Over the past couple of days I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading back over some of the stories I have written in the past. One of the things I noticed about what I was writing about 8-10 years ago was that I spent a lot of time dwelling on the big emotional moments and rushed through or outright skipped over the slow building of tensions and the subplots and the character building. The result was that it left the stories I was writing feeling flat, empty, melodramatic.
Coincidentally, today a thread popped up on my twitter feed about this very problem:
Click through and read the whole thread, it’s not very long, but it really hits the nail on the head when it comes to what my problem has been with these particular stories, and crucially, how to fix it:
This is very helpful advice and for me, it’s come at just the right time.
One of the stories I wrote back in about 2009 is one I shared with a friend and fellow writer at the time. He was very diplomatic and supportive, but it was clear he didn’t think much of it. And the problem I had was exactly what Mara Fitzgerald has described: I knew the messy world, but I didn’t put it on the page. The story didn’t engage my friend in 2009, and it hurt to see it because I was emotionally invested in it. But reading back with the distance of time and nine years more experience as a writer, I can see it as he did.
I hadn’t earned the emotion with the story I’d written.
I wrote my article about Zuko’s character arc in Avatar: The Last Airbender nearly 5 years ago. It remains the most popular article on this blog. And I think it’s because Zuko’s arc is such a strong one, and it’s written so well, that people remember it and engage with it. It’s not just because of the popular trope of an enemy becoming a friend, though that may be part of it. It’s about earned emotion. Zuko’s eventual turn away from his upbringing to help Aang works because it is done at the right pace. It isn’t rushed. There’s even a moment where Zuko can join the good guys and doesn’t, because he’s not reached the right place emotionally for it to be the clear choice for him.
I am – I’ll be honest – procrastinating right now by writing this blog post. I’m almost ready to start the next draft of my WIP. I’ve been working on it for months. Making notes, writing scenes as I work though the ideas and themes of it. And yes, I’ve been writing the big emotional scenes without filling in the gaps of the framework, slap my wrist. Knowing I’m not the only one that does that makes me feel better about it. Understanding why I do it, and how to combat it, means I feel far better about facing the blank first page.
I think the way to think about it as a tower. The big emotional moments are the banners flying from the top and over the door, but unless I build the tower itself beam by beam and stone by stone, the banners are just going to drag on the ground. It I want them to flutter majestically in the wind, I’ve got some work to put in.