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The Accordion Effect In Stories

 by Niki Kantzios |  posted in: Editing & RevisionWriting Craft 

Used with permission from Niki Kantzios and Florida Writers Association from their blog on December 20, 2019

A novel (with the possible exception of some experimental form) chronicles the unrolling of fictional events over time. But unlike the real world, where we have to live each instant as it comes, like it or not, the time within our story is not relentless clockwork. It’s rather more like an accordion: it expands and contracts as we, the author, need it to, the better to propel the plot and keep the reader engaged.

 

Imagine if we had to read a book unfolding in real time—it could take years of our life, even centuries!

The accordion effect

Instead, time in the novel is like an accordion: it can shrink or expand at our authorial bidding. The rule of thumb is to show in detail parts that are more important and summarize those that are not. But this can be trickier than it sounds, and requires a sort of instinct. Fortunately, this can be developed. And an editor will spot infractions immediately.

You’ve probably sensed in books you’ve read places where the old accordion was breathing out when it should have breathed in. Those are the place we tend to skip over.

Breathing in

This is all about trusting your reader to pick things up without hammering them home. Too much description of unimportant things or people? Yes, it’s possible. Remember Chekhov’s dictum that if you depict a gun on the mantel it had better turn out to be critical to the story. Long-winded monologues? Get on with the good stuff. Repetition of (reported) conversations in order to inform another character of what was said? You may need to pull out the pruning shears, because the reader already knows all that. Pet phrases, little truths you really want the reader to understand, even tags and beats that keep turning up and up until they’re redundant—breathe in, fellow writers. Shrink them down or remove altogether.

 

Readers are smart; they tend to get things on the first bounce. Especially in a novel that covers a long period of time, you’re going to have to hit the high spots and leave out the rest.

 

Breathe out

On the other hand, it’s possible to be too laconic. Situations and relationships need sufficient explanation or they lose their punch and leave the reader nonplussed—unless they are part of a mystery to be revealed. Long dialogues with insufficient beats and tags may make readers wonder what the speaker means. It’s like email: without seeing your interlocutor’s face, you’re not always sure whether they are annoyed, snide, sincere, happy, or ambivalent. Think of all the ways a person might say, “Oh, that’s nice.” Cue the emojis! But in a novel, we don’t have the luxury of little pictures, so tell us.

 

Important scenes of confrontation, discovery, battle, suspense need to be developed deeply. Actions vital to the plot tend to be more important than reflections, except possibly in literary novels. Lingering lovingly on the pivotal moments of your story will let readers know that this information is important, and it will satisfy their desire to be immersed in your emotional world. Breathe out.

 

Let the polka begin!

I hope that helps to see how the contracting or expanding of time in our stories contributes to a tight but rich whole. Tell everything you need to, but nothing you don’t need to. Some moments are more important than others, so don’t lavish the same detail on everything. Some conversations can be “told” in summary, others need to be “shown” before our eyes. In and out, like an accordion.

Niki's Bio as shown on the Florida Writers Association blog

Niki Kantzios is an archaeologist who has taught ancient history and humanities at the college level for many years. Under the pen name N.L. Holmes, she is the author of eight novels set in the Bronze Age. With her husband, she splits her time between Florida and northern France.