Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Delay Tactics

Do you keep your story going by making characters wait? In Cheryl St. John's Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict, I found a list of delays (Conflict is not delay), and I quote:
  • The protagonist can't find someone or something.
  • She falls in a mud puddle.
  • She loses her keys.
  • She misses a bus.
  • She arrives late at an important event.
Since I'm in the middle of judging manuscript for novel competitions, these resonated with me. It's possible to get away with some delay within the book, especially if the writer plants hints ahead of time. ("Don't forget to put your keys in the key tray. If you lose them tomorrow, there will be horrible consequences.") Unfortunately, I'm seeing delay -- in place of conflict -- within the first pages of manuscripts.

I'm sure this comes out naturally in the drafting process, and I don't have any objections to writers filling pages with these weak moments in a draft. But, by the time the manuscript is sent out to contests, agents, and editors, these should be (mostly) eradicated. They create plateaus in the story where nothing much happens. They do not raise the stakes or (usually) test the protagonists in a fundamental way.

And I've come to suspect these emerge not so much from a lack of imagination as from fear. In my own work, I tend to delay things for the  protagonist when I am avoiding an uncomfortable or emotionally challenging situation. I think there is a natural urge to protect the protagonist. In a way we are protecting ourselves.

So, as you rewrite, when you find a delay substituting for a real conflict, consider getting rid of it. But, more importantly, look to see if somewhere, at the periphery of your consciousness, there is something difficult, nasty, embarrassing, or too real for you. Because, if you identify that, you'll do more than remove a dull section, you'll find your way to the awful stuff that really good.

No comments:

Post a Comment