Hurry Up and Wait
I’ve said recently, on a few separate occasions, “I feel like my life is in a holding pattern at the moment.” And it’s true; if my life was a book, this would be the part where the author skips over a bunch of stuff so as not to bore the reader to death.
In real life, boring is usually good. Boring means that no one is dying, packing up their household to move across the country, or saving the world from aliens. Boring IRL also means that no one is having a baby, leaving a job they hated and getting a new and better one, or winning a million dollars in the lottery.
Random aside: Has anyone ever written a book about the adventures of a lottery winner? It seems like the sort of book that could be dry as dust, or hilariously entertaining.
Anyway. Right now, every aspect of life is moving very slowly. I’ve made some progress; I’m still on track to publish ten things (novels or short stories) by the end of the year; my garden was moderately productive; I’ve done a few disaster preparedness tasks that had been sitting on the back burner for a while.
But some things, like, the American political situation, where I’m going to be living this time next year, whether I can have a horse (cheaper than therapy!), and how I’m going to fund my pet projects- well, those have either ground to a halt or are out of my control.
Sometimes, life is like that, and I’m trying not to repine too much over it. Concentrating on the things I can control, and leaving alone the things I can’t, is a good start, though difficult to follow through, when the controllable things are so small and the uncontrollable things are rather large and life changing.
What does this have to do with writing? Good question. Balancing excitement and flatness is a skill, in fiction and in real life. As a writer, your job is to entertain the reader, but too much action, too fast, can tire the reader emotionally, and they’ll stop caring what happens to the characters. And the concept of ‘too much’ action varies between genres. A thriller doesn’t have nearly as much space for quiet conversation and reflection as a romance does.
I had a lot of trouble with this concept as a beginner. Like most writers, I enjoy spending time with my characters, and they kept getting into wacky but only moderately interesting adventures. At the time, those adventures were fascinating to me, and I wanted to include every little thing in the book. But readers won’t stand for that, usually. They want a coherent plot, not one that meanders all over the place, touching on past incidents that don’t contribute to the story. And at the same time, you, the writer, have to develop the characters and show their motivations, else the reader won’t understand why John Q. Public freaked out and stabbed his cab driver after the poor man accidentally ran over a squirrel.
If you’re writing a stand-alone book, give your character one or possibly two main motivations. In a series, you have time and space to show how lots of events have made a character into the person he is today. Motivations can be explained during an action moment, but you run the risk of going on a tangent (I would know nothing of this. Not at all) and throwing the reader out of the story. Detailed explanation of a character’s feelings and reactions is usually more effective in quiet moments, because the reader has the brain-space to pay attention to those things.
I wish I could give more concrete advice on precisely how to balance action and quiet moments, but, alas, it varies. A lot. In general, I’d say that a novel needs to have at least two ‘action’ moments, aka, conflicts, before the main climax. These don’t have to be battles; use what’s appropriate to the genre. Similarly, if you want to foreshadow, mention the object or event at least twice- depending on what it is, three times might be better- before that particular Chekov’s Gun is fired. The concept of the Hero’s Journey follows this metric, for the most part. Remember to include quieter moments in between the conflicts, so your characters and readers have time to catch their breath. These moments are also good for providing backstory, hinting at a character’s motivation, or giving some color to the setting by showing what your character does all day (when he’s not out pursing the villain, of course). Depending on genre and your personal style, the quiet moments might be very short, or a little longer. Remember that your readers should be invested in your characters, but they’ll never be as invested as you are, and therefore usually don’t need- or want!- to read about your character’s annoying habits at the breakfast table- unless he’s eating breakfast when an alien bursts through the wall, and he has to defend himself with the butter knife.
As always, your mileage may vary, and you’ll never please everyone. We all tolerate different amounts of change and calm, in real life and in books.
And on that note, I’m off to do something. Not sure what, yet, but this particular moment of quiet reflection has gone on long enough; now I need some activity.