Monday Motivation: Three ways in which your writing could misfire – and how to fix it
Mishaps happen all the time in writing. Most of them are little niggles, easily erased during a light edit. In one chapter the stable boy has a shock of blond hair; in the next he’s a girl with a mop of auburn curls.
But some errors are more fundamental. They strike at the heart of your narrative. Their worst feature is that you can’t quite put your finger on what it is that’s gone wrong. It’s just that this scene feels as though it’s been dragged in by a cat. It doesn’t fit. It’s got the wrong smell.
More than likely, one (or more) of three things has gone awry.
Firstly, you might find that the offending scene has somehow gone off at a tangent. You thought it was taking the story forward, but somehow you got sidetracked. Instead of having your hero focused on his mission – whatever that is – you had him wake from sleep preoccupied by a dream. Now dreams are powerful things. Used in fiction, they can help counterpoint the deepest desires or fears of your protagonist. But they can also lead us into fascinating but non-story-related terrain, where the tensions you’d so carefully contrived unwind.
Dreams are, of course, not the only culprits. Very often the temptation that leads you into error springs from things remembered, rather than things imagined. Call it the “reality trap” if you like. Your protagonist orders a dish at a restaurant. You choose one for him that you yourself relish, and then spend too much time describing its odours and its flavours. You follow a tendril of (real) memory, and recount the story of your character’s first encounter with the dish, and some of the associations he has with it.
Before you know it, you’ve whipped off two or three pages of fascinating biographical material – that has very little to do with the unfolding story.
Or, you might find yourself caught in what we might call the “morality trap” where you feel obligated to spell out your character’s moral response to something he experiences – a piteous beggar accosting him at an intersection, say. You feel that the reader needs to know that your character has strong opinions about the society that tolerates great inequalities in wealth; about the iniquity of a system that provides no safety nets for the poor and indigent; and about his proposals that would put things right.
All entirely wasted, I’m afraid, since none of this virtue signaling takes your story forward one iota.
Whatever the reason you take a detour, the consequence is the same: your story engine develops a possibly fatal shudder.
A second possibility is that you have, momentarily, overlooked the fundamental need in all dramatic writing for conflict.
Conflict, remember, comes in many flavours. These range from the physical conflict of people at war; to the deeply nuanced conflict that takes place within a single character as he struggles to reconcile his appetites with his values.
Literary conflict infuses every page of every book worth reading. It creates the uncertainty and the suspense that drives the reader forward. It helps sustain the tension between the desire and its satisfaction that lies at the heart of all fiction.
Neglect it, and the scene you’re writing will feel limp and pointless. So have another look at it. Have you written a celebratory scene where congratulations are the order of the day? Where all your characters are feeling happy/smug/satisfied/ content/pleased with themselves/blissful?
And where there are no doubts whatsoever about the choices they’ve made or the future they anticipate?
Well, there you have it: the diagnosis is clear. Your narrative is suffering from a surfeit of cheerfulness. Go back and create a Cassandra to warn your protagonist that a dark cloud of foreboding is approaching. Or a Job who laments the tragedies that have blighted his life. Or an evil aunt with a vial of poison up her sleeve.
Third possibility: you’ve writing to satisfy the imagined expectations of a reader, or a critic, or the fans who might, if they’re sufficient in number, turn your book into a best-seller. You’re desperate to please them – and so almost inevitably you’ll ignore the dictates of your own sense of drama.
We all want to write a best seller. That was the subject I tackled recently. But use your own passion, and your own enthusiasm, to guide your dramatic choices. Trying to second-guess your readers is a mug’s game.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: The vast canvas calls, but don’t neglect the miniature‘
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