IN the realm of writing advice offered by possibly Day Drunk authors currently hosting at least two cats on their laps, forcing them to type in a pose I call “T-Rex Yoga” (arms up and bent downward so you can hunt-and-peck), there are two basic flavors: General writing or career advice that covers whole universes of writing challenges, and extremely narrow and specific advice. This is going to fall into the latter category, as it applies specifically to scenes in a story that just aren’t working.
If you’ve tried to write a story, you will likely recognize this scenario: You know where you want the story to go, you have what seems like a good outline for getting it there, but every time you start writing it feels dead. Nothing is working. The starter is grinding but the spark plugs won’t fire.
When this happens to me, usually the problem turns out to be pretty simple: I’m being too clever by half.
Just Say It
When I’m working out the plot of a story and I’m looking forward, say, twenty chapters to a Big Moment, a twist or a reveal that’s pretty exciting, I usually have an idea of how I’ll handle that Moment, and it’s usually too smart by half. I always imagine the subtle hints leading up to it, and I always—always!—have a strong urge to resist anything that feels expected, or traditional. In short, I always want to be the smartest man in the room.
But invariably if, when I get to that Moment, I just can’t seem to get the gears to bite and the words just sit there, dead and lifeless, it’s because I’m trying too hard. I’ve got all this subtext, and subtlety. Like, my villain is revealing their plan—and naturally I don’t want this to turn into an Exposition Fest, so I’ve got this idea of how their evil plan will be revealed almost casually, in the course of telling another story altogether. In my head, it’s brilliant. On the page … a fucking disaster.
The answer is usually to dispense with subtlety and make subtext into text. In short, the solution is to just have the villain make a speech. Let them build a little Exposition Village and explain everything. Then move on and finish the story. I can always go back in revision and rub at that Exposition until its gone, and in the mean time I’m making progress.
It’s key to remember that while I’m no fan of excessive revisions, your early drafts don’t have to be perfect. If being clunky keeps things moving, then be clunky, and fix it later. That is also my romantic advice: Be clunky, and fix it later.