Etudes for Writers, #2: A Fine Balance

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series For Writers

At Clarion West, our instructor–one of my favorite authors, the brilliant Maureen F. McHugh–suggested an idea to our class that seemed, when I heard it, to be self-evidently logical and obvious… except of course I’d never heard it stated explicitly before, or thought of it myself, and when she suggested it, my mind was also blown (to tiny bits, yes).

We were discussing one of my classmates’ stories (one by this guy, and outstanding writer I must say, and  no relation to Maureen…). The story was very worldbuilding-heavy, and the plot was a little convoluted, and even the SF junkies in the class found it a little hard going.

(For those who don’t know the term, in SF-writing circles “worldbuilding” refers the fabulation–the imaginary construction–of a fictional world unlike ours, or the amount of verbiage spent in a story on bringing that imagined world to life. Stories that depict worlds radically different from ours, which require lots of details and description, or invented terminology, or other imaginary world stuff–are worldbuilding-heavy. Stories set in worlds relatively like ours, with maybe one thing added–a new technology, or magic, or unicorns, or a new scientific discovery–are light on the worldbuilding.)

Maureen suggested that maybe worldbuilding and plot complexity need to be held in a kind of dynamic equilibrium–along the lines of an inverse proportion (or something like an inverse proportion) between how involved your worldbuilding is, and how convoluted your plot can become.

Now, if you look at the link on “dynamic equilibrium” you’ll notice something important: hen used in the sense common in chemistry, we see this sort of equilibrium when “reactions occur at such rates that the composition of the mixture does not change with time. Reactions do in fact occur, sometimes vigorously, but to such an extent that changes in composition cannot be observed.”

Well, this isn’t a perfect analogy, but there is one thing that does not change: the complexity of the story.

To put it simply, every story can have up to a certain amount of total complexity, which we’ll just call total complexity Level X. If you make changes to the amount of complexity (or, in other words, difficulty for the reader) in one area, you need to compensate by reducing the complexity in the other area. When an author writes a story that increases the total complexity (and thus total reader difficulty) along both axes, without any compensation in either direction, what you get is a much more challenging, complex (ie. difficult) text… and as a text’s difficulty rises, the demand for the payoff increases.

You can do push the complexity in both directions, and write really difficult stories, of course. One of my favorite novel/story collections of the noughts–Accelerando by Charles Stross–does exactly this and I love it for that. If you’re able to make the work pay off, that is, to make readers feel as if it is worth it to slog through the nested difficulties, then you can dial everything up to 11.

But especially in short stories, balance of some sort is far more usual, and not only that: it’s evident in most professional-level fiction… including most of the stories of Stross. I’d argue that this kind of balance is crucial if you want to be producing saleable stories that readers will be excited to read.

Still, how you achieve that balance is up to you. For example, you might choose to write a story that emphasizes worldbuilding… which is fine, as long as you use a relatively simpler or more familiar plot-type (of the familiar sort: a heist-gone-wrong, a love story, a revenge-story):

A Worldbuilding-Heavy Story.

Or you might simplify the worldbuilding so that you can explore a really complex plot, full of twists and turns that won’t be lost on a reader struggling to understand how the economics or the magic system work in your imagined alternate-world. While in a novel, you could just add on length to work in both, within the confines of a short story, you’re going to need to scale back the worldbuilding so that the plot is actually comprehensible, like so:

A Plot-Convolution-Heavy Story

Other levels of balance are possible, of course… as long as you carefully balance it so that everything adds up to roughly 100:


(This is something my most recently-published short story, “The Bernoulli War,” doesn’t do… which I think is why it got less attention than I expected, despite appearing in a pretty respectable publication.)

Conversely, if you are working on a story and the plot seems a little thin, it may be that the solution is not to complexify the plot. Perhaps, you could work a little harder on the worldbuilding–or somethin else.

And that last phrase is where the following etude comes from. After all, stories have more axes of complexity than just two: there’s more to a story than just worldbuilding vs. plot complexity, right?

It makes sense to consider the more complex, and difficult, dynamic equilibrium that authors maintain between a whole set of aspects of a given story…

I seem to be using cooking and food analogies a lot these days, but anyway, I’ll go with it. There are five or six (or more) basic taste variables that go into cooking. The standard ones we learn in school for taste are sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, but there’s also spicy and “umami” (ie. savory).

For the sake of simplicity, however, I kept it to five in the examples below: the four standard ones, plus spicy.

Now, if you’re making sweet and sour sauce, you want to balance the sweet and the sour; you don’t want crazy saltiness, or overwhelming bitterness: you’re emphasizing two flavor characteristics, and the rest should be minimal:


This is Hot and Sour Soup:

graph (1)

Those foods are balanced… that is, they maintain a balanced dynamic equilibrium of flavor character, it’s just that the majority of the flavor character is concentrated in a couple of the variables, and the rest are scaled back.

It’s important to note that I’m not talking about an equilibrium or a balance of this kind:

graph (3)


One does not succeed in the kitchen by trying to make one’s food have “all the tastes” at once. Nor are the following particularly useful balances to achieve:

graph (5)

The above is flavorless–note the scale: everything is a 1 (out of, say, the 100 that we’ve been using above). Too little of any particular flavor character is not interesting, which is why chicken breast boiled for three hours in plain water is enjoyed by nobody.

So balance isn’t about a nice geometric shape: nice geometric shapes, on this spider chart, equal blandness. You want something spiky, something uneven and angular to some degree; something that looks unbalanced on the chart. That’s what will give your food (and your story) some character and particularity that makes it appealing. Balance isn’t a function of the shape, but of the total surface area you plot within your spiky shape. As long as everything adds up to 100, you’re balanced, you’re good.

Likewise, if you’re only working in complexity along one of the axes, like this:

graph (7)… then what what you’re doing is not so much cooking as you are, well… we’ve all had those hot wings that have no flavor, just insane levels of spiciness. They’re not good. (Even sour candies are more than the above: they’re sour and sweet at the same time.)

I think all of this can be applied to the dynamic equilibrium writers need to achieve in short stories, too. Let’s take, for example, the following spider chart of characteristics:

graph (9)

(Note: this is a tentative example. Later on, I’ll provide a link to a site where you can make an alternate spider chart of your own, when you carry out this exercise. Let’s just use this for now. )

You’ll notice that I’ve included five specific components of genre fiction:

  • complexity of worldbuilding
  • depth of characterization
  • pace of action
  • plot complexity
  • density of prose

I propose that all five of these components must be held in the same kind of dynamic equilibrium discussed above, at least for a short story to function effectively.

Your story could be heavy on the worldbuilding, but with some decent characterization and action: graph (10)


Or it could be primarily character-driven, with much of the remaining complexity taking place in the language you use t tell the story–the sort of short story that, in genre circles, people sometimes describe as “almost mainstream,” though there’s room for a little worldbuilding and of course some action–something has to happen in the story, after all. graph (11)

Again, don’t mistake the following–graph (12)


— for balance. It’s not. It’s bland, characterless, and probably uninteresting. This is not what I mean by balance.

Likewise, going too far in the other direction, emphasize only one component of story, like this:

graph (13)

… and you’re not really writing stories anymore. If all you do is worldbuilding (that’s where the orange line is in this image, though it’s mostly hidden behind the numbers that mark the graph’s scale), then you’re not writing a story, you’re doing writing prep… or maybe writing supplements for an RPG game or something.

Okay, so: Etude time.

There are several possible etudes you could do with this chart and paradigm. (I recommend trying them all.)

  1. As an Analytical Tool: You could analyze a work that you think is particularly successfully, attempting to graph the particular balance that an author seems to be building. While it’s probably very difficult to be objective, it could be a useful tool… and maybe you could devise a way of being relatively objective about it. As a supplement, you could thereafter undertake to write a scene or a story using this approximate balance, especially if it is not the balance you usually tend toward.
  2. As an Editing Tool: Take a piece of your writing and graph how you think the balance lies. (Assuming it is balanced. If it strikes you as unbalanced, graph the imbalance.) Now, chart some alternate possible balances you think would work for the story, or even just for a scene, and try writing the scene or story again using that balance.
  3. As an Experimental Tool: Chart the specific balance toward which you think you tend towards. (Ask your writer friends to likewise chart your tendencies, if you like; the results may surprise you.) Now, as an exercise, chart balances that differ radically from this, and force yourself to write scenes, flash stories, or even full short stories striking those unfamiliar, less-instinctive balances. Continue daily–perhaps drafting one scene of a story as warmup to your regular writing session–until the new balance seems comfortable. Then chart another unfamiliar balance, and work that one till it becomes familiar. Think of it as playing the more difficult scales or arpeggios on your (mental) instrument.

Note: there’s nothing saying this balance needs to stay steady throughout. In fact, a hallmark of good writing is that it shifts smoothly from one mode to another, according to a rhythm dictated by the piece. From one scene (or chapter, or section) to another, the particular balance of a work may shift. It’s probably a good idea to bear in mind overall balance may not be the same as the particular balance struck in this or that specific scene of a work.

Likewise, if you really want to be rigorous about it, you might consider graphing a few balances, none of them radically different from one another, and using them to guide you in drafting successive scenes with slightly different balances.

Or maybe, at that point, you’ll have done enough of this to be better able to play it by ear.

By the way, here’s a copy of a blank graph of story characteristics (downloadable PDF), though you can create your own over at this website. (Or one of the dozens of others online. This site  is just the one I used to make the example charts for this post. Either way, you’ll want to use the “Radar” chart option… or  maybe a “spider chart” option, if there is one on whatever site you end up using.)

Creating your own allows you to add in story components I didn’t discuss, such as, say, metareferentiality (riffs on popular culture or other works in the genre, for example), or comedy, or abstraction. You can also plot different balances and output complete, pretty graphs to use for your own reference, or to attach to the completed exercises for your own reference, or the reference of your crit group if you end up submitting the completed etudes for discussion.

As always, I’d love to hear more about your results with this etude.

That’s all for now!

Series Navigation<< Writing Etude #1: Having Pieces Left Over In Your HandEtudes for Writers, #2.1 >>

8 thoughts on “Etudes for Writers, #2: A Fine Balance

  1. Good stuff. Keep it up and the inspiration you provide may even be enough to overcome the inertia of my inactivity in terms of writing fiction.

    1. Thanks. I’ll be exploring more such ideas, though I don’t know how regularly I’ll come up with ones that crystallize things like this one… I’m kind of in shock I’ve never seen this before anywhere…

  2. Hmm. So are you saying is that a good work shouldn’t look like the perfect pentagon? It’s what I personally think, anyway.

    1. Yea, I am saying that, like good food, good work doesn’t try to be everything at once: instead, it is characterful. It chooses a couple of areas to emphasize and to characterize it, and everything else is masterefully but invisibly handled. It commits to something and follows it through. (The chili says, “I’m going to be savory and spicy!” The mango salsa commits to being sweet and spicy, with a touch of lime acidity. A good smoked meat goes for smoky and savory, and isn’t equally salty to its smokiness.) The particular character of a work is determined by the partiular emphases, while quality or success of the work is determined by how effectively the author manages balancing everything… or, masterfully, breaking that balance. (Ezra Pound is an example, or I would argue he is, of someone who breaks the balance. A friend suggested Pynchon as another example.)

      This is how I could argue that, say, Tarantino’s films are “balanced” and “successful” even if they seem on viewing to be crazily unbalanced and out of whack and nuts — or, at least, Kill Bill often did, much as I enjoyed it. In fact, it might be a useful warm-up exercise for someone to pick a few films they love, and plot the balance that comes to mind overall… and then look scene by scene and see how they generally compare to the overall balance. (Short stories, like short films, probably maintain one general balance while longer texts and films would shift more, perhaps following a general trend from one to another, or suddenly transferring from one to another.)

      1. Ooh! And you can stack different shapes on each other, then flip temporally through each layer like you’re looking at a CT scan! Or you can look at all the layers at once and see what the three-dimensional shape looks like! This is one way of looking at narrative evolution that I haven’t thought of. Thanks!

        1. Yeah, I was thinking the same thing earlier and wondering if it might be possible to set up some kind of morphing animation thingie. That would be cool… but no particular software comes to mind…

  3. This was really great. If you had asked me to draw out the perfect story on that before reading this, I probably would have drawn mostly a pentagon. It’s almost a relief to know you don’t necessarily have to do every single thing.

    Now I’m thinking about how some markets strongly prefer work balanced in specific ways.

    1. Thanks! I was surprised to realize this too, though I figured it out with cooking and music first, and then with stories. (Funny how much of one thing maps onto another.)

      Actually, two things, both expressible in the same phrase:

      Yeah, I’d say there are probably lots of shapes to a “perfect” story.

      I mean that:

      1. A “perfect” story could do any couple or three of those things well. You don’t have to do everything: you have to do a reasonable number of things, reasonably well.

      (At least for short stories. We discussed how it seems more common to see successful novels where everything is cranked up to 11. But that’s a different problem set, though I think using this etude as a multi-stage drafting method can be helpful. Or so it was suggested in our discussion of the etude today.)

      And 2, I think the thing that came up in my exchange with Anne is really pertinent. It’s a point that Gerald Graff makes regarding tonal shifts in academic writing somewhere in his excellent book on how academia is letting down university kids (and society), Clueless in Academe.(He basically says that good academic writing shifts in tone and diction, occasionally breaking away from the jargon and big words to break things down, or summarize, in simpler language, just often enough to give a kind of, well, I think of it as cognitive phrasing, to help the reader digest the concepts and ideas and the content more generally.) It’s true in writing too: this dynamic equilibrium can be extremely fluid and dynamic, and the virtuosity involved in that allows you to do things you otherwise couldn’t.

      So any well-written story would have a certain degree of fluctuation in its shape, not just section by section but, I’d say (in places) even line by line. It flows, in a way that graphing might be impracticable. So there are, ahem, a lot of shapes in a perfect story.

      The best musical analogy in my head right now being this tune (probably because I’m practicing it a lot these days).

      Even just in the head–the bit that’s written out before they start playing, before and after the solos–there’s an amazing variety of dynamics (loud vs. soft), of range (high vs. low), tones (breathy and understated versus loud and brash), and so on… and the saxophone solo emphasizes contrasts of all kinds of other contrasts too: long notes followed by super-short clipped ones, bright notes and dark ones, and so on… quite challenging to get your head wrapped around doing it in the spots he sets them up.

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