The death note for any work of fiction is just that—a single note. When a novel or story is doing just one thing at a time, readers will get bored and walk away. Good fiction, then, juggles multiple elements at once. There are large-scale ways of doing this (multiple points of view, multiple timeframes), but it’s also possible to juggle elements on a sentence and paragraph level. Even when writers are moving between the big building blocks of POV and time, they’re also doing the same thing in small ways because those small shifts are what keep a reader engaged. After all, readers read pages and chapters one sentence at a time, and so writers must hold their attention on that level.
A good example of juggling elements on this small-scale be found in Alexandra Burt’s new novel The Good Daughter. You can read the opening pages here.
How the Novel Works
The novel is a thriller with a slow-burning fuse, driven as much by mood and eeriness as some of the flashier mystery writing tools. The prologue makes this clear. Instead of, say, a murder, it shows us actions that we seem urgent and weird but that we don’t entirely understand: an unexplained and hurried trip, an encounter with the police that ends in a robbery (and not the other way around), a robbery that doesn’t quite make sense, and identities that are tossed aside and replaced with ease. All of this happens in four pages. But the multiple elements aren’t the things that happen. They’re laid out in chronological order, one thing after the other. Instead, the multiple elements are what is happening and what the main character is thinking: exterior action and interior thought.
Here is an example of how Burt shifts between the two. All we know is that a girl and her mom are driving across the country. Here’s the girl:
She opened a bag of Red Vines, sucked on them and then gently rubbed them over her lips until they turned crimson.
Running her fingers across the cracked spine of her encyclopedia—the first pages were missing and she’d never know what words came before accordion; a box-shaped bellows-driven musical instrument, colloquially referred to as a squeezebox—she concentrated on the sound of the pages rustling like old parchment as she flipped through the tattered book.
Her mother called her Pet. The girl didn’t like the name, especially when her mother introduced her. This is pet, she’d say with a smile. She’s very shy. Then her mother moved on quickly, as if she had told too much already.
Pet, the encyclopedia said, a domestic or tamed animal kept for companionship. Treated with care and affection.
The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page. She remembered when it was new, how the pages and the spine had not yielded as readily, and she wondered if the pages would eventually shed. She attempted to focus on a word but the movement of the car made her nauseous. Eventually she just left the book cracked open in her lap.
“My feet are cold. Can I get a pair of socks from the trunk?” she asked somewhere after the New Mexico/Texas border.
The passage begins with action (“She opened a bag of red vines”) and continues with more action (“Running her fingers across the cracked spine of her encyclopedia”) but then shifts into the character’s head and what she notices about the encyclopedia (“the first pages were missing and she’d never know what words came before accordion” and “the sound of the pages rustling”).
Then, it moves into background information (“Her mother called her Pet”) that turns into the character’s feelings about the name (“The girl didn’t like the name”) and a memory of her mother saying it.
Next, the passage returns to the encyclopedia’s definition of Pet.
The next paragraph starts with more action (“The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page”) and moves again into memory (“She remembered when it was new”).
Finally she puts the book down and speaks—back to action.
Of course, one might argue that there isn’t much action in this passage, and it’s true. The action consists of reading a book. But it’s just a small passage situated in a prologue about a mysterious cross-country drive and some inexplicable things that happen along the way. Without this moment of interiority, the novel might have a couple of problems. First, the drive would happen too fast, in two pages instead of four. Second, readers might not care what happens because the characters would be simply pieces moved around by the author. Third, readers might not have a sense of the world and how it feels. Sense (or mood) is often, though not always, built with interiority.
So, to create mood, pacing, character, and a sense of the world, Burt must move back and forth between intriguing action and interiority.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s move back and forth between exterior action and interiority, using The Good Daughter by Alexandra Burt as a model:
- Know what is happening—generally. Think in terms of the larger unit (prologue, chapter, section). What is the overall arc? If someone asked your reader, what happened in that part, what would they say? In Burt’s case, the characters seem to be on the run from something. They’re driving. That’s the general happening of the prologue. What is the general happening in the part of your story/book that you’re focusing on?
- Zoom in on a smaller piece of action. Within the larger arc, what is happening on the smaller scale. Try phrasing it this way: While they were ____, So-and-so _____. What action fills the second blank? In Burt’s case, it’s the character eating Red Vines and reading the encyclopedia. Notice that she gives her character two things to do. The first action serves as a kind of transition to the second action, taking some of the weight off of it so readers don’t initially read too much into it.
- Give the character something to notice while doing this small action. Burt’s character notices something about the page of the book? What does your character notice?
- Add information. At a certain point, Burt needs to tell us the character’s name. It’s one of those pieces of information that must be included early in a story/book. Burt chooses one that seems particularly important to the story and drops it in, seemingly out of the blue, but then lets the character react to the information, remember something about the information, and then act based on that information (she looks up Pet in the encyclopedia). So, don’t just add the information. Let it lead back into interiority and then back out again into action.
- Zoom back out. Burt moves us out of the character’s head and into less specific action (“The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page”). Finally she sets the book aside and speaks, and then we’re back into the general action of the drive again.
The goal is adjust narrative pace by creating layers of action and the opportunity to portray a character’s interior state (and also to drop in some basic, unavoidable information).