While struggling with this particular first chapter, I recalled a writing technique I decided to apply. I tweeted about it and was surprised by the interest it generated, so I figured I'd expand.
I did not create this. I read an article describing this far enough back that it's lost in the annals of history. It's also unlikely that whomever wrote that article invented it. It probably goes back to pre-highlighter days, when people would have had to, I don't know, tint animal blood and rub it across cave drawings. But it's a snazzy little method that takes a lot of work but is extra-informative and can be applied to any section where you're struggling with pacing or back story--or even the whole book.
Here it is, in tweet form:
Too much blue (back story), not enough yellow (action). Problem: identified. #amrevising pic.twitter.com/REo9pDf8wU— S. L. Saboviec (@Saboviec) September 4, 2015
Yellow = Action Orange = Dialogue Blue = Back story Pink = Setting Green = Exposition/explanation Purple = World-building #amrevising— S. L. Saboviec (@Saboviec) September 4, 2015
Here's a look at my (old) first three pages:
My CP had noted I'd included too much back story. "But," I groused, "the reader needs to know this!" No, she doesn't, and I very well knew that, which is why I decided to visually see what she was telling me. There it was, all blue and chunky across my pages.
In my next step, I noted whose back story it was. I was surprised to find--as my CP had commented--I'd repeated information both within the same blue section and later on. I didn't feel I was doing that, but when I isolated it and stared at each "Ebena back story" or "Kwasi back story" section, I discovered she was (of course) right. This was a secondary effect I didn't realize would happen, and one that helped me tighten things up even more.
Here's a look at my Chapter 2, which is, in my humble opinion, a good mixture of action, setting, exposition, dialogue, and back story. (This book is the second in a series, so I didn't have a lot of world-building that I needed to tell the reader yet because it's been established in the first novel. But even if it hasn't, you want to use world-building sparingly by showing it at work, especially in earlier chapters.)
The purpose of this exercise is to see if you've got big sections of page with only one color. Are fifteen paragraphs solid pink? In today's market, in most genres, no one wants to read your scene-setting for that long. Is 75% of your book orange? You have a problem with filtering your action through talking heads.
Yellow action is the most important--move the story forward--but don't forget the other colors, too. You don't serve a slab of beef for three meals in a row; you add spices and complement it with baked potato and steamed vegetables.
Here's the thing: you can categorize and highlight however you want. I'm all about teaching a man to fish and giving you tools for your writer toolbox and all that. I'm not about dictating how you should be writing. Make it work for you.
"Exposition," to me, is the here-and-now explanation about how the character feels about something or someone, whereas "back story" is something that happened in the past. "Setting," I discovered, became both the world and character descriptions. You can play around with these and sub-categorize them if you like, but I didn't want to get too granular for this exercise.
When it came to dialogue tags, "he said" usually revealed a juicy tidbit of plot, so I highlighted it yellow for action. If you find your dialogue isn't moving the plot forward, you might want to assign a different color for those spots you know you have trouble.
If you're not sure how to fix your work, get a second copy of your favorite book and mark it all up with highlighter using this method. Watch how Super Awesome Bestselling Author weaves the gorgeous colors together to create a tapestry of page-turning story. You'll find, as you get deeper into the book, he gets away with big chunks of back story or dialogue--but he varies it. Rarely does he insert fourteen chapters of back story (and I can think of a book by a best-selling author I one-starred when she did this because come on with the plot already).
So, my dear readers, what do you think? Can you think of a sticky piece of writing you're struggling with that you can apply this to? I'd love to hear follow-up stories of what you discovered after you did this.