Flatly Bored

January 20, 2010, F said,  For me, what happens is, I do not want to skip ahead and write any other scene, and prefer to write in order, like the whole book in one go. I have difficulty in ‘feeling’ for my characters. If there is a scene I look forward to, I wait until I come to it. And all those scenes are the ones I am actually proud of when I read back. The others, I can definitely see that they need fixing up. Is there any tip you can give us which can help us to stay ‘in tune’ with our characters and plot, and not get bored? I really like my plot, but lack the motivation to write some (most) of the times, since my characters feel just the little bit too flat, and too listless.

I’m picking up three separate questions: writing in order, flat characters, and being bored.

Starting backwards, sometimes I get bored too.  My story can make me so sleepy that I have to do something else to keep my head from falling into the keyboard.  When I’m more awake I go back to work, until I have to stop again.  For me, the early stages of a book are especially torpor-inducing.  Often my drowsiness has no bearing on the quality of what I’m writing.  A particular chapter may be terrific, despite the fact that it’s putting me out.  So don’t assume that what you’re writing when you’re bored is boring.

If I didn’t sleep well the night before, or if the blood has left my brain to help digest my lunch, I get bored.  But even when I didn’t sleep enough and it’s right after lunch, I’m almost never bored if I’m revising, which leads me to suspect that there’s a worry component to the boredom.  I’m a confident reviser but not a confident first-draft writer.  When it’s revision time the hardest work is over.  Before then, though, I can still louse everything up.  You may be most confident about the scenes that appeal to you, not so much about the others.  I don’t know any better answer for boredom than to cope as well as we can.  I write a few sentences, walk to my office window, write a few more sentences, pour myself a cup of tea, write a little more, hope that the boredom will pass, which it often does as I push on.

Occasionally, my boredom indicates a story problem.  I’ve lost my way, and my characters are just wandering around.  Or I’m pursuing an idea that I love and I’m pushing the story where it doesn’t want to go.  I may blunder on this way, bored, for weeks before I realized what’s going on.  Often then I have to find a better path for my story, which I usually locate through notes.

Boredom can be connected to writer’s block, so it may be helpful to go back to my post on the subject, called “Playing with Blocks” on October 28, 2009 or to look at the chapter in Writing Magic called “Stuck!”

It is not a crime to abandon a story that is boring you.  You can come back to it if and when you have a new idea.  Or you may be able to move the parts that interest you to a different story you’re working on.  Or you can use these parts as the basis of an entirely new tale.  The only writing crime is not writing.

Moving on to the writing-in-order question:  I write in order too, although I admire writers who can hop around and sew everything together later.  I discussed the question with a writer friend who does leap from scene to scene out of sequence, and she suggested you try her method and see what happens.  It is possible that writing the scenes you’re eager for may help you discover what you need to do to tie them together, and you may become more interested in the in-between scenes.

If you stick with your method and mine, you might try slowing down the scenes you want to just get through, which may help with deepening your characters too.  Suppose, for example, that your main character, Marka, is a runner.  The scene that interests you most is the big race at the end of a summer of preparation.  You have it all planned out:  the perfect running shoes that go missing, the substitute shoes, the best friend running on Marka’s right, her enemy on the left, the leg cramp.

Maybe a few scenes interest you along the way:  an argument with the enemy, shopping for running shoes with the best friend, a practice run when a new boy in school runs too.  And that’s it.  You hurry through the rest.

This may be the root of the flat-character problem.  You may not know your characters well enough because you haven’t thrown them into a variety of situations.  Look at the boring scenes.  Maybe you can bring conflict into them too.  Suppose you need a scene with the running team and the coach, but you’re not interested in it.  Try thinking about some of the peripheral characters:  Coach Bumbry, the slowest runner on the team, the girl who’s fast but her crazy form is incomprehensible.  How does she move with her knees almost hitting her chin?  What’s up with Coach Bumbry?  Suppose she seems to care about every character on the team except your Marka.  How does Marka deal with being ignored?

Take the slowest runner.  Why is she on the team?  How does she relate to Marka?  Does Marka help her, stay away from her as if slowness might be catching, spy on her?

The girl with the weird form.  What might Marka do with her?

You may want to expand your story.  Maybe there’s some home conflict.  Marka’s mom might be convinced that the time Marka spends running is the reason she’s flunking English.  Marka’s dad may be irritable because he’s quitting smoking.  Marka’s older brother may be applying for college and sucking up every scintilla of parental attention.  Whatever.  How does Marka react to all this?

If you throw Marka into lots of situations, if you complicate the boring scenes, you’ll know more about her when the climax arrives.  Her actions are likely to be more layered; her thoughts will be surprising.  And you may enjoy the writing more, too.

Prompt:  Add three new scenes to one of your old stories or to a story you’re working on now.  Put your main character into an. unfamiliar setting.  Have him spend time with a minor character.  Make someone he trusts surprise him in an unpleasant way.  See what he does.  If you need to adjust the rest of your story to accommodate the new scenes (if you’re happy with them), go for it.  Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thank you so much for answering! That was really helpful. I always thought writing here and there was out of the question for me, but after reading your post, I think I may just try it. I have tried to throw my characters in different situations, with different characters, but I suppose she reacts in a very predictable way, which makes it boring for me. I'll follow your advice, and I think I may be able to move on. If you don't mind me saying, it really made me happy to read your response to my questions! 🙂 And the fact that you spent time on actually thinking about it and discussing it. Who was the friend you discussed it with? Perhaps I've read their work, and can compare how a story differs, if at all, if it is written in these two methods. Thank you again!

  2. Great suggestions for perking up a boring scene. It's also encouraging to know that just because I have trouble staying awake sometimes when I write, it doesn't mean that the scene won't turn out well. Days like that make me question being a writer, but your comments give me a good reason to push on!

  3. I've found that what you've suggested to help fill out flat characters really helps me with mine. I'll even put them in situations/scenes that couldn't possibly happen in the book as a private exercise, just so I can see how they'd react and learn from that. Like, if I'm writing a medieval-esque fantasy about a lone swordsman and I suddenly drop him off in a contemporary shopping mall, what would he do? Or keep him in his time and place, but interacting with characters he'd never meet in the actual story. Their reactions are always so interesting, and often surprising.

    It's almost creepy sometimes just how "alive" they can be, doing and saying things I'd never expect they'd say. Like they're their own person completely separate from me, even though I created them.

    On a different note, I have another question—though it ties into my "embarrassed" question I asked the other week: What if you want to write a story where the main characters have a belief (moral, ethic, religious… whatever) that is very different than yours? I'm a Christian, and I worry about the reaction I'd get, both from Christians and non-Christians, if I wrote a story where the main characters clearly do NOT believe what I do, and that in their story that's fine (vs. by the end they've been "fixed" to believe what I do). I hope that question makes sense.

  4. F–The author is Joan Abelove, and her two young adult books are SAYING IT OUT LOUD and GO AND COME BACK. They're great. I can't recommend them highly enough, but not for anyone under twelve.
    April–Terrific question. Yes, it goes with your earlier one, and I'll put them together.

  5. I find the comment about not having slept well semi-funny, seeing as how one of the best chapters I have ever written ever was written past midnight. Perhaps it was the magic of Halloween that helped me along (it was the start of this past NaNoWriMo).

    Btw, how do you feel about NaNoWriMo? I know some published authors don't like it much, saying that anything you write so quickly will be crap and that 50,000 is too short for a novel anyway. I have two things to that: 1. that's where editing comes in, silly. I thought you guys were professionals? 2. Yeah, I know. I wrote 50,000 words in November, but that doesn't mean the novel was finished. I expect to get to at least 80,000 by the time I'm done. Hopefully.

  6. In the past I've written in order also, but the story I'm woring on now, I started right smack in the middle, and am currently working on four scenes at once. All extremely different. It's worked pretty awesome for me 🙂 Can't get bored when I'm jumping around so much!
    April, ah, a fellow Christian! That's great! I think that is perfectly fine, as long as your writing doesn't seem to say that the things your characters do before they are "fixed" are the right things to do. Even better, pray for God's guidance.

  7. elfarmy17, it's hardly fair to lump all authors together and assume each of them are anti-NaNo. Besides, Gail wrote a piece for the NaNo e-mails this year. That's how I heard about this blog.

    Barie-ah Hue-en-la, my question was specifically for stories in which they DON'T get "fixed." I meant that in their world, the things they do are right, even if I don't personally agree. End of story (no changing into what I believe by the end).

  8. elfarmy17: I've wanted to ask this for quite some time too!! 🙂
    I haven't read Joan Abelove, but I found that suggestion opening a big possibility for me. And also putting the characters in different situations, like april said, in a contemporary world…I think that'll help a lot!! Thanks! 🙂

  9. Elfarmy 17–I'm in favor of NaNoWriMo. More power to anyone who can write 50,000 words in a month! I don't think there's any correct number of words for a novel. My EVER is under 42,000, for example. You may want to check out my post of 12/23/09 called Rightsizing.

  10. Hi, my name is Loretta I just want to say your books are amazing. I am starting my first novel this year. I have childrens books done and I want to try a novel. anyway my mother who writes also told me to pick an author I admire and see what makes them so great. I read the first page of over 100 books and yours puts them to shame. The first sentence even captures the reader!! I really wanted to tell you that. I will be reading your blog to keep up and learn from you!
    Your book, Princesses of bamarre should be a movie. It was great to read that while my own little sister was pale and dealthly sick. It gave me courage and conforted me when the doctors said she was dying. Thank you so much. One day I hope I can meet you.

  11. April, not a very hopeful story you are writing then, eh? I really don't know what to say to that. Except, try to include at least one character who does believe the same things as you. Even if they aren't a main char.
    Loretta, wow, is your sister alright now, or did she . . die? I feel really sorry for you.

  12. Barie-ah Hue-en-la, I think you are assuming a lot of details where I haven't mentioned anything of that sort.

    Oh well. Rather than go on and on about it here, I'll just want until Gail gets through her list of questions and eventually gets to mine. 🙂 I'm so grateful for all the time and effort put into these posts! They're all so interesting and helpful.

  13. Loretta–Thank you! I hope your sister is fine now. I'd like to meet you and all the writers who read the blog. I'll be touring in June, and I'll post my itinerary or direct you to where you can find out.

  14. make sure you come to michigan!!!! thanks so much.
    my sister is well now. but she is supposed to get her intestants cut out completly. they havent yet she is in danger of her intestants exploding and dying. Untill the procedure is done.

  15. Hi! My name is KAtie. I just wanted to say that I have read 2 of your books, Ella Enchanted and Fairest, and I loved them. I also wanted to ask, how do you get… ideas? I really like to write, but I can never think of anything good to write about. How do you come up with such good ideas?

  16. April–Thanks for the link. It is funny. I never thought of brain monkeys before.
    Katie–I'll add your question to my list and answer it in a post. But in the meanwhile, there's a chapter called "Eurika!" in WRITING MAGIC, my book about writing.

  17. Thank you so much for answering my question last week and also for anwering this one. You always seem to answer the questions that I really need each week. Thank you.

    P.S. Ever is an amazing book. I have read it three time already and just bought it on Monday.

  18. Ms.Levine-
    Thank you so much! That post helped a lot.
    On a unrelated topic, I'm having title trouble. Last year, we had to write a fully fledged book for a contest at school. Mine was probably the longest and was 12 pages long, typed. I came up with a cute title, but now that I'm revising it, I'm not sure it fits. The contest is long over,and I didn't win(the people that won had the cutest covers, suspiciously) but I was and am detrimined to make it a better story. My gifted teacher got me an editor from a local writing group, and from there, things took off. I've added charectars, scenes, more action, and just about everything else. I'm halfway done with my second draft and it's 21 pages long, and much less whimsical than my title. I'm sort of attached to the title, it's what I've called my story from the very begging, almost a year ago. I don't really want to change it, but I feel that I have to. The title doesn't represent main idea any more, but I don't know how to fix it. Any ideas? Thanks!

  19. Mary–Congratulations on the progress you're making with your story! As for titles, there's a chapter on the subject in WRITING MAGIC, called "The Right Moniker." I suggest you take a look. I'll put your question on my list and see what I can add in a post.

  20. I've got a question, Mrs. Levine. You see, I've been working on this book for over two years. It's gone through several drafts and each draft is extremely different from each other.

    This time, I actually have an outline and my plot is okay. But, I don't know HOW to begin writing in my book again. It's like I don't remember how to get the writing-flow again, where I can just write and write to get something worth looking at. Any suggestions on how to "get the writing spirit back" for my book? I really don't want my story to die.

  21. Thanks for that link, April. Hilarious! =0D

    I came up with the idea for my story after I read The Hidden Stairs And The Magic Carpet by Tony Abbott. I fell in love with the book and decided that I was going to write an a story in a fantasy world and it was going to be just as awesome. While I was on the road not too long after that, all I had to do was think, so I began on the basis for my story.

    Things (including my fantasy world and the characters) have changed quite a bit, and 2010 will be my fifth year at this, but I might finally have something that will work for me.

    I think I have brain monkeys, too. Maybe brain lemurs.

  22. Hi there, Ms. Levine! My name is Priyanka, and I've been a big fan of your books ever since I discovered Ella Enchanted as a curious eight-year-old in my school library (which, I suppose, makes that eleven years!)

    I met you once when you came to Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville for the release of the first of your Disney Fairies books, and I really enjoyed talking to you and asking questions, so I was really excited to discover that you have a blog! I've been reading through the posts and they have been very helpful, but I do still have one question; as a young author, how do you convincingly write an older character?

    I'm currently working on a story that revolves around three women- a 19 year old born in the US, her 45 year old mother, who immigrated to the US as a newlywed, and her 65 year old grandmother, who has lived in India her whole life but is deeply involved in the lives of her family overseas.

    Now, as a nineteen-year-old myself, it's very easy to get into the mind and thoughts of that character.

    However, I immediately run into problems when trying to create a convincing inner voice for both the mother and the grandmother. I've attempted to observe my own family and their friends to get a grasp on how they interact with each other and how they see the world, but I always feel so…artificial, I suppose, is the best way of putting it-when I try and write a passage from the perspective of someone so much older than me. I feel almost presumptuous to be making the assumption that I could possibly understand their perspective.

    So I was wondering how I could get around that particular obstacle, because I am otherwise very much excited by my idea!

    I'd appreciate any input. 🙂

    Thanks!

  23. I stumbled upon your blog the other day, and I have to say that it's really helping with my writing, so thanks for that. =P

    Going to see if I can get more planned out today.

  24. Rosetta Lee–The key to the trouble may be worrying about worthwhile-ness. Try not to judge until you're finished and have put the story aside for a while. You may also want to look at my chapter "Stuck!" in WRITING MAGIC and my post called "Playing with Blocks."
    Priyanka–I'm so glad you came to one of my signings! What a wonderful question! I'm adding it to my list of topics, but I won't get to it for a while. In the meantime, I think we grownups incorporate many ages within ourselves, even future ones, and we're also much more than our age. But I have more to say about this. You might also want to look at the chapter in WRITING MAGIC called "Method Writing."

  25. Wow, I could have written that question myself. Most often my boredom comes from the progress of working from one scene to the next. Characters meet in order to do such-and-such. But writing about how they meet and get to know each other is so dull to write.

    I also have to write in order. I drop hints and character development as I go. If I hopped around I'm afraid I'd end up with giant holes in the story.

    Liz H. Allen
    http://www.writingmommy.com

  26. I find it helpful to skip to the climactic and exciting scenes while I have the idea fresh in my mind and then fill in the rest…
    Thanks for the post!

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