So my friend Nic, who scribbles a bit but doesn’t have a website, snuck a final question in on the end of the dancing monkey series:
What do you do with an idea or story that just runs out of steam far too early?
(Say many thousands of words short of what it needs)
Well, much as I’d like to say I’ve experienced this one, I’m generally an up-against-the-word-limits-can-I-have-a-few-thousand-more-please-gov’ner kind of writer. I spend half my structural redrafts trying to cut things out of my manuscripts, so should a story come in several thousand words under my approach I’d probably sing hallelujahs and weep with goddamn joy. Writing shorter is one of my goals, not a problem.
Assuming for the sake of argument (and blog post) that I did suddenly run into such a problem – say for whatever unlikely reason an editor really needed a 10k gap in an anthology filled and my pinch-hitting story only came in at 7k – I can think of a handful of things I’d try.
1) ENGAGE KRESS PROTOCOL
Named for SF writer Nancy Kress, who first described this process on her blog back in 2011. Basically she was writing a story that didn’t quite work, so her method of coming up with an alternative ending went thusly:
1) Go back to the last place you’re excited about the story (in this case, 2/3 of the way through) and toss out everything after that.
2) Think of a different, but still logical, way for a secondary character to act. Secondary characters are, by definition, not as completely delineated as the point-of-view character and so the author has some wiggle room as to how they might behave. Change something major here.
3) Return to your protagonist — how does he react to this change of behaviour in someone important to him? If nothing sparks for you, try different behaviour from the secondary character, or perhaps a different character.
I figure this works because the loss of energy in a story usually has a lot to do with writers making character choices that are sub-optimal for reasons of originality, conflict-escalation, or simply not quite living up to the story the writer is imagining.
2) THREE ACT STRUCTURE FTW
It’s rather badly maligned by writers, but the narrative architecture of the three-act structure is actually a pretty bitching blue-print for figuring out where a story has run out of energy. When a story doesn’t work (whether it’s mine or I’m critting) I generally break out a list of key beats in every structure and map out the story accordingly.
This’ll generally reveal one of the following problems:
- One of the steps has been ignored (IE jumping straight from the end of the second act to the climax)
- A beat is occurring out of sequence.
- The story is trying to go back to an earlier narrative beat after hitting it.
After that, I re-sequence the narrative and patch as necessary.
3) SUB-PLOT AUDIT
If I’m really desperate for wordcount, I’d do a sub-plot audit. Which means I’d go through every character in my story, work out what their various sub-plots are, and map them onto the beats of the handy three-act structure I’ve still got kicking around from the last step. Then I go through the MS and make sure the audience has a very clear idea of how every character is changed by their arc over the course of the story, which will usually involve adding some extra scenes.
You can get a lot of mileage out of this because, realistically, the main difference between your protagonist and every other character is that you chose to tell the protagonist’s story. Conventional writing wisdom says that your villain should think they’re the hero of their own story – it’s how you justify their villainy – but the same applies to all the side-kicks, love-interests, best friends, parents, background characters, etc.
The movie Whip It is a near-perfect example of this – there’s not a character in the entire film who doesn’t have a narrative arc at some point. For some of the character’s that arc gets a lot of screen-time – the protag, the antags, the protags parents, etc – but even seemingly throw-away characters like the Bliss-the-protags arch-rival at Beauty Pageants has an arc that’s built up from exactly 4 damn scenes in the film.
For bonus points, each of those arcs is woven in so its key scenes coincide with another characters – the scene where Bliss-the-Protagonist’s mother comes to accept her daughter isn’t destined to be a pageant star largely coincides with Bliss’s and her arch-rival making peace through the loan of a gown (and the rival achieving a level of success on the circuit).
4) SUCK IT UP AND WRITE
This is, of course, the time-honoured means of getting more words. If your story has run out of steam and you absolutely must have additional words, put on your grown-up pants and add more words.
And with that we’re done with the Dancing Monkey posts, as I’m out of questions and back into a steady run of free weekends that’ll allow me the free-time to write blog posts once more. Thanks to everyone who threw in their 2c and asked me stuff – with luck we’ll try this again next year when the day-job gets crazy (though, next time, I’ll prep it all a little bit earlier).