Each historical novel is different, and each requires attention to the balance of the book, depending on whether it is a thriller, a saga, a romance, or a portrait of a well-known figure. A recent historical novel I read was very heavy on the dialogue – and there is nothing wrong with that – the effect it had was to draw you into the characters conversation, and make the characters the major attraction of the novel. In other books the setting predominates, and gives us a feeling of being immersed in that time or place. So it is all a question of finding the balance you want to achieve. With this in mind I thought it useful to lay out the different elements you might find in what I call a scene.
- Setting or scene description – in the old days this often used to be a block of actual description at the beginning of the novel. Now we have become much better at inserting it into a scene, in between other moments of action or dialogue.
- Action – What people actually do in a scene. Sometimes people don’t actually do much in a scene; they talk, they think, they muse, they remember – I urge you to have someone actually do something physical in every scene.
- Timing – time can pass slowly in a scene, or move quickly. Dialogue and short sentences shorten the perception of time. Long paragrapphs and sentences draw it out. So does musing, remembering and internal monologue. There is a sense in which historical feeling can lead to long convoluted sentences, in an attempt to sound ‘old-fashioned’. Notice what units of time are in your scene and how you are indicating the passage of time.
- Dialogue – Some characters were denied the right to equal speech in the past, and their lack of speech can indicate their status. Not every character has to speak. Some can act instead. Some successful novelists like to write books as if the events of the past are happening today – with all the modern colloquialisms. Others strive for authentic historical flavour in their dialogue. But the balance of dialogue in your scene, will affect the pace of your book, so note carefully how much dialogue you use.
- Interior monologue – Thrillers and action-centred novels (in general) contain less interior monologue than character-driven historical novels. Interior monologue slows the action because the person cannot converse with themselves so easily when moving (or being chased by an assassin!)
- Summary – When years or decades pass, you will need to summarize events. Also if something is habitual – e.g. ‘He returned several times, but she was never there.’ Brief summary is always better than long summary, so condense it as much as you can. Summaries are supposed to be brief.
- Background information – often unkindly called ‘info-dump’, sometimes it is necessary to explain technical, political, religious or other historical information so the reader understands the plot. Often this can be given as dialogue between two people, (the tenser, the better) but if not, brief and succint, is essential. If possible try to have the character do something in the scene.
- Narration – where the character is telling you about an event that happened. Often a first persoon POV novel is all narration that segues in and out of scenes. The trick with narration is to give the narrator attitude, and to try to reproduce elements of the character’s voice, so we see the event through their point of view. However, to be fully in their voice works best in a book with only one narrator. In a multiple POV novel, this can make the book choppy unless the scenes are carefully de-lineated.
In striving for balance a good trick is to take just one scene and go through it with a highlighter, highlighting all the different elements one at a time with different coloured marker pens. If you find half your scene is background information – you might want to think about re-balancing the scene by moving some of it forward or back, or cutting it, for example.
The effect of these elements on pace can tell you whether the thriller you are writing is really thrilling, or whether it is bogged down in narration or interior monologue. On the other hand a portrait of an interesting figure might need more of these slower elements to flesh out their character.
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