Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Guest Arlene James: It's Not About Balance

When discussing the “nuts and bolts” of the craft of writing, questions often arise about “balancing” dialogue, action, description and narrative. For me, however, it’s not really about balance. It’s more about “flow” and effect.

We live in a visual era. Most of us grew up watching television. We frequent movie theaters and own entire collections of DVDs. Our favorite books get spun into our favorite movies. Novels, like movies, are built scene by scene, so I frame each scene the way I might frame a shot in a movie. I give it context in the form of setting: broadly (site, season, day or night…) and also with significant detail (close up, i.e. room, furnishings, temperature, time…).

Every scene should consist primarily of dialogue and action. Descriptive detail is added as needed, as much as necessary to give the reader the pictures I want them to have, to create the effect I want. So, frame the immediate scene then bring in or show the actors, describing each as briefly as possible. The more central a character is to the story, the more details the reader will need about the character. (Note: Descriptions and details about some important characters, such as bad actors, or villains, are sometimes purposefully withheld as a design element of the novel. This requires deft handling to create suspense––again, creating effect––without making the reader feel cheated.)

Once some elements of description are established, they won’t need to be mentioned in detail again. In other words, once your readers have a good visual description of your characters, they won’t need complete descriptions again. Occasional reinforcement of certain details may be needed, but long descriptions can be saved for scene and costume changes.

In real life, not every scene or costume change is significant, but they can be, and in a novel, they should be. When a guy who routinely wears jeans and T-shirts starts showing up to everyday events in slacks and sport shirts, that could be newsworthy. Likewise, a woman who does something unexpectedly different with her hair should rate notice, and when a family who has gone to the same church every Sunday for years suddenly switches to another church that means something.

So it is with your characters; you should have good reasons for making changes in their appearances and locations. Make your readers aware of the significance of changes by describing those changes as soon as they happen. Moreover, make sure your characters notice significant changes and show your readers the significance of this with your description of those changes. When no significance exists, no description is necessary.

Let's make a point of clarity here. The significance may be that one of your characters notices a change, not that the change is made. For instance, certain men may not often notice what women wear unless they are particularly interested in or aware of a certain woman. Then suddenly those men find themselves noticing what she wears and how she looks in it. The novelist can communicate this to the reader via description. Perhaps a character is out of place, a stranger in unfamiliar surroundings. He or she will notice all sorts of things in an attempt to find safe or common ground. Again, this is communicated to the reader through pertinent description. Are you seeing the effect of this?

A great tool for the novelist is Point of View. It’s much easier to write from a specific POV than to film from a specific POV. Narrative is the big bonus here. Narrative is what books have that movies do not and really cannot. Even when movies make use of a narrator, they simply do not communicate the unspoken thoughts of the characters with the same internal intensity as the written word. Narration plays a part in description; in fact, it’s sometimes difficult to separate the two. It is also useful in transition, that necessary linkage between one scene and the next. Where I find narrative most useful, however, is in character introspection, which is so necessary in growing character arcs and establishing character goals and internal conflicts. That said, narration must be used sparingly and carefully. Otherwise, action is interrupted and the author becomes the focus rather than the character(s).

Now, back to “flow.” Build your scenes with dialogue and action. Frame them with setting. Sketch pictures for your readers with description. Open the minds of your characters through narrative. Be sure you transition from one scene to the next. (Hint: Transition begins in one scene and culminates in the following scene.) When you have all these elements together, be sure you craft each paragraph by varying the structure and length of sentences. Write for effect. Write for flow. One of the best ways to judge “flow,” is to read aloud what you have written. When you do, pay particular attention to punctuation.

Think of punctuation as traffic directors. A period represents a stop sign. A comma means pause or slow down. A semi-colon is a yield sign. A colon corresponds to a stoplight: a line of traffic is oncoming. An exclamation point is a honking horn! Dashes are set asides––pertinent but separate––like the buses that are allowed to break into a moving line of traffic. “Quotation marks,” my high school English teacher said, “can be called the ‘yellow cones of punctuation’ because they direct us to those words that are actually spoken.” What does a question mark do? Why, it forces us to shift gears.

Grammar is a significant tool for the author in achieving “flow.” In fiction, it is entirely permissible to break the rules of grammar in order to create effect, provided the writer knows exactly which rule(s) he or she is breaking.

Writing that flows effortlessly when read aloud, flows effortlessly when read silently; such writing pulls the reader into the story and holds him or her to the end. When the writing flows, the effect desired by the author is created for the reader and issues of “balance” are nonexistent, regardless of the mixture of dialogue, action, description and narrative.

What elements of achieving “flow and effect” do you find most challenging?


If you’d like to be entered in a drawing for a copy of Arlene's “Carbon Copy Cowboy,” please mention it in the comments section--then watch our Weekend Edition for the winner!

ABOUT ARLENE: Deborah Rather writes as ARLENE JAMES and is the author of more than 75 novels. Publishing steadily for three decades, she has concentrated on Inspirational Romance for several years. She loves providing her readers with uplifting stories of true love as God has ordained it. She and her husband, artist James E. Rather, have traveled extensively and live in northwest Arkansas, near the two brightest granddaughters in the world.

“Carbon Copy Cowboy” is Book #3 in the new 6-book Harlequin Love Inspired "Texas Twins" series. (Followed by Seeker Glynna Kaye’s book #4, “Look Alike Lawman!”)

Amnesiac Bride. An injured woman in a wedding veil on Jack Colby’s ranch property? Jack has no idea who she is—and neither does she. “Kendra” doesn’t know her name, what the veil is all about or where she belongs. And since Jack’s entire life changed with the unwelcome discovery of a twin brother, he’s not in the mood for secrets or surprises. Like finding out that Kendra might be spoken for. Yet even as she helps him open his heart to his family, he finds himself praying for the opportunity to make new memories.

“Texas Twins.” Two sets of twins, torn apart by family secrets find their way home.


  1. Thank you, Arlene for speaking of flow. It's something a publishing committee said my manuscript needs.

  2. I love the explanation on punctuation. What a neat way to think about those little and oh-so-necessary pieces of writing. Traffic directors. And reading things aloud to check for flow is so effective. Thank you for a great post, Arlene.

    On another note, in a moment of braveness--or insanity, I'm not sure which--I submitted an entry to the Melody of Love contest that Mary Virginia posted about on Facebook. The only other writing contest I've entered was the Query Letter contest Seekerville hosted that got my manuscript in front of Melissa Endlich. So, when morning comes and I realize what I've done in the dark of night, I think I'm gonna be a little nervous. Make that a LOT nervous. As Piglet would say, "Oh, dear!"

  3. Great info here, Arlene, and lots OF it. Thank you so much.

    Seeing's as to how my Daddy is a Texan and a twin, yes please! Do enter me!

    Y'all have a wonderful day!

  4. Clari, yay for you girl!

    Arlene, I really liked this post. Especially "Descriptive detail is added as needed, as much as necessary to give the reader the pictures I want them to have, to create the effect I want."

    On a side note, I tried the pray in color tonight for the first time. It was really moving. Thank you, Jeanne T for sharing that with us.

  5. I love this TWIN series! What a great, fun idea for a continuity. It's just enough "out there" to be totally fun fiction with romantic bite. Kudos, Love Inspired!

    Arlene, welcome to Seekerville! I brought coffee to start the day and a new season in WNY... the BACK TO SCHOOL season! Oh joy in Mudville!!!


    Food's coming later, no sense lettin' it get cold. I'm low on Sternos, Tina was supposed to buy more but she was off researching some such or other. It is, always, all about HER.

    So, Arlene, your productivity is not only amazing, it's laudable. Kudos to you for a wonderful and ongoing career. You can probably hear me clapping up here in NYS!!!

    Clari!!!! So proud of you!!!! Happy dancing your courage! You rock!

  6. CLARI!! Yay for us! How can it go wrong??

    Oh, wait... Don't answer that. :)

    Hoenstly, there's no way to lose. We get feedback! And we get that contesting high that keep us checking our e-mail 20 times a day near the deadline.

  7. Arlene, I loved this post.

    You hear a lot about beats and backstory and pacing, but this was a new one for me. Flow.

    And the description point was really well put. Somethign good writers know but new writers have a hard time seeing without help.

    Thanks for the great post!

  8. Hi Arlene, I would love to be entered for your book. I love the first book in the series and want to read the rest of the series.

    Im to tired to think right now. (someone isn't sleeping well and is so over tired its not funny) I dont have food but have flowers to share.

  9. Stopping by to say hello to Arlene, like those books you write and would love to have a copy of this one about the Carbon Cowboy, thanks for sharing.
    interesting post today and loved the comments about the punctuation marks-too cute.
    It is always fun to to check out Seekerville so you keep writing and I will keep reading.
    Paula )(kyflo130@yahoo.com)

  10. "Build your scenes with dialogue and action. Frame them with setting."

    Excellent, excellent advice. Thank you for your wise insight this morning.

  11. Good Morning, Arlene! What struck me most in what you shared this morning is to lay a foundation of action and dialogue, then work everything in around it as needed to round a scene out for the reader.

    Arlene is one of those writers who can make scenes come alive--and because of her Okahoma/Texas background, she can write of those areas so authentically. That's what first attracted me to her books in early 2008. That and the way she makes her settings and characters come alive.

  12. CLARI -- Congrats on garnering the courage to enter the contest! Objective feedback is so helpful on the publishing journey.

  13. Good morning Arlene, What a great article. Thanks for joining us here in Seekerville.

    I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of the series as they are leading up to one of my favorite authors, Glynna Kaye. Waving at Glynna.

    I'm with Clari in loving those traffic direction analogies for punctuation. That is going to help me out a lot.

  14. Hi Arlene,

    So much great information to absorb!

    I printing this out to savor later.


    PS I love that Texas Twins series idea. I have the first book, but haven't develed into it yet.

  15. Arlene -- I believe you're one of three authors still writing for Love Inspired who originally launched the series. Would you please tell us how that all came about? What changes have you seen in the line over the past 15 years?

  16. Wow, I've never heard of punctuation being used as to direct flow...but it sounds exactly right! What a great way to look at things. I'll be mentally filing this away. :-) Thanks!

  17. Jenny, thanks for the flowers, sweet thing!

    I love that Virginia admits to checking e-mail a bajillion times, LOL!

    You rock, Carmichael!

  18. Honk if you love Arlene!

    Great way of looking at punctuation. That's something I can remember. lol

  19. Clari, don't be skeert!

    It'll be fun. Kinda like your first ride on a rollercoaster...

    You're terrified, but so proud of yourself for being brave, you'll jump right on and do it again just to prove you can!

  20. Seekervillagers -- Which elements of achieving “flow and effect” do you find most challenging?

  21. Welcome to Seekerville, Arlene. Thanks for the terrific post on flow and effect!

    Love the cover of Carbon Copy Cowboy. And the peek at Amnesiac Bride.

    I brought chocolate cake. Weird for breakfast but yesterday was my birthday and I've got yummy leftovers.


  22. I've really been enjoying reading the Texas Twins books as they've come out--It's so fun to read Arlene's "Carbon Copy Cowboy" about MY hero's twin brother and the little gal who showed up on his ranch with amnesia. While all 6 authors of the series know the bare-bones story of each book, it's wonderful to see the characters fleshed out and coming alive!

  23. I was really struck by this sentence, Arlene, about too mucn narrative:
    action is interrupted and the author becomes the focus rather than the character

    The AUTHOR becomes the focus. That's so interesting. I don't think I've ever thought of it that way before. I've heard of author intrusion, but you put it in a better, more understandable way. Thanks.

  24. I know when I write an action scene, I just cannot get the flow right the first time.
    It's just amazing how much work it is to cut out the unnecessary asides that stop the flow of the action DEAD. It needs to be written, then re-written and re-written. I feel like I've been at it a while now and I still just can't do it right the first time.
    Once you ACCEPT that you can't do it right the first night it's a little easier to do it wrong, accept that it has to be down wrong before it can be fixed.

  25. NANCY, so glad you and the Lord had a great time praying in color. :) I've been doing that lots as I prepare for my first ACFW. :)

  26. Way to go, Clari! I did something similar on Friday by entering the Rattler (still shaking inside at that one). Hope all goes well for you and Virginia!

  27. Arlene, wow you packed so much good information in one post! Thank you! I'll have to read this one again. And again. Your points about dialog and action, about punctuation all hit home with me. You make it all so understandable. Thank you.

    GLYNNA--one of the tricks for me is not letting my characters spend too long in introspection. Trying to ramp up dialogue and action. Tough in some of my scenes.

  28. Welcome to Seekerville Arlene. (trying to fight off being stage struck that you are actually here!!!).

    What a huge treat.

  29. Hi, Arlene! Great post--so many right-on points!

    I'm sure you won't remember me, but we met a few years ago when you spoke at a WIN meeting in Tulsa. Just pulled out my notes from your talk, and one of the points you made is that stories need to be organic, not episodic. That idea fits very well with your thoughts today about flow.

    In your post you also said, "Hint: Transition begins in one scene and culminates in the following scene." Can you go into a little more detail about how that works?

  30. Sorry to be late chiming in here this morning. My prayer chain erupted early with a specific need that required a good deal of conversation. I would ask all of you to pray for the Eaggleston family.

    That done, let me say that I'm happy if something I've written has made sense to someone here. Now, I'll try to answer a specific question about transition.

    Transition between scenes literally begins in one scene, the prior scene, and is completed in the following scene. This is done intentionally by picking up a theme or idea in the prior scene and carrying it forward in the following scene.

    For instance, in the current (prior) scene, our heroine is thrilled that our hero asks her out to a romantic dinner that evening while they are babysitting his sister's kids that afternoon. In the following scene, his sister and brother-in-law come in screaming at each other. Our hero's first thought is to get the kids away from the argument. He hates that he won't be able to take our heroine out to dinner, but the kids have to come first.

    The transition from scene to scene is complete. We've gone from babysitting at the sister's house to taking the kids out and having our hero and heroine react to that new situation. We've used the anticipation of a romantic dinner and the scuttling of it as a means of transition.

    Make sense?

  31. As far as LI's origins goes, my first books for the line were books that I'd written for other lines. The editors were used to editing out all of the faith elements that I naturally wrote into my books, and they were aware that I had helped launch the old, defunct Silhouette Inspirations line, so when they decided the time was right to try another inspirational romance line, they asked to use some of my books. I was happy to see it, and I went with my editor to several early ACRW (before it became ACFW) and CBA meetings.

    I wish I could tell you that we were warmly greeted. We were not. Politely, yes. Warmly, no.

    There was an ugly incident on an elevator with a pair of well-known editors from a well-known publisher, all of whom will remain nameless, with whom my editor and I had not met. They loudly stated in that full elevator that God would not bless the Steeple Hill imprint because the editors were mostly (gasp) Catholic. I'm afraid I did not remain silent or make any friends that day.

    I'm happy to say, however, that God has blessed Steeple Hill, now just Love Inspired, and me personally.

  32. Welcome, Deb!! So glad to have you with us today. I've loved your books for years, from back when I used to subscribe to Special Edition! :)

    A great post. And something I need to work on with my scene openings. I often forget to anchor the reader. Thanks for reminding us to set the scene like in a movie!

  33. Glynna, I bet that would be fun to see your secondary character come to life in another story! :)

  34. WOW, Arlene, EXCELLENT blog today!! And WELCOME TO SEEKERVILLE!!

    YOU SAID: " Build your scenes with dialogue and action. Frame them with setting. Sketch pictures for your readers with description. Open the minds of your characters through narrative. Be sure you transition from one scene to the next."

    HOLY COW ... that's a writing course unto itself!!

    YOU ALSO SAID: "The more central a character is to the story, the more details the reader will need about the character."

    OH, AMEN TO THAT!!! I cannot tell you how many times I wander aimlessly through a novel wondering WHAT the heroine or hero looks like because these details aren't given in the beginning in a clear and distinctive manner!! Thanks for the excellent point AND blog!!


  35. Arlene,

    Such a beautiful blog post. Your exquisite writing style came through in the how-to, which had perfect "flow and effect." I heard a lyrical voice reading your words in my head, all so enchanting. Plus informative. Thank you!

    I'm so sorry about the prejudice you expereieced against Love Inspired/Steeple Hill. I thought the CBA's initial "coolness" toward SH/LI was due to its association with parent company Harlequin and not a religious intolerance.

  36. wow, a wealth of knowledge packed into the post. i will have to copy/paste this into a document for future review/aid.

    i would love a chance to win the book. what is it about twins that fascinate us so?

  37. Arlene:

    Thanks for such a clear, concise article. It's definitely one to print and keep.

    My copy of Carbon Copy Cowboy that you gave me in Springfield has not been read yet because it's waiting for my order of the preceding books to arrive. Surely no one expects me to read such a series OUT OF ORDER!

    Thanks for being here.


  38. No need to include me in drawing. Already read and loved Carbon Copy Cowboy. Can't wait for next installment in Texas Twins series.

    But this is great stuff. Flow. Dialogue and action. Description if significant.


  39. You're all so complimentary, and I've been reading so many of you for quite a while now. A lot of expertise here!

    Some prejudice against Harlequin still exists, as I'm sure you all know, but things change over time. I chose Silhouette originally because they were an American publisher, then Harlequin bought them out, and I wound up working for them anyway. LOL I'm happy and blessed, so I don't worry about it.

  40. Great thoughts Arlene. One of the things I struggle with is description, and how to balance it.

    Jodie Wolfe

  41. Arlene, your elevator experience is such a shame, but God's the one chuckling in the end.

    I think he just plain loves faith...

    and disregards denomination or lack thereof.

    And with 18 books/month now... and tens of thousands of EACH book sold...

    I'd say Steeple Hill/Love Inspired and God are having their say!

    I love being on board and I was one of those folks who didn't understand the need to be non-denominational but it didn't take me long to understand that we Christians still need a bit of work!

    I love what I'm doing for Love Inspired and thank you and so many others (including Joan Marlow Golan) for sticking their necks out... testing the waters.

    You guys will always have a special place in this New Yorker's heart.

  42. Great reminders, Arlene. Since I normally write non-fiction, I fall into the pit of losing my fiction voice and flow and the scary part is I don't realize it! Suddenly, my characters start talking like they're TV anchors reading the 6 0'clock news, lol.

    I'd love the chance to read your latest. Love me some cowboys!

  43. Thanks for sharing today. In my newest story my heroine is going to update her appearance when her teenage niece comes to live with her.

    I'll make sure that comes through in my story.

    Please enter my name in the contest.
    Jackie L.

  44. LOL, Lyndee, I love that line about characters speaking like TV anchors. Dialogue has its own issues. Too many authors do not realize that their characters speak exactly as their authors write. That's one of the great impediments to authentic characterization. We do not speak in complete sentences and perfect grammatical syntax. The rule when it comes to dialogue is that it must be understandable to the reader. It's your job to make certain that your reader doesn't get lost. Use enough grammar to make sure that doesn't happen. The same goes for dialogue tags. Use them to keep your readers from getting lost in a sea of dialogue. This is another place where reading aloud helps. If you're reading dialogue aloud and you keep stumbling over the line, then it needs revision. I used to have an English teacher who believed that if you couldn't whisper it, shout it, weep it or giggle it believably, then you hadn't written it correctly. I learned more from that gentleman than any other teacher I've ever known.

  45. So much to learn today! Thank you for such a great lesson. Dialogue and action makes scene building seem less overwhelming.
    I would love to be in the drawing for Carbon Copy Cowboy!

  46. Arlene, thanks for the additional direction on dialogue. The sad part about my 'TV anchor spewing' characters is I write historical - no radio or TV in the era! You're input is great. Thanks.

  47. 'Your' input...Typo city here today. I'm rushing.

  48. I'm laughing hysterically over the punctuation paragraph because I'm a honker!!!!!!!!! Notice the exclamation marks? Sigh -- I love those little honking horns! One just never seems enough!!!!! Love that visual of how puntuation can help the flow of a story.

  49. Scenery is challenging for me. I never include it in the first draft and it never seems to flow when I add it. Any good book or course recommendations for writing scenery?

    Thanks for your post today!

  50. I love to write scenery and always have to cut it to the minimum, so I'm not a good one to ask about how to spur interest in it. My best advice is to think long movie shots. Star Wars used scenery so well, all those sand dunes and Death Stars and gathering troops... Think about those long shots and about how you would frame a long shot for your scene. Give your readers a taste of that.

  51. Thanks for visiting us, Arlene! Lots of great information. It's a keeper.

  52. I'm definitely in for the book.

    I can do dialogue and movement but I find setting the scene beyond movement to be a challenge.

  53. Thanks for letting me visit, gang.
    Bless you for reading my books and for being so supportive of each other. I'm sure you won't forget Glynna's TX Twin book next month. :) Keep entering those contests!

    Meanwhile, I have books waiting to go out...

  54. Very interesting thank you.

    I would love to read CARBON COPY COWBOY thanks.

  55. Would love to win your book" Carbon Copy Cowboy"

  56. Arlene -- Thanks so much for a meaty post! Lots to think about and apply to our own work! I really enjoyed working with you on the "Texas Twins" series!! I'm getting reader emails already who are enthusiastic about the series and enjoying trying to figure out the ongoing mysteries!

  57. Arlene -- Thanks so much for a meaty post! Lots to think about and apply to our own work! I really enjoyed working with you on the "Texas Twins" series!! I'm getting reader emails already who are enthusiastic about the series and enjoying trying to figure out the ongoing mysteries!