Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wading Through Sludge

When I lose interest in a book after the first paragraph or after the first five pages, my impulse is to close the book, make another pot of coffee, and go off in search of a more compelling story.

If the writer hasn’t succeeded in grabbing and holding my interest– if he or she makes me feel like I’m wading through sludge–why should I keep reading?

But over the years I’ve learned that I should keep reading, not just to see if the author can regain my interest (and trust) but to understand why the author lost my interest in the first place.

Sometimes reading further feels like I’m sinking in quicksand or hacking my way through a mangrove swamp. But, even so, I try to stay with the writer in the hope of detecting what’s missing on the page.

I’m looking for the essential ingredient that the story lacks or that the author inadvertently may have overlooked but which is necessary to hold a reader’s interest in the story.

Most often, the missing ingredient is conflict, or, equally often, the main character’s inner motivation.

But sometimes the author uses too many words, camouflaging the conflict or motivation, or else he relies on language that is too flowery or too descriptive, lost in itself, and fails to realize that the story’s forward momentum, under the weight of such language, has come to a halt.

Excessively long flashbacks are another impediment to a story’s forward motion, especially when an author forgets to return to the main story.

If I keep wading through sludge, though, I’ve discovered that I can see where an author came to a crossroads and can sense where she may have resisted the opportunity to explore further a character’s need to struggle with difficult emotions.

Or I may begin to understand how the story might have captured my interest if the author had chosen a different path, altered the pacing, for instance, or opened a chapter with a different scene, setting altogether different expectations.

This process of analyzing stories that we may not find compelling is crucial to developing as a writer, just as it’s essential to analyze the many stories that do inspire us to keep reading.

If you force yourself to keep reading a story that doesn’t grab you, you’ll find, I suspect, that learning how you feel about a story (and why it doesn’t work) will help you begin to look at the drafts of your own work differently so that, with each revision, you (and your reader) can move more easily into open water.

For more information on holding a reader’s attention, visit:


Anonymous said...

This was a great post! I always wondered if there was a common reason behind why I lose interest in a book, when it should be something I'm really interested in reading.

I also applied this advice to myself while writing my story. If I'm not invested in the conflict or the characters, then my readers certainly will not. I agree that it's easy to get caught up in language or being clever instead of telling the best story and making the reader care about what's happening. You've got to hook the reader immediately with the conflict and slowly introduce background and history without bogging them down with two much information. Wading through sludge is definitely a given when writing a first draft though.

Bruce Black said...

I just came across two observations (echoing yours) in The Elements of Story, Francis Flaherty's wonderful collection of notes on writing:

"A story is a trip down a river. As the captain of the ship, the writer must perform two duties: keep the boat moving and, at the same time, describe and explain the scenery to his passengers." (p. 75)

"Of the two jobs a writer must do--make a story move, and describe and explain--movement is the more important. The novelist John Gardner called this quality 'profluence'--'the sense that things are moving, getting somewhere, flowing forward.'" (p. 78)

Take a look at Flaherty's book when you get a chance. I think you and other writers might enjoy it.

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.