Stick with the Story

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by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Any novelist who has spent much time in the fiction-writing world has probably heard the term “sagging middle.” Sags develop when a story loses momentum and begins to meander or bog down. I’m of the opinion that the issue usually isn’t so much a single sag as a number of sags, clustered or scattered throughout.

Envision a rope that connects the story to the reader. As long as the rope is taut, the story is pulling the reader ever onward by the tension in the connection. Once the tension sags, the reader is no longer moving forward and may become bored or confused and close the book. Yikes!

While it is important to flesh out characters, establish their motivations, and reveal their back-stories, etc., a writer cannot afford a chapter or even a scene devoted solely to any of those causes. A novelist must perform the miracle of developing characters in the midst of the action directly pertinent to the story at hand. Digression, hopping off on rabbit trails, or allowing the story to meander, risks losing the reader.

Here is a rather sensitive tip for all of us writers: we must face the fact that our readers are not so head-over-heels in love with our characters (like we are) that they salivate for any and every anecdote about them. No, we woo our readers to fall in love with our characters by the way they act and react within a taut and finely honed tale that stays true to its purpose, not slopping over into side-issues or scenic by-ways.

Let me tell you a story…

Once upon a time a writer of solid and promising skills met a critique partner who was impressed with her command of language, her ability be build a believable story world, and her enthusiasm for her characters. The writer had honed many of her skills to publishable level, but one major item she lacked-the ability to stick with her story.

In fact, the first half dozen chapters of her manuscript were prep work prior to entering into the main issue of the story! She insisted these pre-story chapters were “essential” for the reader to understand her characters. The critique partner shared with her this principal of sticking with her story. The writer could not agree with that advice. To this day-a decade later-for all her skills and talent, the writer remains unpublished.

Here’s the main truth of this blog post: If a novelist cannot discipline him or herself to stick to the true story and develop the characters within those confines, the novelist also will fail to connect with a publisher, much less the reading public. This is a decision-point for each of us. We can do whatever we want with our story and our characters as long as we are writing for recreation and personal pleasure. If we expect to be published, we must write for the reader.

Are you writing in order to be published and connect with a readership? Or are you writing for your own pleasure? No one can answer those questions but you.

Shake DownAward-winning author Jill Elizabeth Nelson writes what she likes to read-tales of adventure, romance, and faith. Her bestselling handbook for writers, Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, is available at Visit Jill on the web at Shake Down from Love Inspired is her most recent release.

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