You’ve probably noticed that works of literature move from high energy moments to low energy moments. Some scenes contain action and explosions, some are laid back and reflective. Your excitement about what you’re reading will follow the ebb and flow of the book’s energy.
Energy comes in many forms. In books, it can arise from adrenaline (battle scenes, near-death experiences), emotion (interpersonal conflicts, internal conflicts, dramatic reveals), sexual tension, etc. High-energy scenes contain lots of conflict, and they end when the conflict is resolved or postponed. They also tend to move the plot forward. They are almost always shown to the reader step-by-step.
Low-energy scenes usually show the characters discussing the previous high-energy scene, planning for the next high-energy scene, or otherwise recuperating. These scenes contain conflict of a more subdued variety. They often provide character development by showing the reader how the characters feel about what’s happening to them. Sometimes these scenes are shown instead of told if nothing important happens.
Important note: Scenes change whenever the characters stop doing what they’re currently doing and start doing something else. If they’re crossing a pit of lava and after that they have to fight a dragon, those are two separate scenes, even if the action flows from one to the other with no break. If they have to look for the dragon before fighting it, that’s a separate scene, too, even if you summarize it in a paragraph. Keep this in mind while doing the following exercise.
Energy Arc Visualization Exercise
One way to visualize your book’s energy arc is to literally draw it. Get a pen and a blank piece of paper. Start on one side of the page and draw a dot. This represents the energy level of your first scene or section. Now begin reading your book. Once you reach scene/section two, ask yourself if it contains more or less excitement than scene/section one. If more, draw a upward-angled line extending from your initial dot. If less, angle the line downward. Match the length of the line to the length of the scene. Write “scene/section two” underneath the line.
After reading scene/section three, continue drawing the line. Angle it upward if scene three contains more energy than two, or downward, if it contains less. Continue doing this for each scene, using the first scene’s dot as a baseline for the book’s energy. Write the name or number of each scene beneath its section of the line.
At the end of your book, you should have something that looks like a stock market chart. Or a seismograph. Or one of the other bazillion things we like to graph.
This is far from a scientific exercise, but it will give you a general idea of how the energy flows in your book.
Informational nonfiction writers, you want to maintain a fairly flat line. If there’s a sudden huge drop or jump in energy levels, your readers will feel like the chapter doesn’t belong in your book. Of course your energy levels will vary from section to section, but in general you want to keep the spikes and dips to a consistent magnitude. No huge jumps of: “OMG, so much drama!” No huge dips of: “omg, so much snorefest.” The exception to this is at the very end of your book, when you want a spike in the energy levels as you send your reader out into the world to apply what they’ve learned from you.
Fiction and narrative nonfiction writers, your graphs will be all over the place. Some of you will have sharp rises and falls, some of you will have a steady build with a few drop-offs for downtime, and some of you will think your book is having a heart attack. None of these are wrong.
However, there are a few things to check and revise if they get out of hand:
1. Really long inclines.
Even the most die-hard fan of action stories will get tired if your book contains nothing but explosion after explosion, or argument after argument. If you see a long section of your book that contains nothing but high-energy scenes with no dips in the energy arc, consider revising it to give your readers a chance to breathe. The exception to this is at the very end of the book, where you can totally have a string of action scenes leading up to the climax.
2. Long declines.
If you see a section where the energy level of a scene drops, and then the next scene drops some more, revise so that something happens in between the two periods of downtime. If you see three or more drops in a row, you may need to restructure that whole section of your book to provide a better ride for the reader.
3. Extended stretches below baseline.
If your line drops below the baseline of your opening scene for three or four scenes in a row, consider revising to have something more interesting happen in between them.
4. A drop right before the climax.
You want to build energy leading up to the book’s climax. If you see a huge drop immediately before the climax scene, restructure.
5. Any point that is higher than your climax.
The climax of your book should come toward the end and should contain the highest energy level in the entire story. If your graph contains a higher point than the point representing your climax scene, your climax needs more energy. Find a way to juice it up.
6. Repeating patterns.
If your line jumps up to a certain point, then down, then up to that same point, then down, and so on, you may have written a pattern into your book without realizing it. This can subconsciously bore the reader because it takes the surprises out of the story. Consider mixing it up if you find that your book adheres to a predictible pattern.
There’s no right way to structure the energy flow of a book, but these strategies will help you catch areas of too much or too little intensity. The line graph exercise will help you visualize what happens in your book and when. Adjust accordingly, and soon the energy in your book will ebb and flow just the way you want.