Unboring the boring

On February 16, 2020, Katie W. wrote, My problem with getting the characters involved in a conversation is that when I’m stuck, it’s usually because I’m procrastinating, so the characters start talking and never stop. I’m facing that right now in my WIP, as well as the general “I need to put something in the middle of this story but I don’t know what.” Essentially, I have a busy day, four fairly boring days (although there will probably be an exciting scene or two), and then it gets interesting again. Any advice?

Sara wrote back, I would try to be as brief as you can with the boring parts. You have to describe something in order to let the reader know that time is passing, but try not to go through the motions with what you describe. Something I do sometimes is be brief but still go through a day chronologically, by giving short descriptions of everything that happens. Then I realize that a bunch of the stuff wasn’t necessary, and I only kept the interesting things. So if the little descriptions don’t give us something that’s at least kinda useful, don’t feel bad cutting it. I think that the reader can fill in the blanks. For letting dialogue go on and on, you might want to just write it when you feel like you need to or want to and then go back and look for any useful or interesting or funny little parts. A lot of the time, in a bunch of dialogue, there will still be really good parts even if it’s overall unnecessary. If the whole thing doesn’t fit, then try to put the good parts somewhere else in your story.

I am with Sara that we can let our stories run on in a first draft, and we can snip away a little at a time in later drafts. If we’re entertaining ourselves, there’s nothing wrong with that. Writing is hard. We should take our fun where we find it. And I’m with her that there will generally be really good bits that we can keep or drop into other places.

We don’t want any boring parts to remain in our story when we finish polishing it, so as we revise, or even as we write in the first place, we can insert hints to the “next interesting thing” coming up in our plot. To do this, we think ahead:

Does our MC or anyone taking part in the dialogue know about the plot point on the way? If yes, we can put hints into the conversation or the body language or the thoughts and feelings of our MC.

For example, suppose our MC, named Kiara, and her friends will all be competing to get into an elite academy, and the competition is the next important event in our story. Meanwhile, they’re at the birthday party of Kiara’s best friend Lyle, eating swamp beast stew and talking about, say, favorite board games. We need this scene to show the bond between the characters, but nothing major happens in it.

How can we introduce tension? We make a list!

The result of the list is that during the party, Kiara thinks how, after Friday, she probably won’t see some of the other kids again and, if she fails, won’t see any of them. She notices Lyle talking with his mouth full and remembers how that always annoyed her but now it seems precious. She swallows over the lump in her throat.

The reader can’t be inside the heart and mind of any other characters, but their actions and dialogue can foreshadow the coming test. These go on our list too. Lyle drops his fork, and Kiara notices that his hand is trembling. Janelle says she hates board games because they’re too competitive. Marla announces spontaneously, “I love you guys! Every… single… one… of… you.” Jerrold blows his nose with a wet honk.

These hints can punctuate a debate over the best board game and a rambling anecdote from someone about a family Monopoly marathon. The reader will pick up on the clues.

If the characters don’t know about the excitement ahead, we can still put in signs. Suppose a goblin army is about to invade the kingdom and Kiara and her friends live in a town near the border. The partygoers have no idea this is on the way. How to foreshadow the danger without out-and-out saying, Little did they know…

Naturally, we make a list. How can we suggest trouble while the peaceful party is going on?

• Kiara casually mentions that Lyle is now old enough to be called up if the kingdom is threatened. Most of the kids are old enough too. This becomes a joke. If they all flunk the entrance exam, they can still fight together. Kiara thinks that it’s lucky the kingdom has been at peace for a century, because she barely passed her martial arts class.

• Lyle picks up the Royal Gazette on a side table and reads out loud an article about a construction project that happened to unearth sacred goblin bones.

• In a discussion of end-of-year research papers, Kiara says she wrote about goblin psychology, concentrating on goblin rage.

• Lyle says that goblins never die alone. “They always take someone with them.” Everyone shudders.

We list other possibilities.

When we write the scene, we include the mundane. Lyle opens his presents. Kiara says she ate too much. Lyle’s parents put in an appearance.

But if the party scene turns out not to be necessary for our plot, we cut it–and save it in case we change our mind, in case we need it for another story, in case a doctoral student writing about us will find it fascinating.

There is nothing wrong with making time pass in a sentence or even three words: A week later… Or we can mark off time landmarks in a few sentences. Lyle’s birthday party came and went. Rain fell three times. Out of boredom, I repaired the hem of my least favorite gown. If we like, we can drop a hint of tension into our summary: Mother was called away two nights running.

Here are three prompts:

• The goblin army is camped ten miles outside the border. A dozen soldiers eat around a campfire. Write their conversation. Make it both boring and horrifying.

• I based my Princess Tale Cinderellis and the Glass Hill on a little known fairy tale called “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” In the beginning of the fairy tale, a farm’s hay harvest is mysteriously ruined three years running. In the third year, the hero discovers that a magical horse is eating the hay. The next year, a second magical horse shows up, and the next, a third magical horse. Nothing happens in the story aside from one day a year. Here’s a link to the fairy tale: https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/lfb/bl/blfb34.htm. Or https://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00077434/00001/7j. Write the first two or three years. The challenge is to make them interesting. If you haven’t already, don’t read my version.

• Write Prince Charming’s first hour at the first ball before Cinderella shows up.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. FantasyFan101 says:

    This is a good post. The dialogue parts are great help, especially with the question I just asked, and I like the idea about the goblin attack. I might write a story about it. Though I think I’ll cut the modern academy and birthday. My favorite place to set stories is the medieval era. And with lots of magic.

  2. Off topic, but thank you, Gail. Your Dave At Night reading just helped me with a cooking project! I’ve been teaching myself to cook by making recipes from around the world. I looked up Ladino, and found some good ones.

  3. Thanks so much for answering my question! I tend to fill time with brainless description, irrelevant dialogue, and sometimes brainless description in irrelevant dialogue. This will, at the very least, help me make my useless passages do a little bit of work.

  4. SluggishWriter says:

    Really helpful post! I have a lot of problems with this myself… I never seem to remember that I can just skip ahead. But maybe I’ll try to spice up some of the in-between scenes!
    And I love the prompt about Cinderella’s prince, I might try it out. Has there ever been a blog-wide challenge to write something based off the same prompt or anything? It seems like this group would have a lot of fun reading each others work.

    • There was a post a while back (probably 2016 or earlier) about the 12 Dancing Princesses that had a list of questions about the story (what happened to the queen, who’s the witch with the invisibility cloak, etc.), and people would answer the questions and ask their own for the next person down the line. Apart from that, though, the closest it’s ever gotten is when GCL needed title suggestions for what would become A Tale of Two Castles and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre.

  5. FantasyFan101 says:

    That sounds fun. Though it might be hard for me if the fantasy editor left. Anyway, I have trouble with ideas. See, I don’t have Idea famines as often as some other people, and I wish I did. I think I had, what, 4 books going on, and just the other day I started a new one. Any tips?

    • For not getting swamped by ideas and WIPs? If you have an idea that wants to be a story, your two main options are to incorporate new ideas into the story you’re already working on, or to make a list of ‘Ideas to get to later when I have time’. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with working on several stories at once, if you can keep them all straight. There are (almost) no unbreakable rules for what makes good writing.

    • I have one main project that I try to focus on. If I get new ideas, I give myself permission to write them down, using as much detail as I want. Sometimes I use them as a reward: if I finish this scene or chapter, I’m allowed to work on a new idea for the rest of the day. The nice thing about having stories in reserve is that you can jot down additional ideas that will go in them once you get to that project. So by the time you’re ready to write the new story, you have plenty of material to work with–I usually have an outline several pages long, along with plenty of character and worldbuilding notes.

  6. Fantasywriter6 says:

    Great post! Really good advice, especially for me who gets stuck on anything in the middle. I have a question: I’m trying to write a story that I’m pretty excited about- or I was. I’ve started writing it and I’m having heaps of trouble with my MC. Usually I just write beginnings to stuff; I know where I am, what kind of characters I am working with, and where I’m going(I never really get to middles…but that’s beside the point). So I’m usually really good with beginnings, but this one is really rough and I feel like my MC has absolutely no personality! I tried doing character building exercises, but she still seems like a paper doll that I made on a desk instead of a person I know in my mind…does that sound weird? Anyways, is that a sign it’s a dead end or should I push through or…? Any tips?

    • SluggishWriter says:

      Maybe restart with a new character? You don’t have to switch out everything you’ve already decided about her life, but you can change her attitude or response. Try different personalities.
      It also sounds like you’ve got a lot planned for the plot or world already. Maybe you can start writing and let the character guide instead of thinking of all the cool scenes you’ll get to later?

    • My advice (from someone who’s had EXACTLY the same problem) is just to wait it out. Keep writing the story, keep exploring the world, keep giving the character opportunities to reveal their personality, because 90% of the time, you’ll come up with something that’s blatantly obvious but you never managed to think of before. (“Why is this teacher so determined to help my MC? Obviously, she’s the MC’s aunt.” It took me two years to come up with that one.) The other 10% of the time, the character really is a paper doll and you’re perfectly justified in replacing them or scrapping the story…but you still have to finish it to find out.

      • Fantasywriter6 says:

        Okay, I will! I think I’ll structure my world a little more since the idea is pretty new to me. Maybe that’ll present something that will click…I’ll just have to wait and see. Thanks so much for the advice!

    • Lately, I’ve been using the enneagram system as a way to figure out basic personality. It’s really good at suggesting what fears, desires, and motivations the character might have. I decided that the detective from my upcoming story should be a type 5 “Investigator”, for obvious reasons, which means that his greatest fear is of being insignificant, and he tends to compensate by trying to become an expert in something. His greatest desire is to be highly regarded.

      Another method I’ve used before is to define the character’s Lie they believe about the world, and then use that to figure out their Ghost (an event in the past that made them accept the Lie), and what they Want, which leads to the Truth/what they Need (which are the same thing). Walker’s Lie is that he’s worthless because he made mistakes. The ghost is one of the mistakes–he kept his mouth shut when his parents committed crimes, only to let them slip at the worst possible moment. So what he wants is to make up for his mistake. What he needs is to move on and accept both himself and others.

    • I would say just continue with the story, but try to add more character. For example, maybe make your MC be more courageous or more bratty. Also, put in things he or she likes, that really helps define a character.

  7. FantasyFan101 says:

    I honestly have trouble with character too. In a book I’m writing, when I started, my MC, Hana, was pretty much a blank sheet. As the story progressed, however, she developed into a strong personality. Likely to be a bit judging, embarrassed to show her feelings, easily gets annoyed, and doesn’t give up easily. I’m with “Some girl” on just continuing the story, and adding some character occasionally. But if your brain starts feeling stretched, jut write. (S)he’ll get her/his own personality. Sometimes the personality you want isn’t the personality that suits the book. Sometimes it is. Most importantly, listen to your character, as weird as that sounds. They may want their own say as to how they turn out. I wish you luck, and hope this helps.

  8. This post really helped me. I have the same issue of making my characters talk until it becomes unbearable to read anymore. But I have one question, concerning a whole new topic. My current W.I.P is based in the 1950s, and I want to make sure that it is accurate to the time period. I have used many websites containing the ‘slang’ used back then, but I’m not sure if I’m using it correctly. Do you have any advice on how I can make my writing more accurate to the time period?

    • There’s a series of three blog posts about historical fiction that might help, and if you know anyone who remembers the 50’s, you could ask them. Or you could read books from that era, both fiction and nonfiction, to get a feel for the kinds of things they talked about and what their writing voices (and dialogue) sounded like.

    • It’s a great way to get to know your relatives, if you have any from that area.
      You could also look for living history shows on Yoiutube. I just watched one that went “back in time” to the 1970s. Nothing like watching your childhood on a Past History show to make a person feel old. 🙂

    • I write a lot of historical fiction too. A few tips is Wikipedia it. Many people will trash talk it, but it has really good, interesting, useful information. Next, (although I think it was already mentioned) read books and watch movies set in that era. Read non fiction historical books or why not even invest in a textbook? And finally read articles written from that era. You have picked one where there is plenty of lasting info. You could even listen to political speeches, watch Disney cartoons from that era and etc.

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