I have a feeling this one’s at risk of becoming a long post, so I’ll try to keep it simple. Writing a fiction narrative is all about maintaining the balance between story and plot (story being defined as the events that don’t directly affect the main arc, and plot being events that do). In order to maintain this balance you have to cultivate a strong inner critic, and learn to listen to them when you lose their interest.
One of the easiest ways to recognize when you’ve lost your inner critic’s interest is when writing becomes extraordinarily hard. You probably know exactly how long it should take you to write a thousand word scene, but if you’ve lost interest it can easily take five times as long. Every word feels like a chore, every motion a slog. You might say ‘but they have to do that to get to this cool thing.’
That’s the wrong way to look at it. Your readers won’t know that the cool thing is coming up, and if you’re boring yourself writing a scene you can just imagine how bored they’ll get reading it. The best case scenario is that they finish it and enjoy the rest of the novel, but it’s more likely that they’ll put the book down and walk away.
So listen to your inner critic and back away when writing becomes too much of a chore. Then reassess and change direction. It could be a slight adjustment, or it could change the entire course of your novel.
Now, onto the bigger picture. The simplest fiction narratives follow the format of a call, conflict, resolution, and denouement. You have an initial phase where the characters/world are introduced and the stakes are laid out, the conflict between the antagonist and protagonist, the big finale, and then a few closing comments.
The problem with that list is that it makes it seem like all of those elements should be equal. In reality, the conflict should make up ninety percent or more of your novel. Readers pick a novel up to see characters pitting their wills against one another, or to escape into a world fraught with danger and adventure. They don’t pick it up in order to read an encyclopedia entry lasting the first fifty pages.
Again, it’s all about balance. Story can replace plot in some cases, and this can work well when it becomes a sub-plot in-and-of itself. However, allowing the main plot to grind to a halt is a surefire way to lose reader interest. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the story should only take the lead when there’s a really good reason for it (main character development being at the top of the list). The plot is the reason you’re writing this book, so you should do your best to cut down to it and stay focused.
In summary, listen to your inner critic and always keep the story/plot balance in mind. If you venture away from the plot that’s alright, but if you find it getting increasingly difficult to write then you’ll know that you’ve gone astray. Take a step back, pause, and reassess. There’s no rule saying that you have to fight through the pain when writing is hard.
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