We’re paddling downstream, to our right are boulders, sand bars and thickets full of snags. To our left, a mud bank that stretches on for miles. Sometimes the water is deep and dark, others times shallow. Sometimes it’s clear like glass or muddy and polluted. There are rapids and smooth stretches; occasionally a waterfall rumbles in the distance.
As writers we must traverse this river ever trying to maintain a steady, center-stream course.
Setting is the thickets, woods and reaching branches. Too much description of the place or environment—that is, info dumping—and our readers will get snared, get trapped by the empty details.
Characterization is the sand bars, slips of river sand that will capture our boat and bog our readers down. Too much depiction of a character’s appearance, demeanor, or behavior—telling us about them, not showing—will disturb us and invite our readers to leave our foundered boat.
Events are the boulders, the cliffs and caves, that must come in cycles. Pacing of happenings is crucial: too much and you wear out your reader, too frequent and you fail to give proper due to the build-up and crescendos that events engender.
Along the left bank, the muddy slick that offers few rocks, little sand and only a bush or two, our readers will become bored, leave us, skipping forward in search of an entertaining feature in the landscape.
As writers we must navigate between these banks.
The plot is the river features, the rapids, and quite runs, the boulders, sand bars and submerged snags. The story is the bends and turns, the camping spots, the portages, the beginning and the end.
And the water? The water is dialog. It carries us along the story. It runs fast and slow, dirty and clear. It gives us cause to learn about the characters, care about them as they encounter the obstacles along their route. And remember them when our journey is complete.
Too much setting, characterization or cascading events will capsize our reader. Too little will induce sleep and abandonment. Too little water will ground us in the gravel. Too much and we’ll drown.
Writing is a river, steer well young captains.