September 19, 2012

Breaking the Monotony

My novel is roughly one-quarter characters talking over meals, one-quarter conversations while dishwashing or cooking, and one-quarter discussions in bed. Among the remaining quarter of the scenes are a small number of action-packed episodes, but the rest are characters talking in other locations. I desperately hope this doesn't make the story as boring as it sounds.

Since my novel focuses on the relationships between characters, I'm pretty sure it's okay that it's mostly conversations and arguments. And I guess it's inevitable that if over the course of the story I need to write dozens of one-on-one discussions between the same husband and wife, most of the scenes will happen in their home as they go through the activities of daily life. The story takes place over years, so while the characters are always wrestling with conflicts, most of the problems aren't momentous enough to stop the necessity of carrying on with eating and cleaning and putting the children to bed. That's life, in the real world and in my story, and when my characters take time to deal with their issues, it has to fit in with that reality.

I can't justify sending my characters off to gallop across the plains on horseback or jump out of an airplane or hit the blackjack tables in Vegas just so that they have a different backdrop as they negotiate the terms of their marriage. It wouldn't make sense in the story for them to go on these adventures, and anyway, it might make even less sense for them to have those conversations while doing such things. But I do get awfully tired of writing variations on, "That night, as we were getting ready for bed," and I worry that readers will be bored by the repetition.

Yesterday, I was facing this problem once again. My characters had an argument in front of their friends, so at least that provided a different setting, but I knew they had to deal with the fallout once they got home and put the children to bed. Where would they talk? In the bedroom? The living room? The kitchen? The idea of the scene felt equally flat to me in any of those locations because I was so bored of them all.

I thought, "Well, they do have a back yard, with patio furniture. But it's too cold for them to want to go outside." And then I considered that some more, and I thought about the effect if one of the characters is also so bored by the inside of their house and the routine of their life that she would rather sit outside in the cold. And suddenly I was interested again.

I wrote the scene that way, and it wasn't the conversation I'd planned for the characters, but it was better. There was less rehashing of the same conflict and more that went significantly unsaid. The characters looked at the night sky while they were out there, and that gave me an idea for a bit of backstory that intrigued me. I put the memory in but then reconsidered because it was largely irrelevant. Then I thought about it for longer and came up with a way to tie it in with the characters' current issues. And now I like this scene.

It's interesting how just a small break from routine can open up new possibilities.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Benjamin Percy, writing at The Rumpus, describes learning to slow down as a reader: "I realized--as do so many in their twenties--that no matter how swiftly I turned the pages, I wasn't going to make my way through all the books I ought or wanted to read. And then I realized, after taking a forms class with Mike Magnuson, what it meant to read as a writer, to truly relish every word and study every sentence strenuously so that I might pirate tools to employ on the page." (Thanks, The Millions!)


Iphy said...

I'm curious if monotony of location was feedback you got from any of your readers. Maybe you're more bored of it, having spent so long with it, than a reader would be since they'd finish the book in a week or two or so?

Which is not to detract from the fact that you found a way to interest yourself and make the scene better!

Lisa Eckstein said...

That's a good question. No, I guess I haven't had any feedback from readers to suggest that this is a real problem. And I can't think of this ever bothering me in a book I was reading -- which could mean that all other writers have avoided such repetition, but more likely means it doesn't stick out to a reader. It's good to realize that in this case, my tolerance is probably far less than what a reader will accept. Thanks!

Anna Scott Graham said...

I love this resolution. Very crafty of you!

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