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When writing a story, how do you find a good balance between the significance of different elements, such as plot, themes, and bold settings and characters, and the character arcs?

In my case I have a great setting for a minor part of the book, and it is threatening to become much more significant in the mind of the reader than I had intended, imposing its own themes and emotional significance, but I don't want to lose the color it brings to the story.

I am writing a historical novel in which, currently, most of the story takes place in one country (England), significant backstory is set in a second (British Guiana), and significant plot developments happen in a third (France). The British Guiana backstory provides a significant catalyst for why my protagonists meet and get together (he's a naturalist who explores the rainforest there, she lived there in her childhood and attends his lecture about it), and it flavors a lot of the rest of the story and provides a few minor plot elements, but never becomes relevant again as a destination or setting.

I'm new to creative writing, but my instincts are telling me the balance between setting, theme, and character arcs is off. I'd like to give a satisfying ending to those two character arcs. The beginning of the story implicitly emphasizes BG and travel as thematically important because it's a point of connection for the main characters and their families. However, the plot and resolution force the characters to stay in England for the foreseeable future (because of what happens in France), and thus they must abandon any hope of both natural history expeditions and visiting BG. While the lack of further natural history adventures is acceptable and leads to character and plot development, the inability to reconnect with BG leaves me feeling let down, particularly for my female protagonist, who is homesick and might have reasonably expected to travel there with the naturalist. It's an open emotional thread that needs a conclusion.

What needs to be changed to bring these elements into balance?

Thank you!

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    Hi wordsworth, welcome to writing.se! Take the tour and visit the help center for more information. Questions asking what to write, or for help with idea generation as off-topic here. It looks like you do have a valid question underneath though, you should edit it to focus on the pros-cons or your two solutions rather than asking for brainstorming. Good luck and happy writing! – linksassin Jul 17 at 0:57
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    Welcome. I think you have the makings of about 20 questions just in this one post. Could you please pick one, whatever seems most pressing to you and isn't something already asked on the site, and edit this post down to it? You can ask other questions later, don't worry. We want one question per post, not one per user. Thanks and enjoy your stay here. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jul 17 at 1:47
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    Thanks for editing. I'm afraid it's still way too long and complex. I mean that's great complexity for you in planning your story, but too much for a single question. I would try to make it 1/4 of the length and take out anything not vital for the question. It's all important stuff, just not for this particular post. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jul 17 at 2:36
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    This does feel like the sort of question (for now) that you'd throw to a writing group rather than a Q&A. If you want to shape it into more 'proper' questions, it may also help you to break down the issues yourself, first :) – Weckar E. Jul 17 at 2:39
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    Try to break up your question into multiple smaller questions. Don't look for the "best" question - ask one, then the answers will help guide you to the next one. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jul 17 at 9:44
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Finish what you start.

Your instincts are correct. The more weight you give an element, any element, the more readers are going to understand it as something that will be important later on.

But, that doesn't necessarily mean that if an element is important, then you're required to build a whole subplot around it and keep bringing it up again and again! Instead:

Start things in a way you can finish.

You've recognized that British Guiana is important; but you've got a lot of control of how and why it's important. What place it occupies in the story.

If you frame it as "back in the day"; if you don't open threads about characters or mysteries that stay firmly rooted there; then there will be less expectation to see it return. If the scenes there are focused on "This is how the characters meet," then that's the thread readers will want to see develop and close off.

Even better, you can use British Guiana as part of an ongoing story thread -- give it a clear role; make it feel like a continuing element -- but without needing to return there. Some examples:

  • The homesick character is a fantastic example: her homesickness might be the conflict, the tension, in that arc. And she can overcome it (or wallow in it; or find a new way to reconnect to her beloved country; etc. etc.) without ever returning. That gives you the sense of closure without sending your cast all over the globe.
  • You could start a mystery based in British Guiana, but solve it conclusively back in England.
  • You could give closure to the "move" from British Guiana to a new location, by cementing a character, a place, a community, a faction, as representing British Guiana in the new location. The homesick character; the embassy; an immigrant community. The element hasn't gone away; it's just adapted to the story.

Signal your scope.

Not all arcs stay open for the entire book.

If the British Guiana section concludes 1/3 of the way through -- that's fine; the book's moving from one "phase" of the story to another.

The trick, then, is to signal that this phase is over, and there's no waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Sometimes a few lines are enough:

"But that was then; this was now; and Myrcella wouldn't be returning to British Guiana again."

Sometimes it's in having a clear arc within the pocket-setting, that clearly concludes. No dangling strings. We enjoyed that but we're moving somewhere else now.

If the arc of "why my protagonists meet and get together" is clear enough, strong enough, has a distinct climax and resolution, then you very well may have solved your own problems. Readers may love the setting, but as long as you've kept it in service to the specific story, you won't have left them expecting more.

Balance is tricky and subjective.

You're quite right to worry that your story will come out unbalanced. But, you're going to have a lot of trouble figuring out yourself whether the balance is off, or just right. You're very close to the text; it's difficult to evaluate just how readers will perceive it, and different readers will have different reactions.

That's why it's important for me to conclude with another point of advice: Don't sweat it too much. Get things as good as you; as close as you can to feeling reasonable, even if far from perfect.

Then, get some beta readers.

They'll give you a crucial viewpoint on how well the balance is working, that will be more valuable and more on-point for your specific story.

(This isn't to say you shouldn't try and solve this yourself first -- you should! you know it bothers you! -- just that this is a problem which is very tricky to rely entirely on your own judgement for, and that's OK.)

Hope this helps, and all the best!

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Since it's an historical novel involving international politics, I'll assume that you can't change major events in the plot or Setting.

I'll try a Theme/Character example:

One setting (British Guiana) is talked about but never seen – except possibly in flashbacks. It represents something she's lost (childhood innocence? her family status?) and something he seeks (natural wisdom? escape from formality?).

Since it is the thing that brings them together, I'm imagining a Theme where they are looking for that missing piece of themselves in the other, and that missing piece is represented by a place they don't actually go to in the story. Hence the location represents something that isn't real, or is unobtainable.

Both of them idealize it in their minds, but it represents different ideals to them. When they go looking for the other person to fill the hole inside themselves, these things don't fit…, or maybe they do eventually, but you have something to drive a cross-communication in their relationship – something they'll have to work out before they can accept their reality, here and now, not an idealized fantasy of another time and place.

It doesn't have to be as melancholic as it sounds. They do bond over the subject and their mutual idealization. The "conflict" is that they are expecting the other to be something they aren't, and that could be a pleasant surprise. The arc could be in discovering how to let go of the fantasy in order to develop what's real.

It could also be a round-about way of the other turning out to be the thing they wanted, but in a form they wouldn't have recognized. For example if she associates BG with her family and childhood, ultimately he represents a new family, a fresh start. Likewise if he idealized BG as a source of natural wisdom or chaos, she might turn out to be a "civilizing" influence on him.

Excuse these obvious clichés. They are only meant to suggest how to use the location as a theme in their relationship.

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    +1 this is an excellent analysis of the story. – NofP Jul 17 at 23:34
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As I was trying to find my own answers, I thought for a while about changing my settings in order to satisfy the theme and characters. This wasn't working for my story because it was so difficult to find a new setting that could fulfill all the criteria needed for my plot, but in case this helps others, here are two ideas I had:

1) Unify the foreign settings into just one region that can be thematically significant and also allow the plot to take the characters back there, providing wish fulfillment and resolving emotional threads. It also cuts out the need for a third set of cultural and environmental exposition.

2) Reduce the significance that British Guiana plays in the themes of the book by making it essential to only one of the characters. If the naturalist goes there for research, the woman he meets could be an immigrant from the second country where the plot elements happen. She could still attend the lecture about BG because she's interested in the wider world, or they could meet for entirely different reasons, but they would still have the ability to bond over travel, foreign experiences, perspective on English culture, longing to go back to other places, etc. Then we get the wish fulfillment about going back, give the second setting more of the emotional weight, and reduce the emphasis on the less relevant location.

  • I'm new here. Would someone please explain why this was down-voted? The site rules make it clear that answering your own question is allowed, particularly if it can be helpful to other readers. This was an attempt to tackle the question from a different direction. – wordsworth Jul 18 at 7:51
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    The voting can be a little arbitrary and emotional (everyone has different "rules"). It's possible a member didn't know you can answer your own questions, and they thought that was worth a downvote. Sometimes people just have a bad day, and some are really obsessed with keeping "score". TBH a downvote with no comment or useful correction is probably not intended to be helpful. You had a bumpy start with the question but please don't let it discourage you, as it is getting upvotes now. – wetcircuit Jul 18 at 10:25
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    Your second option feels like a good possibility to me, with the limited knowledge I have of your story. – DPT Jul 18 at 20:15
  • @DPT, I'd been trying to find that new place for the second option for a while before giving up and posting the question. The problem is that there are about 6 criteria it has to meet and I have yet to find a satisfactory candidate. I don't know if it's appropriate to post a question asking for help identifying such a place in this forum, or if I should go to the Worldbuilding community for that (or if that's even a good question there!). – wordsworth Jul 18 at 20:48
  • On any SE, be prepared for 'off topic' type comments and closures. In my experience. – DPT Jul 19 at 1:09

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