesn’t just want to know what the character is doing, they want to know what the character is thinking and feeling, too, in this big moment.
c) Because it builds clarity and reality. I’ve often found that when I’m about to do something that scares or exhilarates me, I have a million things running through my head, and tons of emotions pulsing through my veins. It would be disingenuous not to give readers the whole of the character – everything they do, think, and feel.
3. If it’s not necessary, can it.
Many times a writer will include prose – a recollection, a revelation, or thoughts – that really aren’t necessary or relevant to the plot. I’ve done this many times: I include what I think is a great addition to enriching the story, but really is just a pointless anecdote that doesn’t take the story anywhere. It’s hard to cut out what we think is beautifully written, touching revelations made by the character, but often it ends up sounding preachy or worse, bor-ing. Cut the crap. Eliminate it, scratch it, delete it.
Here’s what I mean:
A week and a half later, we are on a road trip. Today, we’re going to Baltimore to play against the Orioles in a four-game series. In a couple of days, we’ll be in Detroit.
I always liked travelling for away games. There’s something exciting about a road trip – travelling on the team bus, sometimes for hundreds of miles, with really nothing in particular to do. When I was in the minors and we were on road trips, I’d usually sit with a couple of my buddies and crack jokes or tell stories. But I’m finding it difficult to make friends with the men on my team now. It could be the age difference – I’m so young compared to most of them, and much less experienced. It could be because I’m not a starter, haven’t been able to play in a game yet; I haven’t really proven my skills to them yet, so I’m not well-respected. Maybe it’s because Mantle and Frankie openly dislike me – that could influence the way the rest of my teammates see me. And there’s really nothing I can do about that. They’re both jerks, anyways, so I don’t really care what they think of me. I have no respect for them, anyways, except for maybe their baseball skills. And really, I may not have “friends” on the team yet, but I do I have acquaintances. Roger Maris is a decent guy who talks to me once in a while, and he gives me some pretty good batting tips. And Clete Boyer is friendly, too. He and I have shared some jokes and laughs, and he helps me improve my fielding. He’s young, like me, only twenty-four, but has played professional baseball for six seasons now. He’s from the South and has a southern accent, like me (only, I hide mine most of the time). He spent three seasons in the Yankees farm leagues, same years as me, except we were never on the same team at the same time. And last year was his first season as the starting third baseman for the Yankees, so he really only has one more year of experience than I do. I think he and I have the potential to be good friends – he’s a hard worker, has a sense of humor, and is a real nice guy. And he’s cute, too – but I’ll just keep that to myself.
I sit on the smooth, stuffed, vinyl bench and bump along as the bus rolls down a dirt road.
Yikes! That was the opening of chapter 6 in my unpublished novel “The Last Chance” (you can read the whole thing on Wattpad). Clearly I need to go through another few rounds of editing – that was all prose and no plot progression! I didn’t even get to any action until the very last sentence!
This is a great instance where the “show, don’t tell” rule should come in. Rather than explaining all of these thoughts, feelings, and happenings through a lengthy interior monologue, I could show these things through actions on the bus. My character could get on the bus, and every guy with an open seat says, “This seat’s taken,” forcing my protagonist to sit alone. I could have Mantle and Frankie do something that shows the readers how they treat the narrator like trash. I could have a moment on the bus where Clete or Roger reaches out to the narrator. All this boring prose is completely unnecessary, and acts more like a summary than a story. Sometimes it’s more powerful to keep your character’s thoughts silent than it is to bog down the reader.
4. Make it clear where your story is going.
Once upon a time, I read a novel written by a self-published author. While this author clearly had talent and had worked tirelessly on their novel, the story itself was mediocre. Why? Because it felt like it had no plot. I read a dozen chapters into it, and I still had no idea where the story was going. It felt like there was no progression, no character development, no action to get excited about, no defining moments or scenes to look forward to. It was like taking a cross-country roadtrip – only you don’t know where the destination is and you’ve been driving past cornfields and flatland for days. There’s nothing to look at and nowhere to go except a very flat, plain, vague “forward”. How do you avoid this?
Give your characters a clear goal – something they will continue working towards. This gives the reader a clear sense of where the story is going (i.e. The team’s either going to win the state championship, or not. Either she’s going to land a role in a movie and finally become a Hollywood star, or not). That way throughout the story, the characters will constantly have to answer the question, “What do I do now?” and then pick a course of action – thereby propelling the plot. Click here to learn how to build a plot from scratch.
There you have it! This is what I’ve learned from years of writing and reviewing novice writers’ work. Have you noticed yourself falling into the extremes of the Plot↔Prose spectrum? Do you have a tendency towards one or the other? What advice from this article do you think is most relevant to your writing? Let me know in the comments!
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