Creating Wind in the Doldrums

Here’s a little grammar rant, which I hope I haven’t delivered before: Whom is dying, and I am grieving. The poor pronoun is no longer heard on the airwaves I listen to. I don’t see it in newspapers. In its style guide, an important publisher I know of instructs writers not to use the word in books for children.

English is a living language, which means usage changes. I favor that. I cheer for it. But I’m worried that the moribund state of whom is more than the loss of a word, because people may become ignorant–or they already are and that caused its demise–of the difference between subject and object. Whom is an object pronoun, the person to whom something is done. The doer is the subject pronoun, as in, “Who killed chivalry?” The one to whom something is done is the object pronoun, as in, “Whom did Jack the Ripper knock off this time?” (It isn’t always as obvious as this–all the more reason to know subject and object.)

Rant over. But if you think whom’s death isn’t a tragedy, please argue or at least comsole me.

Onto the regular post.

On January 31, 2020, I’dratherbewriting wrote, Does anyone know what to do when you don’t know what to do? In my current work in progress, I’ve reached a point where I’m not quite sure where to go with the plot. Everything before this point is fine (as far as first drafts go, at least) and I have a detailed outline for where I’m going after. But I’m currently in the doldrums of my plot. It’s not quite exposition, but I’m not far enough to start building up the tension. Does anyone have tips for how to push through a rough patch in the story?

Also, I’m having problems with pacing. I’m constantly swinging between feeling like I have too much dialogue or feeling like I don’t have enough. Where is the happy medium, and how do I find it?

Two of you weighed in.

Melissa Mead: What purpose is the part of the story with “the doldrums” serving? Does it need to be in the story at all, or can you convey its information more efficiently some other way? Ex, if the evil wizard’s enslaved servant girl is secretly studying his books at night, hoping to find a way to escape, instead of detailing every stolen midnight reading session, you could say “After four years of breath-stopping close calls, she managed to levitate that tiresome silver tray as high as the window, and realized that now was the best chance she’d ever have.”

Christie V Powell: When I’m stuck in a rough patch, I usually take a break–a walk is best, but doing some household chore works too. It helps my brain get moving again. I’ve probably mentioned this too many times, but I love using KM Weiland’s Plot Structure for pacing. The info is free on her blog, http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com.

With dialogue, I think the issue is more to do with the quality of the dialogue than the quantity–I mean, people still read screenplays, which are almost entirely dialogue. One of my early readers complained that I had too much dialogue in my first book. The problem was mostly with scenes where the characters were chatting about world details or backstory that weren’t really relevant to what’s going on in the current story, so I shortened or removed those.

I’m with Christie V Powell on the helpfulness of breaks, and I love to walk. Playing with the dog is good too.

This isn’t exactly a break, but sometimes when I’m stuck, I amble on the treadmill in our basement, where there are no distractions, and think about the problem and what I might do to solve it. The slow pace and rhythm of my steps keep me focused.

I’m also with Melissa Mead on hopping over the slow times in a story. If time has to pass before the action revs up, we can just write A month later and get to the tension.

Sometimes I think I have to set everything up before my plot starts moving, which makes for a dull beginning, and the reader may not hang in long enough to reach the adventure to come. We have to begin to introduce it quickly while acquainting the reader with our world.

Let’s take Melissa Mead’s example: the slave girl to an evil wizard. During the day, she polishes the wizard’s torture instruments. In the evenings, she catnaps. At night, she reads magic books in his library, hoping to find a spell that will get her out of there. For three years, nothing changes.

We may have to skip some of those years simply by telling the reader that they passed. But what can we do to bring to life portions of this time?

At the beginning, our crises should be small, compared with the turning point to come, but they need to engage the reader’s sympathy with our MC, whom I’ll call Vicky.

Naturally, the reader will want to know how Vicky got into this mess. I’m not a fan of flashbacks when they can be avoided, so we can start our story with the origin of her captivity. How did this happen? Time for a list!

It’s generally useful for our MC to have an Achilles’ heel–or both heels–to increase reader worry, so we might make her capture partly her fault. That would go into our list:

• Her focus on whatever she’s doing is absolute. She’s unaware of the wizard until he’s halfway through chanting his spell.

• She know the wizard is coming and why, but some other crisis is unfolding and she has to deal with it, and she isn’t good at multitasking.

• The wizard is an old friend of her family. He’s gone over to the dark side but she doesn’t notice the signs, because she thinks the best of everyone.

Your turn. As an early prompt, add three more possibilities.

This is exciting! We write the scene of her capture, introducing the reader to the wizard along the way, including his strengths and his Achilles heel. Maybe we jump forward to her exploration of his stronghold and the discovery of the library. This is tense too, because she can’t be caught wandering around.

She finds the library and establishes a safe route to it. Now, the doldrums set in, but we need some action during the three years. First off, can we shorten the time to a month? A month is a great length for ratcheting up the suspense. If she doesn’t escape within the month and reveal his location, then the wizard will have completed his fog machine. The kingdom will be enveloped in darkness, and he’ll be able to get away with his nefarious whatever.

But if, for plot reasons, we can’t shorten the time, what can we introduce periodically?

We can decide that we need, say, four tense scenes in the three years. Two will improve Vicky’s chances and two will make everything more grim. We start another list:

• Someone new arrives at the stronghold.
• The wizard begins to suspect Vicky.
• Vicky finds a spell that she thinks will save everyone, but it goes disastrously wrong.

Your turn for three more.

The three years end. The reader hasn’t stopped turning pages, hasn’t slept in days. Time for the major crisis.

Onto dialogue.

I suspect that this question is best left for revision when we can tell what’s needed and what isn’t, so let’s imagine that we’ve gotten there.

I’d argue that almost everything in a story should contribute to its pace, dialogue included. I agree with Christie V Powell that dialogue that is mere chatter should be trimmed.

That said, I include a lot of talk in my books. Out of curiosity, I scanned two random twenty-page sections of Ella Enchanted. Coincidentally, dialogue appeared on sixteen pages of each sample. Sometimes, the dialogue was just a line or two.

What does dialogue do that contributes to pace? Well, it reveals character, and character is essential to plot. It builds relationships–or destroys them. It advances plot directly, as in the necklace incident when Hattie comes to understand that Ella has to obey.

Here are three prompts. For extra credit, use whom in your story, or use who in its place and feel good about it.

• Rapunzel is in her tower for three years before the prince arrives. Write three exciting scenes in the tower during that period.

• Using an expanded list, write Vicky’s capture by the wizard.

• Write the crisis when Vicky finds the right spell and casts it–but the wizard fights back.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Hi Gail! My girlfriend and I are huge fans — I remember reading your book as a kid, along with Shannon Hale’s “Princess Academy”! I’m a writer now, too, and you guys definitely inspired me when I was young. Currently, though, us two are on a road trip, and she had a question about Ella Enchanted — if Ella lived in modern-day and was driving and saw a road sign telling her, “thanks for coming to our city! please come back soon!” would she have to turn the car around? Sorry if it’s stupid! She said this question has been bugging her for years, so I figured I’d look you up and see! Much love!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’m glad you’re fans! And that you’re a writer!

      But, gee whiz!, your girlfriend should go back to her copy of ELLA ENCHANTED, because the answer to her question is right in the first five pages!

  2. I also mourn the passing of “whom,” although I understand subject vs object quite well due to my German studies: in German, articles and adjectives change depending on if their noun is a subject, direct, or indirect object. Maybe we should just teach everyone German!! I wouldn’t complain, it’s a fantastic language.

    Does anyone have advice on writing “slice of life” stories? One of my current WIPs is a long term story following the growth of the MC. That’s fine, and I do have it fairly planned, but I’m running into troubles with showing her changing and not bogging down the plot too much. I suppose it’s the doldrums in a sense, but rather necessary doldrums because the reader needs proof that she’s changing before she becomes someone different.
    Right now I’m stuck in an area that needs multiple (mostly) happy scenes in a row before more Drama(TM) can get introduced, and… the only time I’m very good at happy scenes, unfortunately, is as setup for something to go Terribly Wrong. Happy scenes with no immediately linked tragic payoff are proving to be troublesome.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’ve added your question to my list–which will take a while to get to. In the meantime, I hope others will weigh in.

      German seems daunting to me! All the declensions!

    • Could you try writing comedy? Not necessarily comedic scenes in your WIP, but a story whose entire purpose is to be funny. That way, you can experiment with having tension without drama, if that makes sense. And letting your characters play off each other can help show how your MC is changing, especially if she responds n an unexpected way.

    • Something to keep in mind while writing those mostly happy scenes is to keep the tension up. I’ve been reading The Silver Eye, which is a superb webcomic. One thing I’ve been noticing about it and other good webcomics is that they (by necessity) maintain the reader’s interest from one week to the next. They do this by maintaining the tension on EVERY PAGE. Something always pulls the reader in and promises something tantalizing next week. It’s not always some big threat looming over them. Sometimes it’s information. One of the characters might reveal something that has been a mystery until now, and all of us readers drink it in and want more, so we wait eagerly for the next page. Or it could be a growing relationship.

      Anyway, I guess it all boils down to making each scene move the story forward in some way or another. It might make those happy scenes more inspiring to write if you think about where you want the characters to be in the beginning of the scene and where you want them at the end, and how this moves the plot, and why the reader wants to turn the page when the scene is done.

      • Here’s an analogy: someone once told me that when they run, they place each step directly below themselves, so that the other foot has to take the next step quickly. In other words, they stay slightly off-balance in order to keep the momentum going. So when you write, you could think of never completely letting the story catch its balance until you type “the end.”

  3. RE: Whom or who…I use Children’s Writer’s Word Book (ed 2) 2006 for words different grades know. The meaning is labeled 2nd grade for whom and K for who.

    My daughter and I love A Ceiling Made of Eggshells for the settings, the character development and the interesting plot! Thanks for sharing your writing journey of this marvelous historical fiction book, Gail!

  4. Does anyone have any advice about plagiarism?

    Like when you think your writing an original story and then you realize that the characters, the plot, and even the names are almost exactly like a book you’ve read?

    This has happened to me more times then I can count. And I don’t know how to have what I read give me original ideas.

    • In my mind, plagiarism is inherently intentional by definition. All plots are recycled in some fashion, and as long as it isn’t directly using specific chunks of plot or, Maribor forbid, pieces of text, I don’t think it’s an issue. A few similarities with a few different stories is nothing to worry about. 😉 I mean, Tolkien invented half of the fantasy conventions that have become commonplace (although he himself was heavily inspired by mythology and other older works!); it’s nearly impossible to write fantasy without it reflecting back on Middle Earth in some fashion.

    • I would suggest that if something like that happened, the best thing to do would be to make a list of things you could do to make your story different from the one you’re imitating. The key is to write down everything. So, say, if you were writing a story that seemed really similar to, say, Ogre Enchanted, you could make a list of other creatures the MC could be turned into, other wide-swept disasters besides a disease, and all the names you can think of. (In this one it might be useful to just write your character’s current name at the top and just start experimenting with it.) In general, just come up with things you can change, then change them. Also, something someone on the blog (I’d give credit if I could remember their name) told me is that even if you’re basing a character on someone else, as soon as they make their first decision, they start moving away from the original, because you have no way of knowing what that character would actually do in the circumstances you’ve created.

    • The other day, I rewatched a beautiful short film about a time traveler (not by choice) who doesn’t care about his greater mission, only to track down the beautiful woman from his past. And I thought to myself about a project I am currently working on, wherein a dimension traveler (not by choice) who doesn’t care about his greater mission falls in love with and then has to track down a beautiful woman, and said, “man, if I hadn’t seen this film for the first time just now, I’d assume I plagiarized my entire concept from it.”

      That’s very silly. I know where I got my project from– all of it, from the embittered lovers to the treatment of one character’s transness to the clock motif– and none of it is this short film. But goodness, if you watched it after reading what I wrote? You might immediately link them! Look at those similarities I listed.

      The key is that there are *other* aspects to the work. And I’m sure you’re writing a beautiful work with your own original ideas, and thousands of others. You can feel free to actively change the characters as you go, or you can add in aspects from MORE books (trust me, every book is five hundred other books and films and albums the author has experienced), or you can… just write. Because, as your own author, you will INHERENTLY write these things differently! Just head to a fanfiction forum for proof of that.

      So I wouldn’t worry, if I were you– I’d just write. You’ll find your way ^__^ Best of luck!!

      (The short film is La Jetee, or The Jetty, by the way.)

  5. Whom – I’m emotionally indifferent to its demise, but it’s interesting that the same thing happened centuries ago with you/ye. And we lost the second-person pronoun plurality/formality distinction afforded by thou/thee. And they/them is increasingly being used as a singular pronoun as well as plural (has been for some time, but it’s a hot topic now). Then there are the languages where there are separate pronouns for we (inclusive of interlocutor) and we (exclusive). It’s fascinating how much nuance can be packed into pronouns!

    Unrelated – I was just thinking I’d love to see a Dave at Night movie, or maybe a miniseries. It’s one of my favorites of your books and it is the 20s again, after all! (I know authors have little control over that, though.)

  6. She says, “whoops! It’s been a hot minute!” Looks like we’ll have to both go back and dig into it. Thanks for answering! You rock! <3

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