Back in December, we posted about Harmon’s Embryo, which checks the strength of your plot. This blog talks about Boulter’s ECG, which checks the emotional pace or “heart” of your novel.
The Echocardiogram (ECG for short) is a technique from Writing Fiction by Amanda Boulter, senior lecturer for creative writing at the University of Winchester. The ECG is best applied to longer works such as novels.
If we accept that a story is about change, then:
- What changes are triggered by the events within it?
- How do our characters deal with these changes?
- How does the reader experience these changes?
The answers to these questions form the emotional pace of your story. To visually chart this, we can create an ECG in three steps.
1) Assign each scene in your novel a score out of 20.
Boulter suggests this framework:
1-5 points: scenes of “deliberation / recovery”
6-10 points: scenes of “intrigue / emotion”
11-15 points: scenes of emotional conflict or physical action
16-20 points: the vital scenes of “crisis and climax”.
2) Plot all your scenes on graph paper.
3) Join the dots.
Here’s an ECG for a novel with 40 scenes:
So how can the ECG help us to strengthen our novel’s emotional pacing?
- Avoid extended flatlines. Extended flatlines at any point will kill your novel. Too many contemplative navel-gazing scenes in a row, and the reader yawns. Too many blistering action scenes in a row, and the reader has nowhere to catch their breath. (“Oh…another murder?”)
- Aim for peaks and troughs. The goal is to change it up, so that readers progress through a series of tension-contemplation cycles. If your novel follows a conventional structure, these cycles will rise to a climax. For example, ECGs for novels based on the popular three-act structure will show a left peak, rising peaks (or crises) in the middle, and the largest peak to the right.
Boulter’s ECG is a fun technique that shows the reader’s emotional journey through your novel at a glance. Use it to manage your story’s pulse and guard the reader against heart attacks!
Boulter, Amanda (2007) Writing Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches. Palgrave Macmillan.