Saturday, January 7, 2012

Finding Those Dead Spots

When I get seriously into revising something, I dig out the highlighters to help me find the dead spots, the ones that put the reader to sleep. I work on a chapter at a time and read, looking for a specific element in the story. Backstory is usually my first element. I highlight everything that's backstory in that chapter with a yellow marker.

Then I look for description and mark it in pink. Green is for exposition (explaining something to the reader), another good one to check for.

The object is to see at a glance what you've got. Does it stop the action or slow the story? It may depend on the kind of story you're telling, but I'm aiming for a fairly fast pace, especially in the opening scene. If I see much yellow or pink, indicating backstory and description, I know I have work to do.

Green is another flag—am I teaching the reader how to fly a helicopter or entertaining him? How much does she really want to know? The temptation to share all that valuable research you've done can be irresistible, but be strong. Resist.

All these elements slow the story, so they're included on a need-to-know basis. Does the reader need to know this to understand or follow the story? How does it apply to this scene or this action sequence? Is the information shown in small, bite-sized bits or is it a big chunk all at once? Is it broken up with action? These are things to think about.

What do you look for? Which elements put you to sleep? And how do you locate or mark those slow spots?


Polly said...

Good questions? The story I'm working on now is a slow-developing mystery--the calm before the storm, so to speak. I worry about it, but I need to build up to the point when disaster strikes. Writers are pummeled with requirements to bang the reader with action up front, and this can't always happen, especially with character-driven stories. I don't think it's slow, but others might. I hope not, because I can't change it.

Marian Allen said...

THAT'S something I need to do! Thanks! I like this method because I can spread the story out and LOOK at it. How much color is there? How big is the color patch? How close together are patches of the same color? Can they be combined?

As Polly says, sometimes you WANT slow bits, and your method helps show where slower bits might enhance the story, so you could move a bit from one spot to another.

Again, THANKS!

Marian Allen
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

Ellis Vidler said...

I do like opening with something happening, but it doesn't have to be major crisis. A feisty exchange between two characters, or the search for a wandering dog--anything that moves the story in the present. There are all kinds of action that can generate interest.

Ellis Vidler said...

Marian, my first draft, the one where I'm laying out the idea, often looks like a toddler's first finger-painting experiment, with big blotches of color that lack enough air to breathe.

Gail M Baugniet said...

Ellis, your post came up at an opportune time for me. I've printed out the completed 1st draft of my MS. Your suggestion to highlight specific areas with color gives me the needed motivation to get started on the editing/revision process!
I refer to areas of Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction when editing, especially for tension.

Ellis Vidler said...

Hi, Gail. I haven't read that one from Maass. I'll have to look for it. As Marian said, using the markers lets you lay it out and see a lot at once. It can be a shock. :-)

Donnell said...

Morning Ellis, great blog! Just tweeted about The Unpredictable Muse in general.

Love these devices you've come up with. Right now I'm on deadline and I'm throwing everything in but the kitchen sink, but I do agree with Donald Maass. Try to keep backstory to a minimum and keep the writing going forward. That's one of the major things I see in contests these days. Information dumps. That's when you lose the reader in my opinion. If you're telling us everything that happened in the past, well, big deal. If I'm invested in a character, I want to know what's happening to them now. The past you can weave in gradually and by the time we're finished with the book we feel we really know them.

Great post!

Ellis Vidler said...

Thanks, Donnell. There's always an inclination to spend time setting up the story, and readers rarely need to know much to get into it. It's okay to leave some questions in the beginning that can be answered gradually as the story unfolds.

Vicki Lane said...

Very useful hints, Ellis! Re back story, I keep reminding myself to think of the opening as a cocktail party. When you first meet someone, you don't want their whole history -- just one or two things that make them interesting to you.

Likewise, all the reader needs to know about the protag in the opening is that he/she is such a fascinating person that the reader will want to keep reading to learn more -- and then the back story can be doled out it tantalizing bits.