Proportion in writing can be defined as the amount of details you give, and the time you spend giving them, versus the importance of those details and the length of the scene. Simply put, you do not want to give too many details to unimportant events, or fill scenes with so many details that the story does not move forward.
Your words should build momentum and propel the story forward.
Knowing what details to include and which ones to leave out can be confusing to a newer writer. Naturally, you want to show and not tell. You also want to give your readers plenty of information so they can picture the scene you are describing. However, when you give your readers every piece of information and do not leave them to fill in any of the blanks, you are patronizing them.
Readers like to use their imaginations. Give them the information they need. Show them the details that are needed to move the story forward. Do not fret over every last description, especially when the descriptions are not critical to the scene or to the story as a whole.
Take a look at the examples below to get a better understanding of problems some writers may have with proportion.
Janine grabbed the heavy, empty suitcase, wrapping her hand around the handle and clutching it tight as she lifted it off the ground. With a grunt, she slung it so it was parallel with the ground, then pushed it forward onto the bed. She turned slowly and started to grab her shirts from the closet. With great care, she removed each blouse, folded it neatly, and laid it inside the suitcase. Her pants were already sitting on the bed, so when her shirts were placed inside, she laid them on top before shutting it.
After reading this passage, it may be clear to you that the author spent a long time describing the action the character took to lift the suitcase and throw it onto the bed. While it is important to moving the scene forward that she grabbed the suitcase so she could pack, the motions she made to put the suitcase onto the bed are not important to the scene or to propelling the story forward. Packing the suitcase is important because it will move the story forward into the trip or move that she makes.
Proportion problems like the one above arise for a very simple reason. It is hard to judge what effect your writing will have on the reader, so you are more inclined to go overboard with details to be sure the reader has enough. Clearly, in the example above, the writer thought it was critical that the readers picture the character's actions just as the writer saw them in his or her head. However, it leaves nothing to the imagination. It is patronizing.
It is acceptable and even encouraged in this day and age to leave the mundane, maybe even boring details, to your readers' imagination.
For example, instead of writing:
Sarah got in the car, turned on the ignition, shifted it into gear, and then backed out of the driveway. Hearing the argument she just had with Chase playing in her mind, she wasn't watching where she was going and slammed into the mailbox.
"I can't believe this!" she shouted, punching the steering wheel.
You can just as effectively write:
Sarah got into the car and backed out of the driveway. Hearing the argument she just had with Chase playing in her mind, she wasn't watching where she was going and slammed into the mailbox.
"I can't believe this!" she shouted, punching the steering wheel.
Your reader is intelligent enough to assume and imagine her starting up the car and putting it into gear. There is no need to put those details in because it does not move the story forward. More importantly, it is boring and could insult the reader.
Using the first example in this section, the writer only needed to write:
Janine grabbed the suitcase and slung it onto the bed. She turned slowly and started to grab her shirts from the closet. With great care, she removed each blouse, folded it neatly, and laid it inside the suitcase. Her pants were already sitting on the bed, so when her shirts were placed inside, she laid them on top before shutting it.
The proportion in your writing can go off in other ways besides detail. Flashbacks can also rob your story of proportion and stop it from moving forward. When you start to write a story from beginning to end with events happening in chronological order, your story starts to build momentum. The reader starts eagerly moving forward, working toward the ending, and probably even making guesses at how it will end. When you violate the chronological order and take the reader back in time using a flashback, you can give the story a sense of aimlessness and confusion.
You should use only flashbacks that are needed to maintain the momentum in your writing, or to explain something important in the story. Use the guidelines below to decide whether to use a flashback in your story.
Flashbacks are acceptable to use if they:
- further develop the plot;
- achieve momentum;
- show why a character is a certain way.
The simple test that you can use to see if your flashbacks add to the momentum in your story or put it out of proportion is this: If you can take out the flashbacks and your story still makes sense and shows everything it needs to, you probably do not need them. Flashbacks are not needed as much as some writers like to use them; however, there will be times when your story will be hard to follow or understand without them.
Watch Out for What You Know
Whenever someone knows a topic well, it is easy to go into lengthy explanations and details, even if they are not needed. This can put a story out of proportion. For example, if you are a forensics expert writing a murder mystery, it would be very easy to explain every aspect of forensic analysis in your story. This may seem important to you because, as a forensics expert, you know these are all aspects in solving a crime. To your readers, however, a lot of it may be needless information. It does nothing to move the story forward. In fact, it detracts from the momentum and takes the readers down a side street they do not need or want to go down.
You can also make this same mistake with research that you have completed to incorporate into your story. Even though the most mundane details of your research may have factored into what you write, going on a tangent and showing your readers how much you know is not going to impress them or move the story forward. It is going to put it out of proportion. In fact, it is a safe bet to say that your reader will put the story down and find something more interesting to do.
Just take a look at the classic Moby Dick. Melville spent a lot of time telling about the history of whales. Unless you are a whale buff, those endless passages of text are probably really boring to you. It is what makes Moby Dick a problem for many readers. Make sure you do not isolate your audience in the same manner. Only give the explanations and facts that are needed to move your story forward. If you go into a lengthy spiel that has nothing to do with the momentum, then your story will be out of proportion and you will disinterest your readers.
Proportion problems do not only apply to details and long sections of your story that are not necessarily needed to move the story forward. Proportion also can refer to the balance in your story; proportion problems, in this sense, do not have to mean something is badly out of whack, as in the sections above. You can change the proportion of scenes when you cut parts out of your manuscript to make it shorter or more concise. Be careful if you cut your manuscript, or are asked to cut your manuscript, that you do not remove anything critical to moving the story forward, or change the general direction of the novel.
An example of cuts is in a romantic novel. You may not feel it necessary to keep in all of the scenes that have the heroine interacting with her boss at work. Instead, you may feel it more important to leave in the steamy scenes because those are the ones that you think the readers will love. However, beware! Even though you may not put the story itself out of proportion, you may find that you take away from the novel as a whole and are just left with a series of very steamy love scenes.
When you make cuts, do not forget the balance that you want in your book. Do not forget the proportion. If you want to show different sides of the character's life in different scenes, be careful when you cut some of those sides and scenes in favor of others. You will find that the cuts can change your whole story just by changing the proportion of scenes.
Use Caution and Distance
The best way that you can determine if your story is out of proportion in any way is to step away from it for a while. You need fresh eyes and a clear mind to be able to accurately judge your own writing. It would not hurt to have a friend or associate look over it, too, if you can.
When you do go back over your work, try cutting details and scenes that no longer seem to belong or do not advance the plot. Just be careful. You do not want to cut every little passage that does not move the story forward. That would result in a very flat, one-dimensional story. Instead, assume your readers are intelligent and literate people. Do not feel as though you have to spoon-feed them every detail or explain every aspect. If you write in a way that treats them like the perceptive and imaginative people they really are, they are going to enjoy your writing more and read more of what you write, well into the future.
How to Use Proportion in Your Favor
Once you learn to recognize how proportion, and changes in proportion, affect your writing, you can start to use it to shape your readers' response to your plot.
- spend less time on one aspect of your plot to surprise the readers later;
- spend more time on an unimportant element to mask the important one, again, enhancing a surprise later;
- mislead your readers on purpose to give them a shock later on.
As you learn more and more about the proportion in your writing and start to recognize it, you will be able to easily correct it when it is out of whack. Just as importantly, you will also be able to use it as a device to improve your writing skills and make your stories even better.