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I have learned over the past fifteen months of writing fiction that every scene needs to have tension and advance the plot.

This is good. But, I find that as I read my novel (again and again) to identify and address weaknesses, I become sort of... overloaded on any given day. Like the advancement of each scene is another chunk I carry forward. It is advancement, make no mistake. Each scene provides another puzzle piece or resolution, another mystery solved or twist.

Another chunk.

(Edit: To clarify: these plot advancements are not all thrills and death. Some are cementing a friendship that needs to be cemented, or reaching a personal goal to address/overcome the 'shadow' of the protagonist. They advance the plot. That does not mean that they are fights or what not.)

It's hard for me to read (and edit) more than about eight chapters of my novel at a go. But those eight chapters are solid, and the next day I'm ready to edit eight more. The edits are word smithing--I think all the structural stuff is solid.

So the question is: Why do I feel 'full' when reading/editing eight chapters on a given day? On the one hand this makes sense to me because those eight chapters (about 12 scenes) has twelve plot advancements. On the other hand, I believe we are aiming for page-turners. Should I be concerned that after eight chapters on any day I am sort of ... 'full?'

Another way to ask this is: Is the goal that a reader should be able to page-turn the entire novel at one go? And if not, what page-count is the target? I know that sounds stupid. I trust you to grok the sentiment.

Additional edit, there are exactly two 'fight' scenes in the entire novel, and one death scene. This is not a hollywood action film--that's not what I am saying.

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    Editing and reading are two very different tasks. This is a time when you need new eyeballs on your novel to answer these questions. There is no formula. – Cyn says make Monica whole Dec 15 '18 at 20:17
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I'd like to agree with @Rasdashan and add that most books marketed as page turners and which indeed live up to their reputation become boring to read (at least, for me). If the reader is constantly running from one dizzying fast scene into the next, then the thrill becomes constant and, like most everything that is constant, it becomes banal and unthrilling.

On the other hand, I'd suggest some soul searching. How many of the books you read are constant page turners? Or are they mostly impossible to stop for a few chapters and then there's a break and you put it down for a break with a sigh of satisfaction?

In the same vein, are you the type of a reader that can sit for ten hours straight reading (with grudging meal and toilet breaks)? If you're not, then no matter how much of a page turner your novel is, you'll always reach a point when you'll be fed up. It's only natural.

Lastly, a great novel does not have to be a page turner. Some are better read a few chapters at a time, so don't take the 'page turner' advice radically.


EDIT in response to the OP's edit

While I did assume your novel was an action tale, I'd like to point out that a fast scene doesn't have to be about fights and life-or-death thrills: a sequence of dramatic scenes can cause the same effect.

If the the MC is under pressure, running from home to work, difficult meeting, and then school phones in because one of the kids got into a fight, then take the kids to their practice, take the chance to talk about the school fight, then take the kids home, cook dinner while the kids bicker... if the MC keeps running from scene to scene, from plot point to plot point, then the novel may be too fast paced. The MC has no time to breathe and neither does the reader.

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It depends

If your novel is a three hundred page work, you might want the reader to read cover to cover in one sitting. Longer books are a different experience. Reading eight chapters a day (depending on length) can be quite reasonable. If they are short chapters and you are becoming sated early, perhaps a few scenes where little happens might help with that by giving you a chance to rest.

I am using a somewhat different technique. I include scenes where little happens and my characters can rest a bit and be rather than do. The rhythm that has evolved in my novel is one where the pace alters from very rapid to calm and peaceful, much like a river whose banks periodically constrict its flow. This will have one of two results; readers will either skip ahead to the ‘good parts’ or be able to relax with the character.

My scenes have a purpose, but it is like music - notes followed by rests and the notes varying the pace.

I have noticed that many great novels have a rhythm and flow to them that keeps me hooked. While I rarely finish a novel in one sitting (I like to savour a good read) I am always loath to put it down and eager to resume reading.

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There is a maximum amount of time your brain can work efficiently on one day. It seems that daily maximum effective work duration is somewhere between 3 and 6 hours, depending probably on the person and the task. Most professional writers have learned their own personal limit, which is why authors like Hemingway report working only for four or five hours in the mornings, and then replenishing their mental energy in the afternoons.

What you experience is nothing more mysterious than

mental fatigue

and all you need to do is to allow yourself sufficient time to recover from the cognitive work of revising your novel.

Keep in mind also that revising is much more exhausting than writing, because it requires a more rigorous concentration on difficult stylistic choices and provides less creative flow, so you shouldn't be surprised if revising tires you more quickly.


Answer before the question was edited

Research on bestselling fiction shows that books sell best if they provide regular breaks from life-threatening danger both to the protagonist and to the reader.

You can see this most readily in Hollywood movies. No matter how difficult and perilous the lives of the heroes are, they always find moments where they can sit and talk, sleep, or cuddle and make love.

This is important both for the human closeness topic that readers need to care for the protagonists and their story and so the constant thrill doesn't blunt the reader's sensibilities. Think of real people who live in permanent stress: their emotions become shallow (e.g. depression) and their empathy becomes dead (PTSD). You don't want to stress and shock your readers to the point of shutting down emotionally.

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There is a balance, yes, and not just in things we literally read. In TV, there's a balance between continual and nonexistent OMG moments. The series 24 is a good case study. For the unfamiliar, each season comprises 24 episodes, each covering an hour in real time in an in-universe day. (For the first 8 seasons, anyway. They did two half-series later whose format is a little different.) Pacing was especially make-or-break for them, because it could simultaneously distress readers (with either overload or boredom) and make you think "are events unfolding over a sensible timescale?"

The first two seasons, and to a lesser extent the third and a much lesser extent the fourth, knew that a plot point could take several episodes to fully explore. When Jack Bauer learns someone wants to kill David Palmer, it takes 8 hours before the first attempt on the man's life, and the next one takes almost another 15, if memory serves. Series 5 was kind of a mixed bag in terms of how quickly you had to take on new things. But then we get to the very unpopular series 6. Pretty much every criticism of it that I've read boils down to "they recycled many plot points from earlier seasons", but they definitely had some new ideas. The problem was they'd gotten so quick-paced at this point they had to dilute the novel content with things we'd seen before.

A writers' strike delayed season 7, and the showmakers decided to round up the delay to a full year, which had a number of side-effects. For one, they planned the season's course in advance much more thoroughly than they ever could before. For another, it gave them a soft reboot opportunity that showed itself most clearly in the switch from fictional department CTU to the FBI. But even with this and the extra thinking time, the go-fast and recycle problems of season 6 were still present to an extent. So I don't want you thinking that, as long as you're writing something over than a sequel, you won't put in too much and make it hit and miss. The real problem, I think, was never the plot recycling at all; it was the plot overload. It was just easy to blame the recycling when reviewing season 6, because most fans, who haven't spent much time thinking about the writing craft, couldn't put their finger on the problem.

I could go into more detail about how the writers got themselves into such a mess, but I want to focus on your situation. I wouldn't go so far as to say you always need to try having fewer plot points. It's not even that, when asking yourself why you're adding another one, "Because not enough's going on" is a bad answer. (But you do have to really believe that with respect to your story, not just try to follow the crowd in making stories crowded.) It's that each individual point needs a certain amount of breathing space. If you put in too many, there isn't room for them all; and a point that doesn't have enough room should either leave altogether, or get it back from something else leaving.

Suppose I could rewrite 24 season 6 to fix what they did wrong. I'd slow down the terrorists' timetable with nuclear technology, so their technician didn't die in an impromptu blast used to prevent capture of the first bomb (they had 5), which would cut a plot concerning how they replaced him. To make room for that, I'd cut some civil rights scenes and the first subplot involving Russians. That would have knock-on simplifying effects on the involvement of Bauer's family, which would allow Jack's brother to last longer. And I do have some other ideas, but I'm worried I'd either go too far the other way (because I'm not clear what we'd gain from such pruning either) or leave us with not enough material for 24 episodes. If you want to get the balance right, pruning requires as much why-does-this-story-need-it consideration as does adding a plot point. How big does each one need to be?

  • I like this answer, but it is less that my novel has too much going on, and more that I killed darlings that added nothing. The scenes that were me simply 'discovering the world.' It seems like people are interpreting my question as referring to a bang-bang-bang novel. It's less that and more that I cut the dead weight. ("Why are we sipping tea and gazing out the window?") – DPT Dec 15 '18 at 22:59
  • It is sort of like I cannot hold three weeks in my mind in a single day. It's like that. – DPT Dec 15 '18 at 23:01
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    @DPT In terms of my answer, I'd say the reason removing those discovery scenes was a mistake (if it was one) is because they actually were a part of how a plot point was fleshed out, and it needed them and now they're gone. For example, an "I want" scene fleshes out a very important kind of plot point that you might not realise is one, such as the catalyst. – J.G. Dec 15 '18 at 23:07
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Yes, the goal is to make them want to read the whole novel at a sitting.

You may be tiring because you are reading analytically to find words to smith, and because you already know the story and how each scene turns out.

What makes a story a page-turner is the reader wants to know what happens next, literally in the next page or two, and constantly.

So reading another page or two seems like a small investment of their time, and they do it for the payoff, especially if your writing has been delivering on this pattern since early in the book. It isn't enough to just have a "plot advancement", it must be an advancement that the reader has been waiting for.

So as a reader, I come to the end of some page, and I have to decide if I am going to bed. Now as an author you don't have complete control of where the pages end (save chapter breaks), but say my page ends with character A telling character B what her plan of attack is going to be. Okay, I can go to bed, and pick this up tomorrow.

But say instead my page ends in the middle of a disagreement between character A and character B. I want to see how this micro-drama turns out, so I turn the page, because how long is that going to take?

So the best compliment I have received on a book from a beta reader is "I read it cover to cover, in one sitting."

In contrast, the feedback I have on my most recently "completed" work (different beta reader) is "I can't wait to see how it turns out, but the pace is killing me [too slow]." So, I am likely not completely completed. The tension is there, I don't think I need to cut any story elements, but I'm not delivering on it quickly enough. That means I probably need to be more ruthless with some of my darlings, some exposition or unnecessary dialogue or side-character descriptions.

Without creating more work for you, I think you already know how every scene turns out. At the end of every "resolution" (perhaps what you call a plot advancement), ask yourself, Why does the reader want/need to start the next scene?

You have resolved one unknown, something else needs to take its place; how have you primed them so they really want to see what is next? Solving "A" means you can now solve "B", or whatever. You can have short, medium and long term outstanding tensions, removing one should create another or increase the tension on something outstanding.

If you are switching characters and have finished the chapter on Barb, and it is time for the chapter from Charlie's POV, I hope you left her in trouble: That can also be the reason to turn the page.

On revision, part of the job, even in a solid story, is to figure out how to remind the reader of things they will want to see resolved. They don't have to be game changers, but what they want to know next is what pulls them through the story and keeps them turning pages.

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