30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty

Oh, Christ. Not another blog.

Are you thinking this right now? If so, you’re responding to something called The Law of Diminishing Returns. (It’s nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of my blogging. Obviously.)

In economics this means: the decrease in the marginal (incremental) output of a production process as the amount of a single factor of production is incrementally increased, while the amounts of all other factors of production stay constant something too boring for me to dwell on. Also I don’t understand it. I mean, look! Look at this formula!

\text{D} = \frac{1}{X}\sum_{i=1}^{X}\frac{1}{2^{i-1}}

What the hell’s that all about?

In storytelling terms, the Law of Diminishing Returns is much simpler. Hurrah! Let’s use cake to illustrate the principle:

Eating one cake: good.

Eating two cakes: slightly less good.

Eating three cakes: not good at all. 

Three-cakes-2

Image source

(Obviously I’m talking about large cakes. Not cupcakes. Three cupcakes would be all right. In fact, it might be better than all right. And I’m definitely not talking about crisps. Who gets sick of crisps? Only a mad person.)

Cake and crisps aside, what I’m trying to say is: the more we have of something, the less we enjoy it. As screenwriting guru Robert McKee memorably claimed in his masterwork, Story:

‘The Law of Diminishing Returns is true of everything in life, except sex*, which seems endlessly repeatable with effect.’ 

* And crisps.

How does this affect your story? Too many similar scenes, or similarly structured scenes, or similar reactions, or similar emotions, or similar… oh, you get the picture. Too many things in your novel that aren’t sufficiently new or different, and you might as well market your book as a benzodiazepine.

Back to McKee: ‘The first time we experience an emotion or sensation it has its full effect. If we try to repeat this experience immediately, it has half or less than half of its full effect. If we go straight to the same emotion for the third time, it not only doesn’t have the original effect, it delivers the opposite effect.’

Years ago, I saw House of Flying Daggers at the cinema, and this might be a bit of  SPOILER but the last twenty minutes or so of the film were so excruciatingly tedious (is she going to die? No she isn’t. Actually, hang on maybe she is… wait, no…) that people were shouting at the screen, ‘Just die already!’ images-3 A novel is a balancing act. It’s a fancy bike with a ton of gears. You have to crawl uphill to be able to freewheel down again.

It’s easy to forget this. In my first attempts at This Fecking Novel I’d managed to set almost every scene in the kitchen. It was switching to Scrivener that flagged up the problem. (Scrivener’s great for giving you a birds-eye view of proceedings. But I wrote about that here so won’t repeat myself now, because: Law of Diminishing Returns and all that). This writing advice from Anthony Horowitz is very, very good indeed, full of useful and practical tips, and one thing he said that rang enormous clanging church bells in my head was this:

‘I believe books have a shape. You have to see them before you can write them’.

True, I think. I’ve been working on Madder Hall for two years, and for quite a lot of that time I couldn’t see the book. Well, obviously you couldn’t see the book, Lynsey, because it didn’t exist… All right, smart arse. I couldn’t see it in my head. And now I can. For a while I called it a trilogy of stories, until my wise and wonderful friend Mary Nathan (the best editor I’ve ever come across, and a blooming marvellous writer) told me to stop calling it a trilogy, because it isn’t, and I knew she was right (because, duh, Mary’s always right) and I also knew, all along, that it wasn’t a trilogy, but imagining it in three distinct parts had given me the foothold I needed to get in the saddle (and realise this was all getting too mixed-metaphor-y) and ‘see’ the novel’s shape. And the fact that the novel has three distinct parts has enabled me to avoid the Law of Diminishing Returns (to a certain extent) and give the reader (and myself) enough variety to (please, God) keep it interesting.

The proof, I guess, will be in the pudding.

All three of them.

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