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Interval Training... on a Keyboard

Sounds odd to have a blog post on writing titled with something usually associated with athletic conditioning, but this is one of those situations where writing can make one sweat. In the gym-shoe world, intervals are cycles of high-intensity exercise, broken up by just enough rest to regret agreeing to do interval training. There are a million little variations on the technique: some focus on improving endurance, others speed, and so on. Same in the writing world.

The simplest form of a writer's interval training is sprints, where our only goal is to crank out words for a set period of time. That's an amazing place to start if you need to drag the muse off the couch. The version I'm delving into is a little more advanced: progressive compression.

I’m sharing this because I'm doing it right now. It has been invaluable to me to find the essence of the story and it can work for you, too. "But Erik," you say, "what do you mean by essence?" "Essence" is literally your definition of the story. It seems odd, right? We know our own story! Or do we? Here's a test: tell a friend you're writing a story, then tell them what it's about in two sentences or less.

In the movie business, they do this with a log line. There's an even shorter, one-sentence version that the writers of TV Guide have elevated into a high snarkform. Or go the other direction: a salesperson’s elevator pitch. This is measured by the time it takes to make a sale with a captive audience; think 20-30 seconds (2-3 paragraphs depending on your delivery). Could be the text on the back jacket of your novel. Looking for a bigger description? Sure! Think a synopsis or a summary.

Now, describing our story can be daunting, especially the first time. Sometimes, we don't even know how to begin. I'll make it easy: go for a summary over a synopsis, at least to start. What's the difference? A summary is a point-by-point description, while a synopsis is more an emotional sales pitch.

This is where we put on our writing shoes for this exercise. Give a two-word description of your main character, a sentence on their motivation, then actions and discoveries that push and pull them through the story. Ultimately this is just condensing the story: Character A has X situation, so sets out to perform the Action That Will Get Them What They Need. The first action leads to the second, then the third. While you're at it, here's this other arc where we're following their nemesis, ally, or whatever. The description can be as long you need: don't feel bad about multiple pages. Now, sports fans, you have a play-by-play of the story.

This level of detail can be a wonderful diagnostic tool that helps discover plot holes or inconsistencies. I won't bore you with my story, but think about such classics as "Why didn't they just call the Giant Eagles to fly the ring to Mount Doom in the first place?" It's also the place (and the time) to figure out how to repair those plot holes or create what arbitrary limitations you need to justify Plot Arc X. Then you can sprinkle in the limitations and drum up the dramatic tension with just the right amount of grit and foreshadowing.

Let's assume your fast-forward review comes out to 5 pages. This is your novel at a warm-up jogging pace. Opening to finale, let's say it names 7 characters fighting through three interweaving plot arcs. Cool. Your specifics may vary.

Here's your next progressive compression interval: describe the whole story in one page. Movie producers often call this a "one-sheet." Again, no magical formula, but think 5-7 paragraphs that further condense the story into a form that's going to start showing more than action-reaction or situation-response. At this level, our description is huffing and puffing on a medium run. We need to show clear character motivations, and hint at themes and motifs.

Your next interval: one paragraph. It's a short elevator ride ... and a 200-yard sprint for the writer.

Your next interval: two sentences. It's your log line as you lay the groundwork for the screenplay adaptation. A 100-yard sprint for the writer.

Your next interval: one sentence, for TV guide. A 40-yard dash with a weighted vest.

Ultimately, this story is about...? Your final interval: give us one word.

Crazy, right? Uh-huh. Yes, obviously, this oversimplifies things, but what is the essence of your story? This is about starting with Ishmael and detailing Ahab and a complex relationship with Moby Dick and going through progressive compression until we've boiled it down to one word: Revenge.

This is, no joke, a blood, sweat and tears series of exercises that will make you question existence. A lot like gym-shoe interval training. It will also give you an absolute command of your story. It will be the motivation underneath the scenes that keep your writing voice focused. It will give you the confidence to answer when somebody says, "So, what's your story about?"

Good luck, writer.

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