I know you’ve been there. You make a great start with a story and you’re sure that this, this is the one that will rock the literary world’s socks off. You can see the awards, the prize money, the accolades. You get off to a flying start. The writing has never been so easy or so good. Then a few thousand words later… nothing.
What’s happened? Where did all the snap, crackle, and pop go?
Here are some of the story-sappers I have encountered over the years. I wonder how many of them are familiar to you.
You have a great premise. You can’t wait to get to work and you start off with a wild burst of energy and enthusiasm. Then you run out of story and you can’t figure out why.
Very often, by the time you realise the story is failing it’s too late to fix it. The best thing to do is to prevent it happening in the first place. That means understanding why some stories run out of fizz.
In my case, what usually happens is that I have a great premise and my enthusiasm lies and tells me this is enough. I get off to a great start — enthusiasm and premise are a potent mix — but the story fails because I don’t have anything more than a premise. In other words, I have a situation but nothing more. A situation in and of itself lacks drama and without drama there’s no story.
For instance, imagine you have an idea for a tale about the last man on earth. You could do a lot with that… couldn’t you? Well, maybe. The thing is, you need more than just ‘the last man on earth.’ Who is he? What happened to everyone else? How did he survive? How will he cope? You answers to all these questions, preferably before your begin. You need background. You need character. You need a place for the story to go.
So instead of writing about a generic ‘last man’, you need a specific man. Let’s call him Joe. He’s a butcher, 28 years old, single, and a fan of Manchester United. He’s been dating Sheila for two years, but mostly it’s for convenience rather than any deep bond. She’s routinely unfaithful to him and he can’t work up enough energy to care. His initial reaction when he discovers the end of the world has happened is a sort of relief, coupled with disappointment that he’ll never see United play again. He escaped the apocalypse because he was hiding in the fridge. He’s very lazy, but if he wants to survive he’s going to have to get up and actually do something.
This isn’t much of a character sketch, but it’s heaps better than the ‘man’ we started out with. ‘Joe’ doesn’t have much to offer in terms of a fictional character, but he’s certainly more credible than the brilliant astro-physicist who will rebuild the world from scratch and find — miraculously! — some perky blonde to share the new world with him.
We also need to give Joe something to struggle against, or try to achieve. Maybe the electricity is out and he wants to get it restarted so he can re-watch some old football matches. (He’s lazy so his goals, at least initially, are pretty small.) Or maybe he needs to get the internet to work so he can find out if there really is no one else on the planet. Just give him something to do so he’s not just a blob sitting around waiting for it all to end. And just as you give him something to do, give him some complications so achieving his goals is tough. Maybe he knows nothing about electricity and has to learn about it in the library. Worse, what if he’s semi-illiterate and has to begin by teaching himself to read? Now we don’t simply have a premise, we have the beginnings of a story.
Having Joe all alone for the entire tale is going to get dull. You need to find a way of showing him interacting with other people. You could use flashbacks to show his life before the apocalypse, or you could bring in another character (which undermines the initial premise), or maybe have him create an imaginary friend to talk with. In Cast Away (2000), Tom Hanks forms a ‘relationship’ with Wilson, the volleyball. Robinson Crusoe (1719) finds Friday.
We now have some idea about how this story will proceed. Sure, there are things we don’t know, but we have the ingredients to make an interesting tale. With all these ideas in mind, you have a good chance of writing this story and actually finishing it.
I don’t think I’ve ever written a novel that didn’t send me into paroxysms of anxiety somewhere in the mid-section. I start second-guessing myself. I lose faith in the project and feel everything I’ve done so far is worthless. Sound familiar?
Here are some things that may help you through the muddy middle:
Don’t lose faith. Not in yourself and not in your project. Keep going no matter what. Yes, it may be rubbish. There’s a good chance you’ll have to write it all over again, possibly completely differently. But here’s a secret: novel-writing isn’t a straight line. It meanders as much as the airport bus to Kells. Sometimes you have to blather until you get to your destination. It’s only then that you’ll be able to look back and see the path you should have taken. Now you can redraw your map and get rid of the false trails.
Add a character. This isn’t something I like as a rule, adding a character when I’m roughly half-way through the novel. Ideally, you want everyone onstage, so to speak, by the time you’re about a third or at least less than half-way through the book. Sometimes, though, you really have to do it. If the story is giving you fits, adding a newcomer, even belatedly, can perk it right up. If this happens, there’s no reason you can’t fix this in rewrites by introducing him in the earlier chapters, or at least giving some hints that he will be making an appearance.
If you’re stuck, trying different things can help get you out of the mire. Remember, this is just an early draft. You can make adjustments to make the newbies fit in more smoothly when you come to your rewrites.
Skip a bit. Skip a lot. Skip to the end and work backwards. Skip the boring bits. Imagine you’re the reader — in a way you are. You’re the first reader of whatever you’re writing. If you’re bored then imagine how the second and seventy-second readers will fill.
I try to leave out the parts that people skip.
~ Elmore Leonard
Put your hero up a tree… and set fire to it. This is a metaphorical way of telling you to up the ante, and place your characters in peril. The peril should match the type of story you’re telling. If it’s a realistic tale set in a modern big city, the ‘tree’ can be a job in peril, or a pending divorce. If it’s a romance novel, perhaps the happy couple start out not liking each other. Or he has a mad wife. Or she’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The point is, if you’re writing a sweet story about a teen who wants to go to the prom, or an aspiring actor who has just failed his audition, you probably want to let the conflict match their desires. Suddenly bringing in some James Bond-esque espionage is going to make for a very messy story.
Setting fire to the tree means just when things seem as bad as they can get, you make them even worse. For instance, in The Princess Bride, the heroine Buttercup is kidnapped by three (apparently) ruthless men. That’s the tree. Then she tries to escape by jumping out of their ship… into a sea of shrieking eels. Eek!
All great stories involve characters who find themselves in difficulties — and then even greater difficulties. Keep torturing them right to the end, then, if you’re feeling benevolent, you can reward them with the guy, the job, the play, the money… Or not.
Even Tolkien couldn’t escape this crap. Sorry, trap. Just think of all those endings of The Lord of the Rings. There’s Aragorn’s last chapter, and Frodo’s last chapter, and the Shire’s last chapter, and Sam’s last chapter… Well, you get the idea.
You really need to try to end your story in a way that will satisfy the reader. It’s helpful to know right at the start where you think the characters will end up. That doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind, of course, but at least it gives you a certain trajectory so you have an idea where you should land.
There are a few other things that can destroy your fabulous fiction but can, if you’re clever, be corrected or prevented.
Structure isn’t Just for Big-Breasted Women
Your story needs a structure. To Kill a Mockingbird is not just about Scout Finch growing up and learning from her father Atticus how to be a decent human being. It’s about Boo Radley and Tom Robinson and the other characters in Maycomb Alabama. All these subplots create an edifice that support Scout’s world and, by extension, the novel. They add depth and breadth to the story, and give it dimension.
If your story seems to have all the structure and support of an amoeba, maybe you need to look at the subplots. Of course, strong openings, compelling middles, and resonant endings help, too.
Surprises aren’t Just for Children
Ideally, your story should surprise you, the writer, as much as the reader. If you have written out a plot and follow it in a logical sequence from beginning to end, you run the risk of writing a flat story. Let yourself go off-piste once in a while. Have conversations with your characters and ask them to tell you their secrets. Think about the last time you were surprised by something or someone. See if you can incorporate it into your story. Maybe your hero is a bit of a creep. Or your villain was once homeless. Or the prissy schoolteacher just got arrested for doing nasty things to students. Give your characters secrets — and then expose them.
When all else fails…
Take risks. Break the rules. Run amok. Kill a character. Be very, very bad. It’s a story, not nuclear fission. Ah, go on. I promise not to tell.