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!