Last week I got sepsis, a serious infection that is carried through the body by the blood, and landed in the hospital. Not wanting to waste time just lying around, I decided to work on judging for the Writers of the Future with my handy laptop, and from reading hundreds of stories, listed some ways that otherwise good writers try to bore an editor to death.
Boring Opening #1: The Tedious Details
Try scanning the first two pages of your story and see if you see this pattern: You have a sentence that starts with a minute action, such as “She turned her head to the left.” Then you have a paragraph that describes what she sees. Paragraph two starts with “She took a slight step forward and squinted toward the horizon,” followed by a paragraph where she reminisces about a recent incident. Then you have a paragraph that starts with something like, “She raised her hand to her mouth and yawned.” At which point we have a long paragraph describing how she feels about what is going on. It is followed by a paragraph where “She pondered more deeply as she reached down and chipped the bark off a tree with her long nails,” and then we talk about her plans for tomorrow, and so on. This often goes on for five pages, and sometimes the inaction includes things like eating, cleaning, and so on.
Listen, folks, if you have someone standing around doing nothing and you try to cover up the lack of action by describing tedious details, you’re writing what I call “micro-detail.” Sure, one guy won a Nobel Prize for that kind of work, but for most of us, it just gets your stories rejected. There is no problem going deep into your character’s point of view in a story and becoming introspective, but usually the opening of the tale isn’t a great place to do it. If you try it, you have to make sure that you really hook your reader strongly into the story with each paragraph, and doing things like describing the character’s fingers and knuckles just doesn’t hook us.
Boring #2: Going to the Meeting
If you start a story where your character is walking to a meeting, riding a train to a meeting, driving to a meeting, or whatever, then there is a little part of me that reads it and starts to weep inside. You see, I see this opening all the time, and sometimes there are good reasons for it—to display your world, for example—but more often than not the meeting itself is a time-waster, where the character is given an assignment or delivered a message that starts a course of action. And I sometimes see three pages wasted in travel before we reach a rather weak opening. It’s much better to simply open with having the person get the assignment at the meeting. Better yet, move forward in time and have the person already on the assignment. Again, no matter whether you are at a meeting, going to a meeting, or start in media res, you need to hook your reader into the story that follows.
Boring #3: Senseless Banter
This one is painful to even talk about. I see it in every story where bullies are talking, but I also see it in bar scenes or with men in combat, or with men and women in the office. It’s the banter where people are simply posing, trying to one-up each other with their bragging or lame jokes. Something like:
Mikey: “Your dad’s a fart bag!”
Tim: “Oh, yeah, well your mom is a crack whore fart bag!”
And it goes on for a page or two. Not only is this kind of senseless banter cliché, it is almost always a time-waster and really isn’t cleverly written. Worst of all, it is usually thinly disguised maid-and-butler dialog, where characters verbalize things that everyone in the story would know just for the benefit of the reader. For example, Mikey might say, “You know we can’t go to McGregor’s Farm. The entire Tyson family got decapitated there in 1948, and their ghosts still haunt the cornfield!”
Banter can be appropriate when written well, but it is almost always used when describing people who are rather simplistic, and thus it seldom comes across as clever.
Boring #4: Dolor
Every once in a while, an author will start a story with a character who is bored. Not only are they bored, but the author takes pains to make sure that we see just how bored the protagonist is. Ever since the great poet Theodore Roethke wrote the poem "Dolor," other authors have been trying to figure out how to be boring eloquently. Now, Roethke was a genius, and personally he is one of my favorite all-time poets. Your attempts to bore me, when compared to his masterworks, will pale in comparison.
May I suggest that opening a story with three pages of tedium is . . . one of the quickest ways to get a story bounced ever? Not only will I not read beyond the boring opening, I would never try to subject a reader to such torture. It’s an automatic rejection.
The Writer's Peak Workshop
Each time that I teach a workshop, the subject matter morphs and grows as I try to figure out better methods to get the point across. As we prepare to teach our third Writer's Peak Workshop, this couldn’t be truer. I’m narrowing down the focus on this one in order to teach authors how to 1) prepare to overcome the blank page, 2) get quickly into what I call the “writers’ trance,” where the tale flows out effortlessly, 3) turn writing into a habit, 4) and keep writing as a priority.
Upcoming Workshop Bundle
I mentioned in this article that you need to use hooks frequently in your writing. If you have access to my Writing Mastery 1 Course, you can find information on how to create hooks in Lesson 6. If you don’t have access to this course, hold on. I plan to have a special bundle of my writing workshops available next week for an incredible, low price!