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!

Mid-book crisis

Before I start, I want to let you know that a poem of mine, “Snow Fight,” was just published in the fall/winter 2012 edition of the poetry journal Sugar House Review. The poem won’t hurt you if you’re below high school age, but it was written for adults. I haven’t read the whole issue yet, so I can’t speak for the rest. I’d say high school and above is safest. If you’re interested in getting a copy, here’s the link: http://www.sugarhousereview.com/subscribe.html.

On October 3, 2012, unsocialized homeschooler wrote, I wonder about middles. I always have some sort of ending in mind when I start writing and beginnings are usually easy for me, but it’s the middle that’s the hardest. Getting from point A to point C is always rough for me, and I can’t just skip point B. Some people have told me to take a while and outline everything, but I’m not a fan of outlines, and they don’t seem to work for me. Does anyone have any tips for getting through sagging middles?

In my opinion, there are two secrets to middle for writers who don’t outline. One lies in our characters, our main character and our secondaries. We’ll start there, and I’ll get to the second later.

Let’s look at it in terms of fairy tales, stories with the simplest of structures. Here are the beginnings and the ends of a few.

Beginning: Evil queen discovers that Snow White has surpassed her in beauty and is overcome with jealous rage.

End: Evil queen dances to death in red hot shoes at the wedding of Snow White and the prince.

Beginning: Cinderella’s father marries a horrible woman with two equally horrible daughters, and she’s made the servant of this terrible troika.

End: Cinderella marries the prince and forgives her stepfamily.

Beginning: Sleeping Beauty’s parents fail to invite an unforgiving fairy to the christening of their daughter.

End: Sleeping Beauty wakes up to a kiss by her prince.

In each of these we could drive a herd of cattle, a circus, and a marching band between the beginning and the end, meaning that anything could happen. Neither the middle nor the end is made necessary by the beginning. Let’s take the most complex of the three, “Snow White.” To get to the end and to fill up the middle, the inventor of the tale in the mists of history hauled in a magic mirror, a kind-hearted hunter, seven dwarves, and a prince – and gave the queen a few witchy powers.

Seeds for the middle and the end lurk within the character of the queen. She’s furious, but she doesn’t slip into Snow White’s bedroom at midnight and bludgeon her to death. Maybe she’s afraid of being caught, or maybe even she shies away from that degree of violence. She wants the awful deed done, but she doesn’t want to do it herself – at first. Her unwillingness moves the story along.

The next seed is that she’s a bad judge of character. She doesn’t notice the hunter’s kindness or the admiring glances he bestows on Snow White.

Snow White herself isn’t much help. She’s more of a pretty chess piece who moves from place to place merely because she’s pushed. When she’s abandoned in the forest she walks, I’ll give her that. And she stumbles on the dwarves’ cottage. You know the rest. The dwarves warn Snow White of her danger, but she’s too stupid or foolish to listen. The queen overcomes her squeamishness about violence, decides to do the job herself, and finally seems to succeed. Then the dwarves’ love for Snow White causes the next plot turn when they, weirdly, put her in a glass coffin. Finally we have a prince who, weirdly again, falls for a seemingly dead maiden.

The point is, the story moves forward through the middle because of the characters.

Let’s look at my version, Fairest, which also progresses because of the characters. Behind the scenes are the parents who abandon Aza and set her story in motion. And there are the innkeepers who take her in and mold her into a character who, although insecure,  knows she’s loved and has solid values. We also have: the duchess, who can’t go to a wedding without a servant; a prince who has an eye for the exotic (Aza); a king who loves his wife; a queen who is phenomenally insecure and jealous; an evil magic mirror; and, way behind the scenes, a crazy fairy. They all, directly or indirectly, rub against Aza and, because of their complexity, create the scenes that make the plot seem to rattle along but actually slow the story’s progression with interesting moments and surprises – a satisfying middle.

Here’s the second secret, which has to do with endings. What we need to do when we enter our middle is to forget about the end with ninety percent of our brains. Only ten percent of our mind can have its eye on the finish line. And the finish line shouldn’t be worked out in detail if we haven’t outlined. If the ending is too distinct, we may force our characters to behave a certain way and they may never come to life.

Let’s try it. In our beginning, Beryl’s village has been destroyed by war. Her parents were killed, and her brother and sister were taken by the army. Let’s say she’s fifteen, old enough to have been taken too, but she was missed because she was visiting someone on the village outskirts. She’s left behind with the elderly, the sick, and the very young. Rebels prey on skeletal villages like hers. The survivors have to get to safety. We know that in the end Beryl and some of the others will make it to some haven or other, although we don’t know exactly what that will be.

We’ve written the beginning in which Beryl returns to the center of the village and discovers how bad matters are. We look around with her and consider what characters we might have. Well, we’ll probably want one or two who can help her and a few who will make her task much tougher. For the ones who can help her, there could be a child who has a hidden strength and there could be an elder who has past experience with the methods of the rebels. For the ones who get in the way, one could be too sick to move. Another could disagree with all Beryl’s ideas and could divide the villagers. We might want to figure out a way to include a rebel or two in our cast. Maybe Beryl goes spying or a lone rebel is caught by a sentry.

We’ve got quite a bit of middle going already. The very ill character gets a scene or two, likewise the one who pits characters against one another. Beryl may be slow to realize that the child with the special strength (whatever it is) has it. The one with experience may be reluctant for some reason to share. Beryl’s spy mission could run a dozen pages. The rebel who’s caught becomes part of the action.

There can be natural crises, too – a hurricane, a blizzard, earth tremors, whatever. Food can run short. More food can be discovered. In each of these, the characters will respond characteristically. There won’t merely be a hurricane, there will also be characters behaving foolishly or bravely or brilliantly in the face of it.

And it isn’t enough to grasp what the characters’ roles will be in our plot, we also have to develop the characters themselves. For example, the character who has had dealings before with the rebels may be long-winded. Beryl will need qualities that help her and others that get in her way. Maybe in the past she’s always given up too easily and she’s distracted by grief for her family but she’s a good listener and she has hunches that usually pan out.

As we’re fooling around with all this middle stuff, we have an eye out for the passage that will lead us to safety, but we also have in mind that some element of the safety should be surprising. Safety, yes, but not exactly in the form the reader expects.

Here are three prompts:

• Tell Beryl’s story, changing any elements or characters you like. Go for at least five scenes in the middle.

• Expand “Sleeping Beauty” and keep the fairies who come to the christening on the scene. Have them and other castle characters get involved in creating a middle. Remember, in the fairy tale there’s an ongoing effort to keep Sleeping Beauty from pricking herself. Decide in a vague way how you’d like the tale to end. You aren’t locked into the long sleep and the big hedge and the prince.

• Retell one of my fairy tale examples or any other fairy tale you like, but make it modern and have it take place in an acting troupe or a circus or a dance school or any other situation that will bring in a bunch of characters. Again, keep your plans for the ending indistinct.

Have fun and save what you write!