Sunday, 18 February 2018

How To Avoid Writing Boring Stories


I often edit other people's work. I point out flaws and suggest improvements. A common request is for me to help make the work more engaging: the author may have received feedback that it is a bit slow, but they don't know what to do to fix it. In these cases the same underlying problems tend to recur, so I thought it might be useful to give examples of some of the concepts authors need to think about, using one of my works as an example. Issues such as voice; what makes a story; language and story elements need to work on more than one level; characters need to act; character actions lead to an increase in stakes.

Voice

Voice is partly made up word choice, style, pauses, and favourite phrases. Voice is also what the character focusses on. We're all different. Make your character's voice come through so we feel their individuality. This is especially important in first person POV. Often I read things where there is a flat, characterless voice, because the author was writing words to move the plot, not because the author got into the character's head and let the character speak. That's what authors often mean when they refer to stories writing themselves.

Lead Characters

Don't make a boring character the lead. We've all done this. We aim at an everyman/everywoman, and end up with a bland nothing, with no life. As a result a subsidiary character steals the limelight. That subsidiary character should probably be the main character [MC], because an MC must be compelling. The reader must feel they want to know more, and they only feel that if there is depth, if there are mysteries to unravel.

Note that I say the MC must be compelling, not that they must be good. Sympathy comes about because the MC has some quality we admire. They could be evil, but maybe they are so intelligent that we're left breathless when they work things out in ways you and I never could, and come up with plans that wow us so we read on to find out how they will overcome the next, even greater problem (an example of this would be A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin). Maybe the MC is lazy, but their observations and thoughts are so funny they leave us in stitches. Sure, maybe they are virtuous and their resolve and goodness is put to the test in horrible circumstances, but they don't have to be good. Just compelling. The greatest crime for an author is boring the reader.

Characters Have To Act

Too often the MC is just thinking. They ponder X. They ponder Y. And pages go by without them doing anything.

It does not have to be action action, with explosions and bullets. A decision can be an action. A character in a life that traps them can still act. A brain in a jar can act. So what do I mean?

All characters want things. Ideally, like you and me, they want lots of things. But some of the things are more important than others. "Sure, that bar of chocolate would be nice, but defusing this bomb takes priority." "Yes, I want to get the dishes done by 5.30pm, but more than that I would like escape from this life of drudgery." There's a hierarchy. But we are not just describing a life in a story. A snapshot may be lovely, but it isn't a story.

A story is a story because a character tries to fulfil their needs and goals - they do things (act) in order to do achieve that. But then something gets in the way. So they do something about it. Maybe that's The End, or maybe (better for the reader!) the world reacts and things may be even worse. A more critical need or goal, or a more important one. Or even one that is truer to their real goal. At the start of Star Wars Luke Skywalker wants to go shopping for new underpants. Then he wants to rescue a princess. To do that he needs to learn to fight. Then he wants revenge. Then he wants to rescue all his friends. By the end he wants to overthrow the Tories. But each change is tied to his actions, and - massively important - the scale increases every time. This is what makes a reader read on. They are already on the edge of their seat, then they realise there are even greater things at stake. Back to another Ira Levin book, This Perfect Day: at the start the MC has no strong goals, apart from a vague interest to stop taking drugs. However, over the course of the novel, that grows to other needs, other actions, greater risks: eventually the scale increases to his life, soul, self respect, and possibly the fate of society.

So a story = characters who want things, so they act to achieve them, which may lead to new problems or discoveries and new actions needed. Repeat this until the story is told, but with an increasing scale to what is demanded of them.

Web

Okay, here's the opening of my short story Web, seemingly about a Somalian woman and her unhappy life in the UK. The story is from They Move Below, and a few reviewers said it was their favourite story from the collection.

This country is three things to me. I list them. First, it is cold. I shiver. I think I have not stopped shaking since I was made to come here. Two, is dark. I have lost the sun that watched me grow up. This one is small and mean and is so far away it has no interest in the people here. Three, is damp. I know heavy rain, yes, but not this always-water thing. Black mould grows along tiles in the bathroom, even if I scrub, scrub a lot, it come back quickly. There is a thing in the kitchen (cupboard? But it has no cups in?) and it is not wood, it is made of something like pieces of wood, all mashed together, baby-food furniture. And where it touches ground it gets bigger, splits, crumbles, and I sweep up the bits. That is what I mean! Damp!
And things you call creepy-crawlies, they like it. They always here. They run in lines along the edge of the carpet. I get up in morning to make Husband breakfast, I see curvy slug trails drying on the worktop.
And every day I clean up thick old web. So much. This, up in the corner. I have to use long duster, it try to hide from me. I push it in, turn it, and all the sticky grey and dead bits wrap around. It remind me of something I see on your television once, called candyfloss. Your fairgrounds make people smile, but this is like making evil candyfloss as I twist sticky horrible onto it.
I would not eat this.
Many spiders in this house. Especially when it rains. That is often. And they hide from me. Leave webs in corners and cupboards and wardrobe and shelves. Laughing, saying, “This is more work for you to do! And you cannot see us!” Their voices would not be squeaky, like a fly. Spider voices are serious quiet, go straight into your head, when they watch you with all their eyes. But you can find them if you are clever. I know woodlice. We have them in Somalia too. They crawl into cracks. And there is a spider here that eats them. Easy to find – look for a pile of dried-up, dead, grey woodlice. Then look above. You will find a spider, with long legs that are fragile like hair, and mouth that can go through shell.
I squat down to see this one. I blow on the spider, let it know I won, I found it; and it go all angry, shaking its legs, shaking the web, like child having a temper tantrum. It has something in its mouth. I think it may be eggs, but no, it is dinner. A woodlouse. The spider is sucking on its face. I look more closely, my eyes are good. There are things on the woodlouse. I think they are parasites at first. The world has rules, and it is common that big things hunt smaller, but smaller ones live on bigger – danger from above and below, outside and within. But these are not parasites. It is baby woodlice. Teeny, yellow, trying to move on their mother insect, alive but trapped in strands of web, stuck to a parent that is having its juices sucked out. A noise outside startles me, like I am guilty, and I hit my head on the top of this cupboard. It is only the postman, pushing all the papers junk through letterbox. I will not look at the baby yellows again, it makes me sick.

I cannot sleep. I keep thinking of what I find hidden in this house. I am getting to know every inch. Cracks, holes, corners, shadows. Always little eyes watch. In the morning I sometimes get strands of web in my hair, from across the doorway, when I get up first. I comb it out. But that tickle, I feel it now. In the bed. Husband is sleeping. He snores when he is on his back like this, rumbling through his nose. Not aware of what is in the bed with us. But I feel that tickle, near my ankles. In the dark I can imagine the things creeping. They are getting brave if they are coming into my bed now. They must know I am awake. I do not like that they invade here. It is my last place. And now I cannot sleep because they crawl up, wanting to go up my legs, my belly, maybe to suck my face …
I move too much and wake Husband. He sounds angry.
“What is it? Why must you be fidgeting? I need my sleep, woman.”
“Please, there is something in the bed,” I tell him. “I feel it crawling on us.”
He grumbles but puts a light on. Pulls back the sheets. I brace myself to see the things moving below them, staring up at me, all cold eyes … but there is nothing. He shows me, his hand jabbing at the clean sheet.
“But I felt it.”
“It was just the hairs on my legs,” he says.
I look at them. They are hairy. Dark, hairy legs. I shudder.
“Your legs seem thinner,” I tell him.
“I must be losing weight,” he say. “I work too hard, not like these bloody English. Or you do not feed me enough. Not feed me right. I need my sleep.”
The light is out. Only the dark. I imagine little eyes watching me. Laughing at me.

Okay, let's now think about it in terms of some of the concepts I mentioned.

Her Voice

The MC's voice is very much her own: what she focusses on and gives importance to, how she sees it.

There is depth, because she hints at things. We feel there's more to her, things yet to be revealed (even if we worry we may not want to know). Also there's a strangeness to her that compels us to find out more, where she's going, where she's from, what made her, what this strange person will do. Maybe we even wonder if we can care about her, identify with her, or if she is too alien. But we feel that there is a rounded and complex personality behind the words - perhaps enhanced because we may not even be able to trust some of what we are told.

As the story continues beyond the sample, we come to suspect she has some issue relating to babies/children/mothers/women. But it is not explained yet. There is stuff going on beneath the surface, things the reader can focus on and ponder.

(Aside: always trust the reader. A common beginner fault is over-explaining, rather than letting reader grasp things for themself. An active reader is an engaged reader; a passive reader puts the book down. You know that we developmental editors say "show don't tell" a lot? This is one of the things that rule refers to.)

She Acts

It seems she cares about the house and its tidiness/cleanness at the start. A hint that she wants to have some control over something - maybe a more powerful motivation than first appears when just thinking of webs. That's a key element in stories - things should work on two levels. So here we have a surface level (the goal of tidying things) but also a deeper level (a goal, not yet acknowledged, of wanting to have some control over the world, some impact on it).

She has already made efforts to achieve this goal before the story begins, and it has been fruitless. But the effort led her to focus on spiders and their webs: and, in turn, their young. This leads her to have bad dreams and begin to relive events from her past. So her actions lead to reactions, and now things are even more serious.

So now she wants to control web and the spiders, since maybe tackling the cause of the mess would help. But she also has a lot of suppressed anger and needs an outlet for that. She has very few outlets available in her life. Spiders become one. And so, after the sample above, the heat of her anger lashes out and she burns the web and some of the spiders.

So a single action (burning the web) is actually working on two levels, trying to achieve two goals. One is tidying the house in a more extreme way (scale goes up from a duster to a lighter); but it is also dealing with her anger, trying to release it.

Writing is always best when it works harder, with multiple things going on.

I said the world must react. So this is not the end. It does not solve her problem. The house will still be messy. She is still angry. Worse: she feels guilty too, since the spiders aren't her enemies - they could be seen as vulnerable immigrants to a place that does not accept them, and she identifies with that; she also identifies with the loss of children, and that increases her guilt. So things are now worse than before. The scale of the problems has increased. If she wants to overcome these problems (for which the web is a symbol, as well as a literal problem - remember, things, must work at multiple levels) it will take more drastic action; or she will be trapped in it forever. Again, the scale of the problem and the solution goes up. But it also leads to developments. She identifies with the spiders. They are not the right target. She picked on a victim, not a persecutor. That realisation can then drive her next actions, which become even more critical. Her stakes now become break free or slowly die inside. Things have scaled up from the original desire to clean the house, and that scaling came directly from the main character's attempts to achieve modest goals.

In a short story like this we may only have one or two escalations. In a novel we may have ten, or a hundred. Some may be very small, but without them a story is flat.

Conclusion

Hopefully that example helped to illustrate these concepts, whilst avoiding using a story full of action in the traditional sense - to show that the concepts apply just as much to literary character pieces. If your book or story isn't compelling, if the feedback is that readers get bored, it is likely to be connected to issues mentioned in this post.

Oh, and cuts. I rarely see a book that can't benefit from cuts - every unnecessary word, sentence, paragraph, and scene slows it down, hides the good stuff. Don't show every transition, every movement. Don't use three adjectives when one would be better. Don't pad with irrelevance. But cutting is another topic for another day. For now think in terms of the other issues in this article, and you may find the thing that's turning readers off. Change the brake to an accelerator and you're off.

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