Chop chop choppy

Here are two related questions from late last November:

Jenna Royal wrote, current story has a few gaps in the writing, and I was wondering if anyone had any suggestions as how to fix that? There isn’t a lot filling in the space between the events in the story, and that leaves it feeling a little forced and just dull. What do I need to fill the spaces with?

Later she added, …my MC has a mystery to solve, and she has three sources, two of them people and the third an old journal. So all the important events are either dialogue or reading, which gets kind of dull with nothing in between. And the gaps in between are just . . . gaps. The problem is that there is nothing there. My story jumps from one important scene to another, and I’m not sure what to put in between to lead from one event to another to interest my reader. I don’t want a lot of extra stuff, but do I need it to keep my story interesting?

And Marissa wrote, When I read my stories I feel like they flow well in some places, but then other spots are choppy and they just skip around.

Jenna Royal, I don’t know if, when the journal appears, you simply show it, and everything is journal for that section, or if you’re including action. For example, your main character Nathaniel can try to turn a page but his hands are trembling. The reader feels for him. He can put the book aside briefly to think about it, and you show his thoughts. He can reread an important sentence or copy it into his own journal. It’s okay to just place the journal parts in by themselves. That can certainly work, and many books take that approach, but including context can heighten reader engagement. Nathaniel’s attention to some passages more than others will direct or misdirect the reader’s attention. I love to fool the reader. If Nathaniel thinks a certain passage is important, she will too and will give less heed to other, really vital information. When the truth comes out, the reader may thumb back to the relevant lines and grin in admiration at your cleverness.

And the dialogue parts shouldn’t be just dialogue, as you may know. I talk about this in Writing Magic and here and there on the blog. Dialogue needs to be supported by gesture, thoughts, setting. The scaffolding around the speech add interest and liveliness and let the reader see and hear. Yes, hear. Just words on the page don’t convey sound. We don’t know that a character is mumbling, for example, unless we’re told. Then the mumbling heightens our curiosity. Why is this character mumbling? Shyness, fear, an attempt at concealment?

Jenna Royal and Marissa and everyone else, these suggestions will slow your story down, which in this instance is good, because the dullness and choppiness may come from rushing it. Expanding will actually make your plot fly for the reader.

Silver the Wanderer made some suggestions. She (I’m guessing you’re a she) wrote, @Jenna, about your gap problem – maybe you should consider adding in little events that help the reader get to know your characters better? Maybe two of them could play a game, or go for a walk? Maybe the walk could be on the way to one of the people who are the sources? And they have to eat, after all. Some of these little things might turn out to be just filler, but you’ll learn more about your characters by the way they act. And who knows? Maybe one of the events might turn out to be important? It’s happened to me before, and it’s always interesting to see how these things seem to tie into the rest of the story without really meaning to.

(Have I mentioned lately that I love the sharing and support and advice that happen on the blog?)

I agree. Writing is magical. Something we throw in, thinking we may get rid of it later, turns out to be the key to an entire story. As Silver the Wanderer suggested, the two characters walk together to a source, and the secondary character mentions that he collects nineteenth century monocles, and they stop to look in the window of a hardware store, and Nathaniel thinks about the tiny tools needed to repair monocles or about glass grinding, and click! he has solved the mystery.

When we give a few characters an activity, they can’t just do it and nothing else or we might as well be writing an instructional manual. We need to enrich the action with setting, dialogue, body language, thoughts. We think we’re picking at random, but our minds in their sneaky depths know what the story may eventually need, and so, miraculously, we insert just the details that will later prove crucial.

For example, in Ever, Olus, the main male character and the god of the wind, thinks of himself also as the god of loneliness. His mother is the goddess of the earth and of pottery. I wasn’t think of the future when I wrote them that way, but their dual god roles help my main female character enormously – I won’t say how.

Not that this always works for me. Sometimes I just sow confusion. Or I write an interesting scene that enhances character but doesn’t do much for future plot, which is okay too.

More than okay. These in-between periods create texture and fill out the world of the story. We shouldn’t let them go on too long, and we want to remind the reader of the ongoing tension, but short interims of down time are often exactly what a story needs.

Having said all that – the subconscious and softer story interludes – it’s a good idea to keep the story problem in mind even as you’re writing transitions. While the two characters are walking together, Nathaniel can be chewing over the mystery. He can ask the secondary for advice and then maybe worry that he’s asked an indiscreet question or given something away or that his companion won’t keep a secret or that she isn’t trustworthy. She may say something that sets off alarm bells.

Mysteries are a special case, because there may be two problems, the mystery that needs solving and the main character’s difficulty, whatever that is. Nathaniel needs to find his missing sister. The mystery and his problem are the same. Or he’s been hired to look for the missing uncle of a classmate he doesn’t even know very well. In the second case, what’s at stake for Nathaniel?

If the answer is nothing, then the reader is unlikely to care about any of it. No matter how baffling the mystery is or how cleverly Nathaniel goes about solving it, it will still be an intellectual exercise. What’s at stake can be anything, can be directly related to the mystery or not. Nathaniel may be proving to a potential girlfriend that he’s really a detective. We want him to get the girl, so we want him to solve the mystery. Or he can fall for the classmate with the missing uncle. Or he can uncover a connection between the uncle and himself.

Focusing on Nathaniel’s problem may smooth out choppiness. His thoughts may also. However, sometimes all that’s needed is an introductory word or clause, like Meanwhile or After Nathaniel finished at the dentist; then continue the story.

Here are some prompts that draw from this post:

∙    Your main character Helena goes into a store, can be a hardware store or any other sort, but be sure you know enough about the merchandise to find a mystery there. Whatever it is, the mystery is in the goods the store sells. Find a way to tie it to Helena’s life.

∙    Helena finds a journal in her father’s bathrobe pocket after he’s gone to the hospital for emergency surgery. The journal entries are written in a secret language he taught her when she was eight years old, but the journal is older than that.

∙    Nathaniel goes home with Helena to see her collection of antique monocles. He picks one up and raises it to his eyes. Helena shrieks and pushes his arm away but too late, because he’s already seen…

∙    Nathaniel and Helena have left the house of one of the sources after breaking into her greenhouse in search of a clue. The source came home, but they managed to escape without being caught. The tension has been very high for the last twenty pages and you want to give the two and the reader a break. Helena and Nathaniel go to a local park and collapse on the grass. Write this scene and in dialogue, action (small actions, gestures, body language), and thoughts, shift their relationship.

∙    Perry and Nathaniel go to high school together, but they hardly know each other. Perry asks Nathaniel for help with a mystery in his life because Nathaniel has a skill Perry needs, whatever it is. Nathaniel asks why he should care, and Perry tells him. You write Perry’s answer and take it from there.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Wow, thank you so much for answering this question! 🙂 The advice is really helpful. My mind is already working at how I can apply this stuff to my story. Thank you so much! Also, it came at a perfect time . . . just a week ago, I opened up my document for the first time in two months to begin editing, and this will be really helpful when I tackle that. Thanks!

  2. Hi Mrs. Levine and everyone! 🙂
    Sorry I haven't stopped by lately – between schoolwork, writing and a recent vacation, my life has been pretty busy. Goodness! I'm definitely going to go back and read the couple posts I missed. Your advice is brilliant, as usual, and I'm quite flattered you decided to include some of my own humble suggestions as part of your post. 🙂
    Unfortunately, my story has the opposite problem – during my first draft, I ended up sticking in WAY too many little scenes that just don't move the plot along. Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I've really been working hard to edit those scenes and tighten up my plot. Not that I don't like my filler scenes – in fact, I'm glad I added them in. They helped me as a writer to understand my story world better. That was their purpose. Now that they've served their purpose, I don't feel too bad about taking them out.
    Thanks again, Mrs. Levine, and happy writing all! 🙂

  3. THANK YOU for saying it's okay for stories to slow down sometimes! I sometimes get the sense, from other sources of writing advice, that a story should move forward constantly–that every sentence should be chasing the plot rather than focusing more on developing characters. I've actually had some debate about this with a writing friend. I feel like a healthy mix is needed, but the idea of moving the plot along is one I've heard emphasized much more often than the idea of having "in-between scenes." Thanks for putting in a word for the other viewpoint!

  4. I suddenly feel a lot less guilty about letting my two main characters go fishing XD. I have always struggled with this. Sometimes I write something with too much fluffy stuff and not nearly enough plot or sometimes I write something that is all plot and the characters are flatter than Flat Stanley (this happened with my Nano, I am editing the first draft and it is a nightmare right now…)

    Just a quick question(for Ms. Levine or anyone who wants to answer:): How long can one write without introducing the main problem of a story? In my newest project I have my main character in a new place with a lot of whacky characters I love to write about. They've had some small problems that keep the plot going thusfar but I'm getting on 20k words now and I still haven't introduced the main conflict that will guide the story and hopefully the rest of the planned series. Is this too long? Do you think the reader will get bored? I hesitate to rush the plot too much because then the characters would have to leave their current location and I really love where they are right now and all the characters there.

    Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine! 🙂

  5. Ah, I love this post! I've always admired authors who distract the reader with a aprticular paragraph, or throw in bits of information which seem mundane, but become vitally important in the latter part of the book.

    Its like socks in the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. A simple sock saving Dobby's life. It seemed so unimportant, so forgettable with. Or the brief mention of Riddle's diary.

    I've only attempted this sort of thing once, and it wasn't very effective, seeing as even my little sister spotted the 'subtle but important' bit right away.)= But I think I should try it again. It'd be lovely to do something other than homework this weekend, so I'll definitely give it a shot.

    Thanks for the wonderful post, Mrs Levine.=)

    @Grace: Hmm, in response to your question, I think it depends on how you write your story. I tend to write the scene with the main characters present first. Perhaps you could write a few scenes the feature only the main character, to get a feel or his/her personality, and then do a scene with the main and the others, but toneing down their voices. I hope that helped, even a litte.=)

    @Silver: I'm having exactly the same problem as you. I can't seem to connect the little filler incidents, which are so much fun to write since you can let the characters relax, as well as explore their personalities, but connecting them to the main plot, its comes out all…choppy.

    Lol, can't help mentioning it Mrs Levine, Silver's a girl. I'm pretty sure. And so am I.=) Just to clear up any doubts hehe.

  6. Great post! I used to have the opposite problem, how do I get from main scene to scene without recording waking up, brushing teeth, eating breakfast and everything in between. :)Somehow I fixed that by focusing on the main scenes. (At least I like to *think* I've fixed it.)

    @ Grace – Lots of really good published books seem to put off the main problem and they do a really good job of immersing the reader in the story world – but they aren't necessarily ones who would easily get an agent or publisher in the current climate. Getting to the main problem quickly is kind of a trend right now, especially when agents and editors only read the first 10 pages! But really you shouldn't worry too much about getting published as you write; a lot can happen in revising.

    Things you can keep in mind:
    – Keep writing. It may be that after you finish you can reorder your scenes and alter this scene you love into a middle scene.
    – Go back over what you've written and see if you can drop hints about the main problem that's to come. Build the anticipation.
    – Or maybe, your main problem that you have in mind isn't going to work and that's why you're avoiding it. As you keep exploring you may come up with a better main problem.

  7. @Grace, I've read books where the action gets off to a slow start. Sometimes, that's okay. But there has to be something in the beginning to grab my attention. Is it possible for you to hint at/foreshadow the story's main conflict while at the same time introducing your reader to the story world? These characters that you like – do they come along with your MC when he/she leaves their current location? If so, maybe you can write about them along the way and let their personalities be revealed gradually. Even characters left behind in the first location could come up in dialogue, letting the reader get to know them even though they haven't met them yet.
    I think I should mention that my own story got off to a bit of a slow start at first. I had a prologue and the greater part of my first chapter that simply acted as set-up for the rest of the story. Once I had completely my rough draft, I realized that my story started off too slowly, but I didn't know where to start it. So I just let it be for a while and worked on other parts of my draft until it finally dawned on me that the story really started at the very END of chapter one. I scrapped my prologue and most of chapter one, having decided to throw the reader right into the think of things and fill them in on what was going on as the story progresses.
    I hope this helps you! 🙂

    Oh, and yes, Mya is right – I am a girl. Forgot to mention that. 😛

  8. @Grace
    If you like where they are right now, you don't have to do some big conflict. Some stories I have read aren't about big problems, but may just be a story about growing up or about conflicts in relationships and misunderstandings.

    However, if you really want to write abot a big conflict, I really like Silver's idea about foreshadowing the conflict before it happens. You could have a few scenes about them being happy, but then one scene hints that there's alot of trouble happening. For example, let's say the location is going to be torn down at some point in the story. We have one comical scene with lots of character development. Then the next scene, shows the owner of the location having trouble paying the bills and considering selling the location, but he hesitates. Another scene on the comical characters, but this time one the character notices that the owner has dark circles under his eyes and looks fatigued, they ask him what's wrong, but the owner just smiles and sets their worry at ease. The next day, there's an ad on the paper, saying the location is for sale. . . .

    Even though there is no conflict, be sure that there is some tension in the story that hints at the bigger problem. Think about Harry Potter. Even though there is alot of funny, character-developing moments, in the very beginning she hints about a magical battle (even its over). Lster on in the story, the accidental magic continues as a source of tension until he gets the letter and his confrontation with Voldie begins.


    I never really had a problem with filling the gaps of a story. I do like Levine's suggestions though, especially the prompts! I have a question to ask to everyone though. How do you find out what the major conflict of your story is and why do you stick to it?

  9. @ everyone, thanks for the advice.
    I have forshadowed a little bit, I have a prologue told in first person from the main character. All the important characters at my main character's current location are going with her later when she goes on a quest and I wanted to develop them a bit more before they all got split up and the real action begins. This makes me feel a bit better about my decision to let them stay there for the moment, though I may end up cutting some stuff out in editing-oh well. Thanks everyone this definitely helped 🙂

    Honestly, sometimes you don't know. Sometimes you just have to write and it will come to you, that's happened to me a couple of times. I've had a few characters and some vague ideas and just start writing and eventually conflict will emerge. This doesn't always happen for me though. What I suggest is making a list of all the possible things that could go wrong for your main character and picking the one you like best and going from there. In the project I am currently writing (though I mentioned I haven't gotten to the main conflict yet XD) I started writing it a few months ago with a completely different main conflict, but it really dragged and wasn't good. I took a break from the project to do Nano, and by the time I came back for it, I had come up with a completely different main conflict. The new main conflict works a lot better with the story, and I like it a lot more, though it takes all my characters in a COMPLETELY different direction than first intended. So sometimes you have to try trial and error. As for sticking with it- well my advice for that is just get excited for it. Get the proper motivation, get to know and love your characters and plot and then just write! Hope this helps 🙂

  10. @ Grace
    I have the same problem! Sometimes I add a lot of fluff that I feel is particularly clever and I have a lot of trouble cutting it. I'm learning.

    Thanks everyone for the suggestions for dealing with this problem!

    In a writing class I took from the local community college, I got a twelve point recipe for plotting. Before I write, I answer the twelve questions. The story doesn't always go the direction I thought I would, but at least I have an idea of where it might go before I begin. Here are the twelve questions:
    1. Who is the main character?
    2. Who (or what) is the antagonist?
    3. Who are the other people in the story (guide, best friend, parents, siblings, etc.)?
    4. What does the main character what? Wjy? What is his or her need, problem goal, situation, greatest need?
    5. How important is it for the individual to get what he or she wants? What is at stake?
    6. How does the antagonist prevent the main character from getting what he or she wants (opposition, conflict)?
    7. What does the main character do about this obstacle?
    8. What are the resutls of his or her intial action?
    9. What do these struggles lead to(This is the crisis–things can't get any worse)?
    10. What is the climax (moment of decision)?
    11. Does the main character accomplish his or her purpose or abandon it in favor of something else (resolution, denoument)?
    12. What is the theme (what has the character learned)?

    I hope this helps!

  11. @ April – Thanks for asking the question that let me know you can buy books through Ms. Levine's website! I had forgotten about that and you asked just in time for me to order my niece's birthday present that way. I didn't know you could do that from a website, so it's also something to look into if I ever get my own blog started. I've been planning one, um, a while. 🙂

  12. This blog needs to stop reading my mind XD Perfect advise right when I need it, as always.
    My current story is having to move pretty fast to get onto the important stuff, so fixing the gaps has been a big challenge.
    Just kind of suggesting from personal experience, it's okay to summarize what happened between stuff for time's sake. Obviously if all that happened were a few mundane things or nothing majorly important to characterization or plot, no one's really going to miss it.

  13. @Grace – I know what you mean about not having your main problem obvious right away – I'm 70 pages into my most recent novel, and though I've dropped hints, the entire problem hasn't been made obvious for my characters. Although the situation is a little different, I think . . . I have 3 MCs, so there's a lot more laying out to do. I don't think not making the problem obvious right away is an issue. I can think of lots of books that slowly build up. I'd suggest dropping a few hints, though. See if there's a piece of information or two that you could put in to make a reader a little uncomfortable with the situation, like they can sense that something bad is going to happen. I wouldn't worry too much about it in the first draft, though. My stories tend to start slow in the first draft, just because I'm not clear about where I'm going and I need to get a feel for what I'm writing.

    @Bluekiwii – That's a hard question for me to answer! There's two different ways that my plots come to me. The first is that I have an idea for the basic conflict, or the problem, and I wonder how a character would deal with it. The rest of the story, characters, etc. grows off of that. The second way is a little more vague. I start writing off of just a basic beginning from a simple idea, and I drop hints to myself as I write. I don't really think about doing it, it just kind of happens. I start to think about what might happen, and where the story might be going. It just kind of grows in leaps and bounds as I go along, and various small threads all come together to make my final core plot. If you're having trouble with a plotline, I would suggest trying to make a list of possibilities, or drop hints for yourself as you go along to make yourself think about what might be coming. Or perhaps try to imagine how you could weave smaller threads of idea you may have together into a bigger picture.

  14. Hello. Wow, I've been stalking here for months, but I've never commented. I feel
    like Prilla approaching Mother Dove for the first time. 🙂
    I'm seventeen, planning on being published and writing full-time one day, and it's so wonderful that you're able to share all this! I love all your books–Ella Enchanted, Fairest, The Two Princesses of Bamarre…it may amuse you to know that I'm a nervous brunette named Allie and my sister's an adventurous blonde named Mary, so we're pretty sure Addie and Meryl are us in an alternate universe. And the fairy books. As if I wasn't obsessed enough with Peter Pan. Prilla is one of my favorite characters in anything, ever. I'm jealous of Sarah because I want Prilla to be my fairy. 🙂
    I forced myself to finish a novel between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, and it's really kind of a silly novel, but it taught me so much about writing, so I think this year I'm going to force myself to look at it and give it some edits. I also need to finish this year's Nano, and I need to keep working on my pride and joy, a novel I've been working on where a girl goes on a road trip in a magic ice-cream truck. Lots of fun.
    They've just started the journey, and I have the plot in my head all right, so here's my question: do you have any ideas for writing realistically about a cross-country road trip when you've never actually taken one yourself, and you can't go on one because your whole summer is completely booked? If the creator of Prilla can answer this question for me, I will be beyond excited. ^_^ Say hello to her for me!

  15. Hello! I've discovered this blog a few hours ago and I've been scrolling through the posts like a mad woman. You have great advice! And I can't believe I can actually talk to you here, with you responding back to me!
    I'm a new writer and I was wondering – how do you write your books? That's a really weird question, I know – but I mean by do you write from the beginning to end (which I'm trying to do, but it's just so difficult – but I've heard that this works better), or do you write the scenes you like by working with an outline?
    And where do you get your inspiration?
    Thank you!

  16. Piper–Welcome to the blog! I may have answered the "how do I write" question in a post on 12/8/10 and one on 10/14/09. Take a look, and if you have follow-up questions, please ask. I'm adding your question about inspiration to my list.

  17. Welcome Piper and Alice! I'll be popping up from time to time with comments on drama, emotions, and anytime there's a book I've read being discussed. I have also shown a peculiar tendency to drag Suzanne Collins' marvelous HUNGER GAMES series into discussions as an example. 😉

  18. I definitely have this problem! When I'm writing certain parts, I'm inspired, and my writing goes great. And sometimes I'm just trying to get it done and it sounds horrible.

    I had another question: I'm a teen writer, and I really enjoy writing novels, but it seems like since they take so long, my writing style and skill level has changed a lot from the beginning to the end. How do you maintain a constant style throughout the book, even when your writing skills change?

  19. @Wendy
    That's what revisions are for. 🙂

    Gail might have more helpful advice, but since you posted this so late in the week (she updates Wednesdays) she might not see your question.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.