Why Do My Stories Feel All Out of Balance?

Quoth Anonymous: How do I balance the amount of description and dialogue and thoughts and things in my fiction? I feel like I go on a tear and overdo one way over the others for long passages.

You know how after a plane crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board assembles whatever pieces they recover in a hangar somewhere to see what happened? Sometimes you have to do that with your fiction, understanding its individual parts to see how they’re working (or not working) together.

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The parts you’re asking about here are sentences, and each one in your fiction is primarily doing one of these things:

  • Dialogue, for performing a character’s speech: “Holy shit,” he said. “Bayonets really hurt when they pierce your skin.”
  • Action, for performing a character’s motions in real time: Timothy lifted himself with shaking arms from the slick and spreading pool of blood beneath his open chest wound. 
  • Thoughts/Feelings, for conveying how a character is reacting to the situation: There was no way he’d make it to spaghetti night at the VFW by six, which was just one more reason for Ingrid to be pissed at him. 
  • Description, for focusing on an interesting or important element of the setting: He’d never noticed it before, but the linoleum floor in his grandmother’s kitchen wasn’t uniformly a shade of gastric green but also speckled with squares of a rancid mustard hue. He sniffed, wondering if they were actually mustard, but they reeked more like a half century of Grammy’s sour feet.
  • Summary, for conveying what happened without performing it: For the next several hours, Timothy dozed and woke and dozed again. He enjoyed the dozing more because his brain was trying to entertain him with the all-star hits of his life: winning the intramural pennant, that kiss under the pier on prom night, finding that issue of Hustler in the woods.   

Now this model is very general, of course, and it’s more descriptive than prescriptive: you shouldn’t be precisely planning the function of each sentence before you write it (though hey, why not if you want to try?).

The best-case scenario is to develop an ear for the way sentences sound as you write them so they’ll naturally balance, but that’s not an instinct we dropped down out of the trees with.

You’ll have to learn it somewhere, mostly by reading works like the one you want to write and noticing the balance that author strikes between each type of sentence. You can try to do that intuitively, or you can try something more structured like this:

  1. Pick up a book in the genre in which you’re writing. Preferably, it should be one that you actually enjoyed reading.
  2. Take out five highlighters.
  3. On the first page, draw one line with each color and label them DIALOGUE, THOUGHTS, SUMMARY, ACTION, and DESCRIPTION.
  4. Now start with a passage you admire and start highlighting based on what you think the primary purpose of each sentence happens to be. You’ll see very quickly how the author is (or isn’t) balancing each of these elements.

Identifying the functions of each sentence like this is more for debugging your work, discovering the specific reason(s) it doesn’t feel or sound right. Nobody’s life depends upon the accuracy of your assessment, so if you’re not sure what a sentence is doing, take your best guess.

We’re looking at ratios here, not landing a guy on the Moon.

Some of the books you highlight may be heavy on description, striving to provide an experience for the readers. Others may be heavy in dialogue, moving the story along quickly perhaps at the risk of losing a sense of living the story. Maybe there are lots of thoughts and feelings, an interiority for a narrator’s inner landscape like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.

Another debugging (or educational) trick to try is the squint test: peer at a page at a distance where you can’t make out the individual words, just looking at the blocks. Are they big blocks, signifying a slower and more contemplative pace? Or are they small blocks, hinting that this is a section of quick action and reaction?

(By the way, going slow isn’t bad at all. Going slow is what gives people a sense of experiencing this story as real, and it’s a necessary for lulling people into what John Gardner called the ‘fictive dream.’)

The last suggestion I’ll offer is that it’s okay to take your time. When you’re drafting a story, you’re in a hurry to get it done. You’re framing the house. In subsequent drafts, you’re adding the details…and you shouldn’t be afraid to take a whole paragraph (Or two! Or three!) to set the scene or tell us what a character is feeling.

The writing goes slower than the reading, so your sense of pace is going to be off until you read it aloud. Most people I know (including me) start thin and have to bulk out the story so it feels real.

That may feel like a lot of work for something that felt like a simple question. The truest answer is that you’ll get a feel for that over time, especially if you’re perceptive with other people’s work and honest about your own.

But that answer sucks in the short term when you don’t have those instincts yet. Identifying the sentences may be a good way to develop them.  

What Do You Do with Rejected Stories?

Quoth Don: How often do you approach the box where you keep your past works (I can hear the creaking of the chest as you open it) and revisit writing that was rejected to improve your writing now?

Good question, Don!

My general feeling with rejected stories is that once they’re gone, they’re gone.

By the time I’ve written something, sent it into the world, and received rejections for it, the emotional connection I had to it in the first place has long faded. Sometimes elements of that work sneak their way subconsciously into other stories, but I seldom reach into the trunk and try to resurrect them entirely.

As any good crime scene investigator will tell you, once there’s maggots, you ain’t bringing that one back.

I don’t really keep my rejected stories in trunks. Barrels work better.

I have only a few basic reactions to a story rejection:

  • Relief, because I’ve since realized that the story (at least that draft) deserved to be rejected and the editor saved me some embarrassment.
  • Chagrin, because I’d submitted it in the vague hope that I was wrong about how mediocre it was but the editor caught me.
  • Disappointment, because that story actually felt right and obviously didn’t connect with that particular editor or venue at this particular time.

Technically, you can choose to fix a story in any of those three scenarios but first, you need to ask yourself:

  • Do I want to? Is there something about this story that I still feel compelled to express? Does it still spark something in me? Do I still believe in it?
  • Is it worth fixing? By “worth,” I mean whether you think that you have the skill to fix it and a good place to sell it after you do.
  • Do I know how to fix it? Sometimes, you know exactly what’s wrong. Other times, you have no idea. Sometimes, a fix means changing a few words or a scene. Other times, it means starting a whole new document and salvaging the twenty good words from the last one.

For me personally, it’s fairly rare that a story meets all three of those criteria. A notable exception is the novella I just finished that started as a short story, became a novel draft, became an MFA thesis, became another novel draft, and finally became a novella after I started over from scratch.

In that case, I felt the idea was special to me and my experiences, and it seemed a waste to let it go for someone else to write.

(I have a suspicion that stories float around and find people to write them. If you let one pass by, it goes to someone else. I swear to God I was writing a short story about FBI agents investigating strange phenomena the year before The X-Files came out.)

The risk of picking over your rejected stories is that you’ll never stop. There’s a certain fantasy in refining a work over and over again that you can finally get it “right.” This fantasy is even stronger if a rejecting editor or workshop group gave you some vague and well-meaning advice on how to fix it. You can chase that around and around forever.

You make up for feeling bad about losing a single story by writing a lot more to take its place. Your chance to get it right comes with whatever’s next, not what came before.

Unless, of course, there’s that nagging idea that won’t let you go…