Monday Motivation: Balancing act

 In Monday Motivation

The challenge I posed a group of scribblers was to write a scene in which a trivial disagreement masks much deeper conflict between two characters. How to insinuate the presence of the elephant in the room without mentioning the tusks? How, in other words, to write sub-text?

On the one hand, you face the danger of over-statement: “I’ve always despised you. You’re a craven, oleaginous creep,” cries your enraged protagonist.

Well, that’s telling him. But of course, it unfortunately also tells the reader rather more than you should. Sub-text, remember, is what’s to be found between the lines.

On the other hand, you face the danger of not signaling that deeper conflict at all.  (It’s difficult, naturally, to give you an example of this.)

So the trick is to trace the narrow path between… too much and too little.

But this, of course, is the challenge facing us in a broad swathe of arenas. The writer of detective stories has to provide enough clues to the reader to make it feasible for him to identify the killer – but not so many that that act of detection is a walk in the park.

However, there is a sense in which all novels are detective stories. The writer provides clues regarding the character of his hero.  He shows a character desperately intent on garnering approval from her peers. She seems willing to sacrifice the truth, her pride, her very reputation – in return for acknowledgement. The writer avoids explaining why she possesses this insatiable hunger. We readers scrutinise the clues provided, and realise that the answer lies somewhere in the character’s past. Slowly, as we encounter more subtle pointers, we narrow our hypothesis to a very specific episode when she was just thirteen…

Make the clues too obvious, and you rob your readers of the arduous (and deeply pleasurable) business of reaching their own conclusions. Neglect to give them enough clues, and you leave them floundering, wondering what the hell is going on.

I’ve often praised restraint as a writer’s best friend – but too much restraint leads to confusion.

So what’s the solution?

I think this is one of those situations where it’s best to err on the side of excess – in your first draft. Then to apply your skills as editor and rewriter to chip away (like Michaelangelo working on his marble matrix) at the surplus material, slowly and cautiously, until what remains on the plinth or the page is a subtly balanced creation that contains just enough information – but not too much.

The secret to this desirable end lies, I suppose, in practice. The more you write, the more easily you’ll be able to judge the moment at which you’ve struck the right balance.

And the start of that journey is awareness: of the need to make your way along the precipice, not so far from the cliff-edge as to eliminate all risk, but not so near as to precipitate disaster.

Happy writing,



For more writing tips and a little motivation click here to read Jo-Anne’s Writing Secrets: It may be pacey, but take your time

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