Why Does It Slow Down? (Tech Post)

One reason many people who start out wanting to write don’t go on with it is that they have lots of ideas, start writing and then…the story slows down.  Or actually stops.   They don’t know why.  They don’t know that this is normal for many writers.  They sure don’t know what to do about it.   They’ve heard about writers who whiz through a story effortlessly…”It wrote itself” or “I never get blocked; I just write.”

In reality, most writers (I think “all” if they were being honest and including that novel that never got finished, the fifteen drafts of that story they never sold)  are familiar with the “Fast out of the gate, behind the field coming home” experience.  They know, having done this awhile, that Novice Nerves (as a cause of not finishing something) can be overcome by sheer persistence,  that Stuckness (as a cause of difficulty somewhere in the middle) can be overcome by various techniques that often involve “noodling around with the story” (messing with it, trying things out, digging into character motivation, etc.)  and that writing is actually hard work, not just on the finger joints.

But why (someone in the back corner has their hand up and is going to ask this) WHY does it slow down?  What’s going on inside?   (And implied: is it something inside I can change so it doesn’t slow down?)

Here’s my take on it.   Imagine the story, long or short, as a picture in a frame.  The blank page is the frame (it can be many pages, but the metaphor holds…there’s a beginning, before which no story, and an ending, after which no story.)   When it’s blank, anything’s possible.   The starting idea–often but not always a visual image of a character, place, thing, situation–is the first line.

Mountain.  The story occurs on a mountain.  A rough outline of a mountain goes up on the page.  The idea includes Jack, the protagonist.  What’s Jack doing?  Climbing the mountain or coming down from it or sitting on it?   “Jack paused halfway up the mountain to check the map.”  OK, that wasn’t so hard.  There’s now a mountain, a man, and a map.  “He should be halfway to the first trail shelter.  According to the map, he was right on schedule.   He folded the map and put it back in his…”  His what?  Had he taken his pack off to get the map out, or did he have the map…it’s not that cold, he’s not wearing a jacket, so pockets are out.  Pack it is.   “…pack, then headed on up the slope.   He wanted to be at the trail shelter well before dark.”

So far, so good.  Writer is checking in with the starting idea, and each check-in brings up choices: the idea had Jack in a T-shirt and jeans, with a pack on his back.  Not until the map showed up (needing a place to be put after use) did Writer notice the lack of pockets to stuff a map into.  Takes a second, not long, but it’s a break in the flow.  Depending on Writer, the story may wander along the trail noting trail condition, plants, birds heard,  beetles seen…or it may wander along the trail of thoughts in Jack’s mind, as he reviews the past week at work, a quarrel here, a night out drinking with his friends there, the TV appearance of a liked (or disliked) politician.  Or it might combine the two.   The stronger and more vivid the starting idea, the longer it will guide the writer swiftly through the many choices to be made (is Jack an extrovert or an introvert, and how much of one?  Is Jack someone with a lot of trail experience, or is this his first overnight hike?  What foods did Jack bring along for supper tonight?)   But eventually, the initial idea is left behind as the real story takes hold, and the writer faces those choices without its help.

Moreover, every choice made earlier constrains the choices available.   Some roads, when not taken, cannot be taken later.  (That easy trail two hours back, the one Jack decided was “too easy for someone like me”  or didn’t notice because he was replaying the quarrel or the night out, can’t be used if the story is a short-short and will be finished the moment he reaches the trail shelter.   If his thoughts were about a quarrel that ended with his fiance throwing the ring in his beer and walking out to get in a car to head for the airport and fly to another continent,  then he’s not going to find her waiting for him in the trail shelter.  At least, not if I write the story.)   Every incident in a story, every thought, every decision forecloses some choices and brings up others.   If Jack’s fiance broke up with him, is he going to fall for the next woman he sees, or be suspicious and angry with her?   Is he planning to go after her or give up on her?   Though what happens in the story puts some constraints on what can happen next, what happens also opens new possibilities.

And so at some point, Writer pauses partway up the story’s slope, on what may have looked like an easy rounded hill with a clear trail, and realizes that the story is a) a mountain and not a hill,  b) not easy, and c) Writer is standing in a large mass of vegetation blocking every view forward, up, down, and sideways.  The nice clear trail ahead has become a skinny little game trail that ends in a hole in the ground just the right size for something with teeth.  Lots of teeth.  And there are tufts of fur here and there.    Too many possibilities, not enough knowledge.  The Story is nudging the Writer from behind.  “Go on, MOVE!”   “Which way?”  “I don’t care–DO something!  Pick a way!”

Or, worse case, Writer comes to a stumbling halt in soft, dry sand that has suddenly appeared where Writer had seen the nice rounded hill with the trail going up it.  Where’d this come from? Writer wonders.  It’s hot.  It’s humid.  It’s still.   Biting insects attack exposed skin.  Humps  of sand block the view in all directions, and though Writer thinks there might be an ocean over there,  has no idea over which hump of sand.

Or, worst case, Writer is suddenly suspended above the Story, as much as is written, and sees it in its entirety as a stale, flat, unprofitable, stained and half-decomposed strand of rubbish, something that if you saw it on a sidewalk you’d step into the street to avoid stepping on.  Writer can see no way to go forward and would rather chew on a dirty sock than touch it again.

Leave the worst case aside (just circular file the thing and move on)  what to do about the other ways a story slowing down destroys writer initiative…there are techniques.  Different ones work for different writers.   One obvious approach is to outline everything beforehand, working from the initial idea.  Doing that risks missing some good internal ideas, some fruitful choices, but it does help Writer look efficient.  And some writers are very good about considering many branches in the process of outlining (variant branches off the initial idea are important–often writers don’t see the full potential of an initial idea right away.)   Writers who don’t outline are (in my experience, which is limited to the writers I know)  somewhat more likely to enjoy the branchy nature of Stories, and willing to “waste time” running up and down branches like a squirrel as they find out what that Story offers.  This does not look efficient, however, and it requires the ability to keep the full structure in mind, not losing track of where the writer has already been on that tree.

When ankle-deep in hot dry sand being bitten by mosquitoes, that’s hard…so the non-outlining writer (or the writer whose outline suddenly needs revision)  can try “artificial” branching.  Drop back to the last place that felt “good”.   Instead of what happened next…something different.  Anything.  Anything that’s active, an intrusion into the old plan.  Blow something up.  Knock something over.  Put a secret door/trapdoor/secret passage/tunnel where there wasn’t one.   Throw new characters in; make them strange and be sure they’re active.   Of course none of this may work, in terms of sending the story along smartly with the new material.  But it shakes up the brain, and in the process of shaking a brain, sometimes the Sekrit Decoder ring falls out and Writer goes “Oh!  Of course!” and the Story picks up speed again.  If the Sekrit Decorder ring is the right one, the bright idea Writer just had will mesh seamlessly with the healthy part of the story before, and run on for awhile until Writer is stymied again.  OK, fine, so it turns out that having Jack agree to take a picture of a pair of hikers coming the other way who want to pose on top of a boulder leads to major complications when they fall off the boulder, one breaks a leg, the other blames Jack (“Why did you tell him to turn sideways?  He wouldn’t have fallen if you hadn’t–“)  and Jack offers to go for help when it turns out they can’t get a cellphone signal, and the other two look at each other and say “No, no, he can make it back to the car if you’ll help,” so Jack improvises a splint and helps the man hop on one leg… but remembering the trail, Writer realizes this isn’t going to work, and tries to get the characters to agree to send Jack or the woman for help, but they’re adamant.  Jack argues more and is suddenly facing the muzzle of a gun the woman pulls out.

Now what?

Lots of possibilities.  What was this story supposed to be about, anyway?   Writer goes off to think about it.   A hike-in-the-mountains where the mountain affects the man story?   A personal internal crisis story that happens to be set in the mountains?  A thriller confrontation with bank robbers story?   Right now the Story’s being yanked in different directions.  What was that initial idea?   Time to re-read it to that point.  Mountain, Jack, trail.   WHY was Jack on the mountain?

Oh…buried in the original idea was Jack’s motivation, never clearly stated.  Jack had been challenged by a guy at work, a regular hiker, to make it to the top of Mount Whatever, if he wanted to be included in a group hiking somewhere else.  It’s a challenge story.  Jack’s decided to take the challenge and the story *originally* was going to be about whether he made it up to the top.   If it’s not going to be that story, it needs to be more defined in Writer’s mind.   If it is going to be that story, has Writer ever hiked up a mountain?  If so, where are the feelings–physical and mental–of hiking up a mountain.  It’s not like walking on a sidewalk or a treadmill.  If not, then this may not be the story Writer should be working on.  Because a story *about* hiking up a mountain needs elements that let the reader feel what it’s like to hike up a mountain–even for readers who’ve never done it, and definitely for the ones who have, who will be checking to see if Writer knows what a mountain trail really is.  (Note: stories can be “about” more than one thing:  Jack can be both determined to meet the challenge set him by Eric at work, and wondering if the summit will be satisfying, or just a lot of work followed by a disappointment, like his breakup with Trudy.  But the reader should feel a primary “pull” down one line or the other, so the other becomes the a contribution to the main melody.)


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