Deadly Sin of Writing #6–Drifting in the Doldrums
Fiction is a tough gig. There are so many things that have to be developed, crafted, balanced, and brought to completion. Plot, setting, character, dialogue, arc, POV—it can get overwhelming. It is very easy to lose sight of the conflict and then our story gets stuck in the literary dolrums. Bad juju.
Two elements drive all great stories—character conflict and plot conflict. In good stories, there are generally two arcs, the plot arc and the character arc. One cannot be satisfied unless there is progression on the other. The character must grow or he cannot complete the next step in the plot. Each progression toward resolving the story problem also creates character growth. These elements work in perfect tandem.
This is one of the reasons that uber-perfect characters= BORING SNOOZE FEST. If our hero begins the story as a hero, then how can he grow? How can we (readers) worry?
Everything else in a story, dialogue, scene-setting, description, etc. must support the conflict or be cut. Why? Because if these elements are not fueling momentum, they are, by definition, dead weight that can quickly leave a story drifting in the ho-hum world of “Ain’t Nothing Happening.” There is no conflict, no fuel, so the story loses momentum. If it sits idle long enough, the book can end up lost in the
Burmuda Triangle the reader’s bookshelf, never to be seen again (until moving day).
Back to conflict…
When you look at the really great novels, each part serves a purpose. All parts work together like a highly efficient sailboat. With that said, how well do you think any sailboat would work with extra sails randomly sent up the mast? Everything on the boat must have a purpose and work to keep the boat afloat, to help navigation and provide momentum. If these components are neglected, it is likely the boat either will sink, go the wrong direction or will be left drifting at sea so long that all souls will perish.
Every scene must have conflict. Conflict must in some way involve the characters and serve to propel them either further along on the plot arc, or on a character arc. Conflict doesn’t have to be nail-biting, cliffhanging tension. In fact, it is best to leave that sort of conflict for very specific parts of the story or you risk wearing out the reader. Conflict can be boiled down to somebody wants something, but then… This is the fuel that drives the machine of your story.
Think about the movie Top Gun. Was every scene a hair-raising ordeal involving dog-fighting jets? No. But there was plenty of conflict. Remember the scene at the club where Lt. Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell meets his future love interest Charlie Blackwood? Does he succeed? Or does he go down in a figurative ball of fire? This protagonist has an ego the size of Texas, and he’s used to getting his way. When he doesn’t, this propels him along on his character arc. He has to change or die, because the character traits that get him shot down in the club eventually will be the traits that can get him (and others) shot out of the sky.
The club scene in Top Gun serves multiple, multiple functions…other than getting to see a lot of really hot guys in Navy dress whites. The bar scene is a key sail to drive the character arc, when it easily could have been fluff and filler.
First, we get to see that pilots are human. They have lives beyond a cockpit. Or do they? That will be a key point developed over the course of the movie. Second, the audience is afforded the opportunity to witness how the protagonist’s blind spots and character flaws are affecting all aspects of his life in a negative way. His hotshot methods are beginning to show signs of breaking down.
Iceman, the story’s antagonist, is also present to witness Maverick fail. That is no accident. Now could this have just been a fun nightclub scene to show off hot Navy guys? Sure. But if that had been the only function of the scene, I doubt we would still remember it almost twenty years later.
All of us have to be wary of permitting our story to drift into the doldrums. We love our characters, our wonderful scene-setting, clever exposition and witty dialogue. But to write truly great stories requires brutal honesty. When we edit our work, we have to ask ourselves one question over and over and over—“What purpose does this scene serve?”
If it doesn’t have a function—a good, solid function that drives the story—it needs to either be modified or cut altogether. It’s a literary siren tempting your story to crash on the rocks, or what we more seasoned
sailors writers like to call a Little Darling.
Little Darlings will KILL a novel. For more information about Little Darling Syndrome, go here.
So you need some ways to spot if you are drifting dolrums? Happy to help:
1. Remember that fiction is the path of greatest resistance.
One of the number one newbie mistakes I see is that writers resolve conflict too easily and too soon. Most of us go out of our way to avoid conflict in life, so it is very counterintuitive to seek to ADD MORE conflict when we write.
As an example. A few months ago I was helping one of my writing group peeps with her plotting and I noticed something.
“Gee. All your characters get along so well….and ALL THE TIME.” If her protagonist wanted to fight the rebels, the protag’s allies were right there. No one ever disagreed. Anyone who has run a committee more than five minutes knows that it is rare that everyone will be on the same page. Most of the conflict for our novel will actually come from intimate connections.
One example I like to use is the movie, Finding Nemo. Darla the Fish-Killer is the story’s core antagonist (what I call the Big Boss Trouble Maker), but we only see Darla in a few minute’s worth of scenes. She drives the entire story because if Darla had wanted a kitten for her birthday, Nemo would never need rescuing. Yet, in the big picture, Darla is rarely present. Who is responsible for most of the tension and conflict? The hero’s ally, Dorie.
If Marlin wants to go up, Dorie goes down. Every decision is maximum conflict…the path of greatest resistance. Each scene has a goal and the protagonist must reach that goal rarely if ever until the end. In each scene he needs to seem worse off than when he began. So go back through and make sure you aren’t making life too easy on your characters.
2. Look for the goal of each scene and make sure someone/something is in the way.
Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat taught me a wonderful technique for making sure each scene has a purpose. Take an index card for a new scene, then write the goal at the top then who or what was in conflict.
After losing sight of the boat that took his son Nemo, Marlin wants to go home.
Marlin wants to go home, but Dorie wants to talk to Bruce the Great White.
(This little set of symbols above -/+? This symbol shows how the protag enters a scene and then how he leaves. Here, I use a – because at the beginning of the scene Marlin loses sight of the boat that took his son. By all accounts the story is over, but then Dorie, the ally/antagonist insists on talking to Bruce the Great White. At the end of the scene discover the critical clue that keeps the story going. The scene ends on a + because there is renewed hope to find Nemo.)
Ideally there should be a shift from + to – or – to +. If the protagonist is always ending on a +, there is little conflict and no reason to worry. If we have too much -, then the reader just gets depressed and gives up. Too many -s or +s will help you spot doldrums quickly.
There needs to be a fine balance of setbacks and progression to keep the reader hooked…just like a fish. Yank too aggressively on the
line plot and the fish reader breaks free wears out and gets frustrated. Don’t yank hard enough and the fish reader takes off gets bored and turns on the TV.
3. Never leave a place to put a bookmark.
Fiction is real life with all the boring stuff cut out. Yes, we get that our protagonist must go to sleep, but never end a chapter with a character going to sleep (without introducing the next problem). This is a subconscious cue to the reader that this is a safe place to put a bookmark. Bookmarks are death.
Never let your reader feel good about using a bookmark. Bookmarking should be painful and only because it is two in the morning and the reader must get some sleep before work.
At the end of the day, question everything. It is better for us to give our fiction the trial of fire than for reviewers to do that publicly on-line. Ask the hard questions and be willing to cut away dead weight for the sake of the story. The doldrums is where you will lose most of your readers, so always keep the forward momentum. We don’t always have to be doing top-speed, but we do need to be moving forward.
What are your thoughts? What makes you get bored with a story and put it down? What tools do you guys use for spotting dead places in your stories? Share! we’d love to learn from you.
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Michelle DeRusha please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org. Congratulations!
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