Stalling means to halt the motion or progress of; to bring to a standstill.
In writing, stalling occurs a few different ways:
~ a writer leads up to the point of a scene with back story and/or description;
~ a writer tosses in tasks, observations, distractions between a character and high action;
~ a writer becomes mired in revising/tweaking/editing a section of a story and can’t move forward.
The above instances of stalling happen for a few reasons:
~ the writer (not the story) needs to warm up before writing the active part of the scene;
~ the writer is reluctant to put a character in necessary danger, or is unsure how to get the character out of necessary danger;
~ the writer doesn’t know what comes next in the story so s/he piddles endlessly on what has been written so far.
Today’s post will focus on the first two types of stalling: warm-up and avoidance. To illustrate, I’m back to my pretend novel, Bad Sale, a thriller about a farmer whose life falls apart after he is tricked by a boyhood friend into buying bomb-making supplies at the hardware store. In this scene, the farmer Richard and his boyhood friend Simon, go to a hunting camp in the woods. Bad stuff ensues.
~ The camp was a log cabin, build by hand by Richard’s grandfather. Richard knew the tale well. His grandfather promised his wife he’d build her a romantic hideaway in the woods, far away from the open space and endless toil on the farm… [insert family history here] But the romantic hideaway in the woods didn’t have running water or electricity or a modern toilet, so it was only a matter of time before it became a place Richard’s grandfather and his brothers used to hide away from their wives…. [insert family disharmony here]
It was made of birch…[insert long description]. All around, the woods… [more description]. As Richard and Simon drove up for their weekend, Richard told him the story of his grandparents…[long narrative description of what we already know]. The first day, they bagged two deer and some other innocent woodland creatures…[add telling, and bragging]…and spent the evening drinking beer and reminiscing…[add telling plus male bonding and BS].
On the morning of the second day, while Simon still slept, Richard made coffee in the old tinware coffeepot and took a cup outside. He wandered to the back of the cabin. The woods had crept close….[add dissertation about local flora and fauna] Too close. He wondered if there was a machete around to deal with some of these brambles. He seemed to remember one his dad kept hanging from the rafter on the porch….
His foot hit something and he stumbled. He peered down at a rusted ring on the ground and instantly remembered. The root cellar….[insert Richard removing brush with his bare hands]
From the cool darkness of the cellar, he heard the sound of a door slam. Not the cabin’s door–a car door. And another.
Paranoia hit in full force. Cops? Could the cops have followed them here?
Are you frustrated yet? Yes, someone followed Richard and Simon to the rustic hideaway in the woods, but by the time we get to that discovery, we could have added running water, electricity, and a boudoir.
This is all warm-up. The story of the cabin might be interesting, but even if we need to know it, we don’t need to know it twice. If the author wants to slow down the pace of the story and set up the conflict, that’s fine–in small, relevant doses. Piling on the background of the cabin, the dirty laundry in Richard’s family, and a Nature Channel episode about blackberry bushes will undermine the pacing. It also begs the question: Is Richard’s family back story so important? Shouldn’t the focus here be on him and Simon, and whoever followed them?
Additionally, every time I add a […] the reader is pulled out of what is happening now.
Let’s get back to Richard and the second type of stalling: avoidance.
Richard crept around the side of the cabin. He heard someone say Simon’s name, followed by “You stupid asshole, did you think you could hide here? Everybody in three counties knows about this place.” ….[insert some inane story about the speaker’s granddaddy and Richard’s great aunt]
Richard pressed against the side of the cabin. Who could this be? From inside, he heard thuds, a chair scrape across the floor, the distinct sound of a slap. He winced. A voice said, “Where’s your friend?” and the wince changed to a full-body freeze.
“What friend?” Simon said. Another slap. “He’s not here. He doesn’t even know I’m here.”
Richard wondered if they would believe him. Would it look like two people had slept in the camp? He’d made up his bed and put away last night’s dishes…. [insert childhood reminisce about being raised to be neat by his mother]
Richard gripped the coffee cup. Dammit. If only he had a weapon. He glanced down at the cup. His wedding ring glistened in the sun. Jillian. She’d told him not to come here… [insert admonishment from his wife]
He crept along the side of the cabin, listening to the questions Simon refused to answer…. [insert questions that may be useful to story]
More slaps. A punch. Richard pulled up to the window and steeled himself to peek through it…. [insert pounding heart, sweaty palms, other physical reactions to indicate Richard’s trying to man up]
Finally, he raised his head, praying the top of it wouldn’t be shot off by whoever was inside. When he was able to see the scene, his worst nightmare came to life…. [insert some other leading sentence to add melodrama] Standing before Simon, in jeans and a plaid hunting shirt, his dark hair… [add description of man] was the county sheriff. Beside him, punching a fist into a palm… [or some other cliched form of menace] was Deputy Harlan Jones. Richard was shocked. He always thought Harlan was a good guy. In fact, when Richard’s dad had that tractor accident… [add ancient history to show Harlan’s one decent act as a human being]
Richard ducked down and ran as fast as he could to the front of the cabin. At the porch, he got on his hands and knees and crawled toward the door, careful not to put too much weight on his bad knee… [add description of high school football injury]. At the screen door, he stopped. The slaps had changed to punches. Simon grunted with each one, but he refused to answer the question: “Where’s your friend?”
Richard hung his head, ready to cry. He and Simon had been friends for so long… [insert childhood story of how they met]. He glanced around frantically and then… [insert moment from long ago with his dad]
Richard looked up. There it was, hanging by a leather strap alongside the windowsill. A machete.
Poor Simon. He may be a bad guy and he may deserve some roughing up, but if he’s depending on Richard to save him, he’s got a big problem. Richard didn’t know how to save him from this situation–and neither did the author. That’s why it took Richard forever + two weeks to travel from the back of a tiny cabin to the front door. What he’s going to do now is anybody’s guess. He’ll probably grab the machete, and then digress into how the word is a derivative of the Spanish term for macho.
Simon’s not the only one to deserve pity. See how many times the story stops and starts, while the author hems and haws about how to move forward?
Reading long chunks of back story or multiple interruptions in a scene that’s supposed to set up a conflict tells me a couple of things about the writer:
~ He’s not sure what’s going to happen next.
~ He’s not comfortable in putting his character in danger.
~ He’s not confident in his ability to write an action scene.
~ He’s too close to the story to strip away unnecessary story history.
How do you stop stalling?
First, know where your story is going. If you are waiting for Richard to come to the rescue of your story and figure out how to get through that door, guess what? Richard’s doing the same thing–waiting on you to tell him what to do.
Second, recognize warm up. Do you want to take it slow and tell everything about the cabin because you have it all in your head and you need it to mentally see the scene? Go ahead. Write that in a draft. Then cut it out. Does the reader need to mentally prepare for the scene? No. The reader needs you to thrust them into it.
Third, stay in the story as it is happening now. Only tell what you absolutely must of what’s not in this moment. The machete? That’s a keeper. Harlan’s good act–maybe. Some background of the cabin–sure. The rendezvous between the sheriff’s granddaddy and great-aunt Pauline? Surely not.
If you are unsure about what to include or not include, consider this. While you write, someone is getting beaten up. Are you moving forward to rescue them as quickly as you can, or is your victim going to righteously demand, “Dude, thanks for saving me, but what took you so $%*#-ing long?”
Tomorrow’s Topic – How to Wrap Up a Month of How To Posts