by Josh Langston
There comes a point in the development of most novels, maybe even all ’em, when the writer throws up his hands, his pen, and maybe his beer, and says, “This is shit. It isn’t working. The characters aren’t talking to me. The muse is off to South Beach, and all I can think about is mowing the damned lawn.” Or something similar, suitably loaded with creative epithets and admonishments, perhaps something even more dramatic like breaking a pencil or barking at the dog. Or cat.
Some writers, many actually, can get themselves straightened out such that they’re able to finish the tale. Others may be so dejected they kiss it goodbye and never look back. It’s that second bunch I’d like to reach. They’re the ones who need a little extra help, maybe a pat on the back or a kick in the tail. Or, more likely, they need a strategy to get back on track.
There was a time in the life cycle of the story when its author could barely contain her excitement over telling it. The characters enchanted her, the setting offered exciting opportunities, and the plot seemed fresh and fragrant. But somewhere along the way the whole thing got bogged down, and the story’s appeal drifted away like smoke in the wind.
A number of things could account for this, but it’s likely a combination of issues. These are the most common:
- The characters have become predictable
- There’s no end in sight
- The plot twists aren’t twisty enough
- There’s too little conflict
- There’s not enough tension
- There’s no way out of the latest predicament
- Everybody’s talking and nobody’s doing anything
Predictability — Any character can become stale. The way to prevent it is to constantly put obstacles in their way. Big ones, little ones, loud ones, annoying ones, whatever. If your character isn’t doing anything, it’s because you haven’t been hard enough on them. So get mean! Hurt them. Abandon them in a storm. Lock them in a room. Feed them time-released poison. Kill off a loved one. Have the phone ring smack in the middle of the scene you’re working on, and deliver the news: “Opie, I’m so glad you’re home. Better sit down, son. I’ve got some hard news for ya. Sheriff Taylor was just shot and killed by Deputy Fife.”
Is it done yet? — Not without a climax and a denouement. Stories that just trail off and die because the author lost interest are rarely published. If the writer didn’t care enough to work out a good ending, no one else will care enough to see how far they got. If all else fails, kill off your protagonist. What have you got to lose? If you can’t finish this volume, you sure won’t be turning it into a series. Maybe you just need to give someone a change of heart; turn a player from bad to good or vice versa. If you’ve been outlining as you go (see my thoughts on that here), you should be able to figure out where your tale wandered into the wilderness; cut it back to there and start in again.
The plots aren’t sufficiently twisty — Start looking in left field. It’s where the really bizarre, gonzo goofy shit comes from. Try dipping into that well. Turn good guys into psychotics; turn relatives into robots; let ’em get hit by an invasion (any kind: animal, vegetable, political). Lift your story, metaphorically of course, by one corner and flip it upside-down. OR: Imagine the most unexpected outcome, one that’s beyond the scope of anything you’ve done before. Maybe your crazy Aunt Emma is elected President. Maybe your innocent little brother is arrested on suspicion of planning to kill someone important. Maybe your hero’s dog finds a body in the front yard (or the back seat of the car).
Not enough conflict? — Seriously? You’ve read this blog more than once, and you haven’t figured out that conflict is the lifeblood of storytelling? If your happily unchallenged character isn’t married, arrange a wedding, otherwise arrange conditions that’ll lead to divorce. Add a child. Lose a pet. Adopt an orphan with a penchant for mayhem. Fire her!
You’re short on tension — Threaten someone, either physically, emotionally or psychologically. A physical threat might be: “Do what I ask or I’ll stab you.” A more emotional threat would be: “Do what I ask or I’ll stab your girlfriend.” A psychological threat would be: “Do what I ask or I’ll stab your girlfriend but make it look like you did it. Film at eleven.” The thing to remember is that no matter what sort of threat scenario you devise, the effected character must be left hanging for at least one scene, preferably more. And while you’re waiting to show how character A will escape his problem, character B should be wading hip-deep into her next conundrum.
There’s no way out; the hero’s gonna die — Well, how big a deal is that? Where could you take the story if a main character died prematurely? Can you back up and change the threat? Have the horrible happening happen to someone else? (Oops, sorry dude. You’re gonna die.) Maybe he’s only unconscious. Maybe he can be brought back from the dead? Almost any solution is better than resorting to deus ex machina (wherein God reaches down from the heavens and saves the poor schlub). C’mon! If you were crafty enough to get your guy into such a pickle, surely you can think of a way to extricate him. There’s always the weather, war, and/or knocking down the walls.
Yackity yack, no attack — This is no time to bemoan your decision to write so-called minimalist fiction. If there’s nothing going on because you failed to provide some conflict, then maybe you should just toss this one in the pooper. Next time, give your players something to do and someone to do it to.
Guest post contributed by Josh Langston. A graduate of Georgia State University with a degree in journalism, Josh’s writing tastes quickly shifted away from reportage. His fiction has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and he currently has two short story collections in the Amazon top 100 for genre fiction.