You guys remember escalation, right? The raising of narrative or personal stakes in a story for the sake of dramatic intensity and reader investment? Also makes for a killer speech when you hand it over to Gary Oldman in your Batman movie? Great device. Incredibly important, especially in a longer work. Vital.
Yeah. You guys remember.
So, I've been thinking about it lately. I'm about sixty-one pages into this novel so far—17,378 words—and I've been raising the stakes a lot so far. The introduction of the death. The fact that it took place on the moon. The fact that it's the very first murder in space. Sydney's anxieties over the fact that it happened under her watch. The station lockdown. The possibility of a cover-up. It's a lot of goddamned plot, and I'm just hitting the end of the first act.
It begs the question of how much is too much.
Technically speaking, you only need three instances of escalation in a traditional three-act story: The initial instance comes at the beginning and disrupts the status quo of the characters' world. The second comes at the end of the first act, offering an event or revelation which signifies that there is no turning back. The third comes at the end of the second act (leading into the climax and resolution of the third), and represents that things have become so untenable that the heroes must bring about some form of resolution.
That's pretty basic storytelling stuff. Especially if you've got even a passing familiarity with screenwriting. It's the bare minimum, and most stories will move well beyond it without any real measure of difficulty. What I've got going so far is the strategic raising of stakes occurring at least once per chapter. Right now it seems fine, but what about ten chapters from now? At what point does it cease to be dramatic, and become merely silly? When does it get exhausting? When does reader fatigue begin to set in?
I comfort myself at this early date by acknowledging that I'm still effectively in the first act. That I'm still laying groundwork, as it were. Jeez—I still haven't gotten around to introducing one of my viewpoint characters, and wont yet for another thousand words or more. I can afford to lay out a bunch of stuff right now, because it will determine how my characters interpret what is to come, and then proceed. As I move further in, though, I know that I'll have to be careful.
Some books can thrive on constant escalation, barreling along from beginning to end like the final act of a Mel Brooks film. These books are hugely calculated. Carefully controlled chaos. They thrive on it, but are often somewhat farcical in nature. I'm not sure that this book has it in itself to be like that. I'm not sure that I have it in myself to make it that way.
These are the kinds of things that you're always working to balance in writing. These equilibriums between order and chaos, exposition and pacing, clarity and abstraction...They need to be kept in check as you guide the book from nothingness to completion. They are among the many, many things that can mean the difference between failure and success. They deserve to be considered and respected.
A lot of my current flailing over this is unfounded, I suspect. I'm still early in the writing process. The path is still laid out in front of me—long and winding and rife with pitfalls and opportunity. I understand that I have a lot of stuff in the works that I'll need to be concerned about at a later date, and that there is no real point in stressing about this now. I think, though, that it is because I have a long way to go that I should be a little wary. The path can be hard to see at any point in it's course, but never more so than in the beginning when you do not truly know where it leads.
So, for now, I go careful. I go slow. And I stay alive.
There are wolves out there.