Do you ever find yourself reading a book and just wishing the author would get on? Move ahead with the story?
That slow-down is story stagnation.
Types of Stagnation
It is possible to stand still too long in a story for a million different reasons. You might dwell too long on a particular problem. Repetition induces readers to tune out. If they’ve gotten your point, they want the next one. Linger and they will grow frustrated.
You can stay too long in a particular setting. Yes, you can write a whole book about action in a single room, but then the book is de facto about that room. The longer you ‘stay’ with anything in your book, the more central it appears to the reader. Are you placing the right weight on the right elements? Trim all parts to match the relative importance to the story, and you’ll always achieve the right emphasis.
The word ‘stall’ is particularly useful to keep in mind. Sometimes, the reader might actually feel you are stalling – because you don’t know where to take the story next. This is the last suspicion you want to instill in a willing reader. Move off as soon as the story calls for it.
Usually, because you love your story in the first place, you can tolerate a much bigger dose of any single element than the non-disciple. Perhaps, in extreme cases, huge doses. You might love the 30-page description of mountain lake scenery, but readers are probably okay with far (far, far!) less. Some readers might appreciate that you love a topic, but it won’t convince them to love it equally; other readers will simply put the book down. If you aren’t servicing the plot with your passion, you must desist.
Also be wary of giving too many technical explanations. Anytime you go into the realm of facts and leave the narrative thread behind, you are ‘too long’ somewhere. Readers are here for a story, not a textbook.
Stagnation Messes with your Structure
One clear way to spot and stamp out stagnation is by thinking carefully about story structure.
Stagnation alters the structure of your story. It overextends simplistic parts to the point of breaking the reader’s will to read, and lengthens the time to the ‘next big turning point’. If you spent 30 pages on the beautiful description of the mountain lake, you probably missed adding the plot twist or character development that should have been in its place.
It means you have a book-length manuscript but not enough substance.
There should rarely be monologues in books unless there is great cause, the exceptions being insightful internal monologues that add to characterization and advance the plot. There are also specific devices within certain genres, such as the villain’s monologue, which is an epic ingredient of any story of good versus evil and usually anchors the climax.
Don’t Flit, Either
The opposite to stagnation is jumping around too much. Constant switching can be as disorientating as wallowing in one place too long is yawn-inducing.
If you are constantly hopping from place to place, the text might come across as too shallow. “Why won’t this author sit still long enough for me to understand what’s going on?”, a reader might think, or: “I was just getting into that, why are we already leaving?”
Big jumps in time, location, mood, or action must be done carefully so that the reader can re-orientate and continue to enjoy the story without pause. Provide sufficient clues, though, and this can be a great way to invigorate a story at a crucial plot point.
As with almost everything in writing, it’s about striking a balance. The good news is that stagnation can be cut without significantly changing the plot or mood of the story.
You need to achieve a mesmerizing pace. A perfect pace does justice to your material (providing sufficient depth) while allowing you to spice the story with enough variation (surprise, novelty) to secure your readers’ interest.
Optimizing against the criterion of pace is a great way to edit. If you feel the itch to shake the up the status quo, think of moving the narrative to a new place, adding a character, or otherwise upping the novelty. If you feel the narrative is getting too scattered, dial back and explore one ‘location’, whether physical or mental, until you deliciously exhaust it of super content.
Hiring an editor to read your work or running it through an editing tool will give you feedback on pace, flagging areas of stagnation or choppiness. You’ll get advice to shorten or lengthen, accordingly, but it’s left up to you to rework the text. That’s your artistic job as an author.
Have you ever caught stagnation in your writing, and how did you remedy it? Share your tips in the comments below!