Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ask O Wednesday: Space on the Page—Does it Matter?



Happy Wednesday my writing friends!

Ah, The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy—one of my favorites. Chatting with a friend who recently read it for the first time, I asked her if she figured out who the Scarlet Pimpernel was before the big reveal. She said she clued in early on because of the amount of “air time” the author spent describing that certain person. Hmm… interesting.

Does space on the page matter? Could it communicate something in and of itself?

While editing beginners’ manuscripts, I sometimes bump into the following scenario: A new character strolls onto the scene. We learn about him, see him do things and interact. Care about him. Then bam he’s dead. One manuscript I read killed off five characters this way. As a reader, I was irked. Why? Because, don't get me all geared up to travel the rest of the book with a person, then yank him away.

The lost characters don’t always die; sometimes they just disappear, never to be seen again. I find myself at the end of a book wondering what happened to the quirky girl in chapter two?  When I query the author, I receive this response, “Oh, her. She was just a minor character.” I smile and nod, but think, Then why did you spend five pages on her?

The thing is, we authors make an unspoken promise to readers based on the amount of time we spend on a character—the more space on the page(s), the more payoff readers expect. So if a waitress says nothing and is not described other than a quick detail or two to “paint” the scene, then she can disappear into the netherworld and everyone will feel satisfied.

But if said waitress gets a name, "Estelle," plops down next to the heroine, and admits to having recently escaped from prison, she needs to be mentioned again. If she goes on to confess that a dirty judge (her mob-boss father no less!) put her there, and she’s now on the run with her four-year-old son—well, she needs to play a significant part in the heroine’s life.

Readers are smart—and suspicious! If they meet a troubled waitress, their minds begin a-wonderin’. How does Estelle tie in to the plot? What clue is this author trying to show me?

We owe it to our readers to deliver.

So, here are four steps that help me judge how much page-space to give.

  1. I pay attention to how other authors do it.
  2. I give the tiniest amount of space to a character who will never show up again. I think of her as part of the setting. 
  3. I vary my page-space based on the importance of the role the character plays.
  4. I just use my instincts.
What do you think? How do you gauge how much space to give a character? I'd love to hear! And don't forget to leave your questions for me in the comments or at ocieanna.com. 

Happy writing! 

Ocieanna

7 comments:

  1. One story that handled this in a very unique was is a historical short story by Robert E. Howard, "The Shadow of the Vulture." In the story's first scene the protagonist, a German knight named Gottfried von Kalmbach, is seen briefly as a diplomat to the Turkish Sultan Suleiman who marks him in battle. The Sultan describes his near-brush with death to his emir, and the two plot Gottfried's death. The story follows Gottfried when he finds himself hounded by horsemen... I personally thought the approach was brilliant--the protagonist is there in the Sultan's recollections and and is the target of the Sultan and Emir's plotting. It did have the flaw of paying attention to a nobody in the very beginning, but the story didn't just abandon the Sultan when following Gottfried, either...

    It read like a historical epic in 50 pages and left with one of those rare "WOW what a story!" moments that lingered with me.

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    1. Thanks, Andy. Interesting. If I understand correctly, the sultan came back in the story, so there was a purpose in the meeting. That's what I'm talking about. We can seem to be paying attention to a nobody, but if we spend significant time on them, they should come back at least a little. It sounds like the story you mentioned did it just right.

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  2. Great post, O. So true about the implicit promise authors give readers by devoting (varying degrees of) attention to those secondary characters. Thanks for the four tips on deciding how much attention we should pay them. Very helpful.

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    1. Thanks, Annette. I think finding the right amount of page-space takes practice. As we grow as writers our instincts grow and we can more and more trust them. At first, we have to be very intentional and careful. I'm glad this helped!

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    2. That's so true about the instincts growing. Jerry Jenkins talked about this on FB once. Love that that's the case. My authors will appreciate knowing that!

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  3. Loved this post, O. Very helpful. I just had a discussion on this topic with one of my editing clients this morning.

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    1. Yeah. It comes up a lot. I'm glad it helped!

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