Why my books aren’t longer

I came to fiction writing much too late, and only after I’d mastered a technique that earned me a good living as a nonfiction editor and writer, but which was absolutely disastrous to a would-be novelist. It was this: for any piece of prescriptive writing—speech, presentation, brochure, anything where persuasion is involved, which means most business communications—a three-paragraph introduction works best.

This technique was developed by McKinsey consultant Barbara Minto, and, as I say, I clutched it to my bosom and made a lot of money with it.

The three-para intro starts with “As you know” and while its content is strictly business, its construction is rooted in Hollywood tradition: situation, complication, solution. Or in film terms, boy meets girl, boy loses girl to rival, boy wins girl back with intrepid action. In three paragraphs.

Bear in mind, this is only the introduction. It is designed to get the audience on the same page as the presenter. (You’d be surprised how hard this can be: everyone comes to a meeting with other things on their minds, and perhaps with built-in disagreement to the proposal under consideration.) The three-para intro defines a small space where everyone is in agreement, and goes on from there.

It works like this. Let’s suppose your company builds sewage plants. You’re bidding on one. Your presentation to the town’s council starts as follows:

  1. As you know, your present facilities are too small for your population.
  2. However, you haven’t the funds to build a Truly Huge plant, which would serve your community for generations or even centuries to come. Instead, you propose to build a medium-sized facility which will become inadequate in ten years.
  3. Here’s what we propose instead: a Truly Huge plant using our proprietory technology, at a price you can afford. Let me show you how.

You have their attention and can devote your presentation to the steps that will enable you to deliver what they want.

Now why, you ask, was this such a terrible thing for me to learn? Because it taught me the story should be over in three paragraphs. As soon as I reach paragraph four, I start to get twitchy. I feel I’ve stayed too long at the fair. I worry about boring the reader. And once I’m mired in the complexities of Act Two (all fiction has an Act Two, not just plays), I’m terrified that I’ve lost them. At that point my instinct is to abandon ship: to say “Okay, okay, here’s how it ends, sorry I took so long.”

I’ve spent the past twenty years trying to forget the three-para intro. I’m learning (slowly) to trust the plot. I’ve learned to build in lots of complications that have to be worked out before the problem resolves. I’ve learned to stop worrying about being boring.

But for anyone who asks why my books aren’t longer, that’s the reason. If I ever write a doorstopper, you’ll know I’ve shaken the past from my feet, ground it under my heel, climbed out from beneath the rubble and so forth, and moved on.

It would help enormously if, like Dickens and others, I were paid by the word. I could do a lot of shaking under those terms.

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