A so-called “quiet book” is cause for many a rejection in today’s publishing market. If you’ve received feedback that your novel is too quiet, rest assured that most likely the problem can be solved with revision. Often just a few significant additions and adjustments will make a difference in the way your novel is received. Although there are many different interpretations of what comprises a quiet novel, most often the criticism centers on plot elements that need to be ramped up and dramatized. As an editor, I work on many manuscripts that benefit from adding tension, conflict, and drama to the plot. Although there are no set “rules” the following guidelines may help:
- Add complications.Ask yourself, “What if?” during the writing of each plot step/element and look for ways to make the story more complex. Let’s say that you’ve written a YA love story that features a girl from the so-called “right side of the tracks” and a boy from the so-called “wrong side of the tracks.” This alone has the potential to derail a relationship if parents and community disapprove, but it’s probably not enough of a hook to make a book stand out today. So, what to do to make the story more dramatic? In this example, you could write in some old history between the families and citizens of the town. Think about a past crime, a secret, or an unresolved issue that makes the differences between the main characters and their backgrounds more contentious. Revealing this complication slowly over time may also serve to add an element of mystery.
- Raise the stakes.Make sure your protagonist has much to lose. Using the same example from above, what if the girl decides to go against her parents’ wishes and sees the boy in secret? This sounds dramatic, but the stakes could be made even higher if the girl not only risks losing the respect and trust of her parents but also has a problem with one of her best friends. Perhaps a close friend refuses to cover for the girl because she doesn’t want to lie. With this added complication, the girl faces potential damage with her parents and also with another relationship.
- Make it personal.Don’t forget to show deep and heartfelt emotions in your characters. Continuing with the love story mentioned above, you can write many mixed emotions experienced by the girl. Love for the boy could be countered by worry of discovery, guilt over deceiving her parents, and fear of losing a meaningful friendship. Keep in mind that emotional responses may be mostly internal, but they must be fully rendered and go beyond clichés.
- Add tension to every scene.Many writers believe in the old adage, “Tension on every page.” This may seem daunting, but it’s not bad advice. Even during a loving scene between our boy and girl, it’s possible that the girl cannot keep her worries completely at bay. Problems can intrude on even the happiest of times. That said, use descriptive and original language and avoid the melodramatic. Keep emotional responses short but memorable.
These are by no means the only ideas for increasing drama, and often I find that after receiving some suggestions from an editor, an author will come up with strategies of his or her own. Keep your mind open to possibilities, and if you are in need of ideas, work with a professional editor for help.
ANA HOWARD writes and edits contemporary and historical children’s, young adult, and adult literature. She has seen one of her novels made into film and has won numerous literary awards.