Sometimes I’m asked to critique a story, or a scene in a novel, that, despite being well written, is somehow kind of bland. There may be nothing wrong with it – the author communicates clearly, and uses concrete detail, and writes strong dialogue, and deploys a consistent and appropriate point of view, and doesn’t clutter her prose with adjectives or adverbs, and yet, somehow, the story or scene doesn’t leap off the page – it’s dull. One option is to make the characters more distinctive, more idiosyncratic, more unusual. But very often the solution is to take the characters and their conflict and transpose them into a distinctive micro world.
A while ago I was working with a young author who had written a story that was good in many ways but was, however much he edited it, somehow kind of bland. It was a boy meets girl story, as so many of the best stories are, and the impediment to the couple’s happiness was the boy’s mental health problems. The action took place in a student flat in an unspecified location and although the structure was good and the characterisation was thoughtful, the story was – even by the author’s own estimation – crushingly dull.
One simple change transformed the story: in the new version, instead of sitting around in a generic student flat doing nothing, the protagonist tried to get close to the object of his desire by joining her glass-blowing collective. Now, the author’s other skill happened to be glass blowing, so it was a micro world he knew well, and the story was improved immeasurably.
Straight away there was another layer to the narrative as the protagonist struggled to make a vase that wasn’t totally embarrassing, and his efforts became important in their own right, and they may even have taken on some symbolic meaning.
But even more importantly he could now draw on a wonderful vocabulary of interesting noun phrases. The terminology of glass blowing – borosilicate glass, marver, jacks, annealer, thermal stress – brought the story to life. The story was improved immeasurably.
Remember: you’re making this stuff up, so make up something distinctive. If your story takes place in an interesting micro world, it makes it so much easier than if the context is bland.
Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.
The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Starley Shelton. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/starleys/