Writers are regularly intimidated by what might seem the oddest thing: the work that springs from their own minds. If you have days when you seek a reason to do anything but write, you may be one of them.
Not because you’re suddenly dragging your feet—but because, in one or more small ways, you started dragging them long ago. If that’s the problem, soldiering on may not net the best results.
(Full disclosure, I just read the exact opposite advice on Facebook today—“keeping your writing momentum is key”—but hang with me. If lack of story impulsion has already brought you to a dead stop, why not let your manuscript show you how to move forward?)
Re-read what you’ve written so far. If it reinvigorates you and impels you forward, problem solved! Chances are, though, the writing itself may reveal your reluctance to drive deep into the heart of your story’s conflict.
Know that you are not alone. Denying fear is so common that you may not realize it has been a problem—until you start flagging the following for further analysis.
Is fear holding you back? Here is your early detection guide.
- Story withholding instead of storytelling. Writers who fear pushing forward convince themselves that if they don’t tell parts of the story, the reader will be dying to know by the time they get around to surprising them at the end—but by then the reader may be long gone. The reader needs story to get hooked by it. A useful adage: Put your best material up front, and the rest will live up to it.
Detection Q: Are you laying down story that raises questions, or might you be withholding story from your reader—and yourself?
- Repetition/reiteration. Detectives in mysteries reflect on clues, politicians in thrillers analyze strategy, lovers in romance sort through their emotions—but the right to reflect must be earned, and only when a new clue forces the protagonist to reassess everything she once thought was true. Driving the story forward in a cause-and-effect chain will remove excessive plot re-hashing born of the author’s need to remind, because everything will become more memorable.
Detection Q: Did your character really need that episode of “where we are now in this story” to move forward—or did you need it, to spur you on? (In which case you can remove it)
- Bland dialogue and associated beats. Since “I told you not to call me anymore” is a decidedly more interesting way to answer the phone, maybe keep “Hello?” for when your character has a gun to her head and she is being ordered to answer normally. Don’t fear all that edginess Emily Post, the Scouts, and your mother tried to iron out of you.
Detection Q: Is your character speaking while running his hand through his hair just because you’ve seen something like that before (so has your reader—too often), or is that dialogue needed to increase tension, reveal character, and further story?
- Prose bloating. Don’t make the reader to sift through buckets of words and overlapping sentences to find a dramatic nugget because you fear building a gold mine. Instead, research “gold mining.”
Detection Q: In an effort to meet daily word count, have you inadvertently created an eddy of words, where a better-chosen few could aim your reader straight down the stream of story?
- Emphasis on static elements. Standing, sitting, cogitating, turning, leaning in: these are not riveting story actions, and are a pertinent metaphor for a story that hasn’t gotten moving.
Detection Q: Is your character in repose because this satisfies or obstructs his scene goal, or because right now, you just aren’t sure what to do with him?
- Lack of reactions. Silence can be powerful if held in reserve for an important moment. On a regular basis, however, it fails to deepen characterization. The action/reaction chain drives a story, so if your character is frozen, unable to say a thing, why not put a prop in her hand and see what she does with it?
Detection Q: Is your character unable to speak because witty repartee isn’t her thing, or do you fear it isn’t your thing?
- Pulled punches. When a woman crosses the line of propriety to make personal use of client data at her law firm, the reader’s thinking, “Oh, this could be good”—so make sure you deliver on that expectation. If he doesn’t get in trouble or have to talk his way out of it? Reader yawns. Dumps book in trash.
Detection Q: Does your scene fail to engage because you like your character so much you just can’t put her through the ringer? Do it anyway. You’ll love her even more when you watch her spring back.
- Daily routines unrelated to story question. Routines can support your story’s most dramatic moments, but they can often be quickly sketched or kept in the background. Youneed to know what it your character does all day, we don’t. If the breakfast/grocery trip/housecleaning isn’t relevant to the question raised in the reader’s mind at the outset of the story, leave it out, or work harder to earn its inclusion.
Detection Q: Do you spotlight daily routines because they are key to the drama, or because you fear we (or you!) aren’t grasping the world of your story?
- Random subplots. Let’s say that to establish character, you have your amateur detective volunteer at a nursing home on Saturdays. This is of little interest to the reader unless 1) you make the nursing home characters funny or charismatic enough to entertain us at first, and then 2) you later reveal that one of them is involved in the plot, and/or 3) conversations with the residents aid the protagonist in the personal growth necessary to achieve her goal. Thematic interweaving is key.
Detection Q: Are you including subplots because any dragging story can be made better with the diversion of a quirky secondary character, or because this character is related to the story’s premise?
- Drifting scene goal. This is where your protagonist’s scene goal might be, “I’m going to march right into Sean’s office and find out what he knows about the irregularities in these financial records.” Instead, Sean’s annoying secretary waylays her and regurgitates her whole life story—and the protagonist allows this. Or, even worse, the protagonist encourages this story derailing: “Sean could wait until another time. Right now I was dying to know where his secretary got her nails done.”
Detection Q: Are you allowing your scene to drift because you fear running out of story, or are you hoping to make your character seems ineffective?
- Melodrama. As if ripped from the pages of someone else’s book, an irrelevant problem is blown to hyperbolic proportion and impedes the progression of the tale she thought she was reading. The reader doesn’t care, so she sets the book down. Think that won’t happen? Avid readers have BS detectors as sensitive as any teenager’s.
Detection Q: Be honest—is this plot included because you think mistakenly think any old conflict is good, or does this obstacle lock into the cause-and-effect trajectory of your story?
- Backstory drag. Characters need to be powerfully motivated to overcome the daunting obstacles between them and their goals. Readers need empathy for the worldview or weakness that holds them back. Backstory provides both. But if this backstory comes too soon, you’re explaining away behavior the reader hasn’t yet witnessed, creating a “tell-then-show” scenario that can fail to drive story. Other times, rather than set up the current story, a dramatic backstory can steal the spotlight altogether.
Detection Q: Could you be lingering within dramatic backstory because you already know the character survives? Hmm. So does your reader. Instead, push her to the brink in your current story and kick her off—that’s the comeback story your readers crave!
Have you picked up a common thread among these signs? To get from “Once upon a time” all the way to “The End”—even while taking side trips and longing looks backwards—your accumulating story must drive ever forward.
Don’t fear your discomfort and self-doubt as you stretch outside your comfort zone. The danger and tension you’ll uncover is just what your reader wants, and is also just what your story needs to beg your ongoing attention. Anyway, surmounting your story’s supreme challenges provides the most important (if hidden) growth arc in your novel: yours.
Have you ever felt intimidated by the challenges of your own manuscript in a way that crippled your ability to move forward? Do recognize any of these signs from your own work? Have any other early detection signs to share? Let’s chat!
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