There’s a powerful engine in your book, it’s just a bit hard to find. It’s in every word, and it drives plot and characters and everything else.

Everybody knows the most important part of a car is the engine. You might like your top-notch speakers for the surround sound, or the air conditioning on a sweltering day, or the incredible shock absorbers, but you can’t say you’d take those over an engine.

So, what’s the engine of your book? Plot? It’s essential if you’re writing a thriller that needs page-turning action. What about characters? Many say a book is nothing without an attention-grabbing character at its center.

Turns out there’s a more powerful engine in your book, it’s just a bit hard to find. It’s in every word, that’s how powerful it is. It drives plot and characters and everything else.

What is it? We can call it “information density.” It’s knowing exactly how much gas to give, and when. It’s a Goldilocks situation: not too little, not too much, but just right. What “just right” is is up to you, your writing style, and the preferences of your readers.

Stories are about conveying information in a pleasing and gripping way. Not enough information yields a big dose of boredom. Too much information can confuse or overwhelm. As readers and writers, we have an intuitive feel for the density of good stuff in a book, but we rarely take the time to quantify it.

Imagine reading your favorite book. By you is a hand-bell. You pick it up and ring it every time you read something you especially liked. How often would it ring? You could ring it louder depending on the heights it reaches in your mind.

A peal could be for anything: a twist; a reveal; a plot point; a beautifully sculpted sentence, poetic phrase, or perfect word. You’d get lots of ringing most likely – that’s why you love that book! It’s like clapping at a performance or during a speech.

What if you did the same for things that failed to impress you? Maybe scratch your nails down a chalkboard? Blow a fog horn if you got to a point so stale you wanted to put the book down? Likely, the reading of your precious book would not be marred by either of those sounds.

What would the soundtrack of your own book sound like? All bells? You want to have a book that gets lots of bell ringing – and only bell ringing. Pealing bells means getting your information, and its density, exactly right.

Pace is one of the literary elements, one of the core facets of all books. The pace of some books is slower than others, and pace all along the continuum can be considered essential. If you slow down the pace of action, you need to up the information elsewhere – perhaps with deep observations of a character, about the world around her, or introspective reveries that say something about the human condition. This is usually the difference between genre thrillers and literary fiction, for example.

Interestingly, pace dictates that you should slow down at the crucial moments. Readers want to linger on the emotional highs of your story and speed through any necessary logistics. Just because a parting kiss between your Romeo and Juliet is over in a flash doesn’t mean you can’t devote pages to it and how it changes the lives of your characters – especially if your plot revolves around it. Your readers want to fill up on all that fraught emotion and have time to wonder about the future before you divulge all.

Pace defines the rate of information flow

Pace impacts everything, from the big picture to the individual words you use. You can have a fast pace of fantastic words, or sentences or ideas – it’s not only action that has pace.

Perfect information density is about having all the parts in the right places working together to create a car that drives, with no extra parts that cause it to slow down, take detours, or crash. The quality of your best information is the difference between a 4- or 8-cylinder engine. The best books are like a 12-cylinder Lamborghini.

There are seemingly infinite layers of information in a great book. Are they all in balance?

The most obvious units are chapters. Do you have any chapters that drag on? Or are too short to fit the flow of your book? What about the sections in chapters? Where are the parts to chop or expand?

Early on in writing, your job is building up information density. You start with just your great idea and build up enough detail to fill a book. Once you have the content you want, you work to balance it, smooth it, and make it consistent.

The best thing about the right level of information density is that this is when readers suspend disbelief. They start to see your story as something real – at least something they are willing to mentally “step into.”

When a story is fully realized, readers see the whole and forget to think about the parts. Launch velocity? Check. Now you just need to keep it until the mission is over and you touch down on the last word of your book. You want readers to exclaim with a gleam in their eye, “How did you ever come up with that?”

 

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Related Posts
Use Pacing to Improve Your Storytelling
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The Yin And Yang Of Great Fiction
Narrative Structure: What it is and how to use it

 

Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 39 posts in this blog.

Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process: fiedawn@gmail.com.

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