Monday, May 11, 2009

Does your story have a "wobble"?



Sometimes your story may get unbalanced in some areas, like a tire that's gone out of alignment. Severe story wobble can kill the pacing and reading experience, so it pays to recognize the symptoms, and take remedial action to push your narrative back into shape.

When you're doing any of the following in your writing, it's likely that your story is getting off kilter:


  • Over describing the actions of the main character.

  • Over describing background information that you think the main character needs to know.

  • Under describing (or losing track of altogether) the actions of secondary characters in a scene.

  • Using repetitive sentence structure.

It's easy to fix most cases of story wobble. Here are some remedies:



  • Use only minimal actions to show the actions of the main character.

  • When you have some background information that the main character needs to know, sprinkle it in, or create an SME (Subject Matter Expert) for your story.

  • If it's been a while since you've mentioned a secondary character in a scene, be sure to "establish" the character in the reader's mind before giving him dialogue or action. Otherwise the reader won't know who the re-introduced character is.

  • Do search-and-destroy missions on repetitive sentence structure. It's easy to fall into using the same sentence patterns repeatedly throughout a book, so make sure you change things up in every paragraph. This is also known as varying the sentence rhythm.

What are some of your story wobbles that you have to search for and destroy when you're rewriting? Has there ever been one that has caused you embarrassment?



14 comments:

  1. Excellent post. Story wobble is one of those things that's hard to catch without stepping away from the manuscript for a little while, or having beta readers give you input. And you've suggested some good solutions.

    I will take issue with one of them - As a reader, I generally dislike Subject Matter Experts. I can't say I've ever put a book down because of one, but I've decided not to buy the author's next book because of one. To me an SME is usually cop out, especially in a situation like this where you're adding one "after the fact".

    I will grant that it's a fine line. But other than certain expected/welcomed "genre characters" in say, mystery or horror, I would never suggest inserting a character whose purpose is basically just to explain something. Many best-selling thriller authors do it, and I almost always think it makes for a worse book.

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  2. Great topic, Kathryn. I think it’s easy for a story to wobble if we’re not careful. Lynn Sholes and I have our favorite lines, expressions and descriptions that we tend to throw into a first draft. And when we’re deep into a 100k-words document, we forget that we used that same expression 30k words ago. It’s only when we print out that hard copy and read it from head to tail that those nasty little wobble-makers jump out. As always, I preach the use of trusted beta readers to help see what our tired eyes can’t.

    We’ve been lucky to have avoided major embarrassments although we have been called out a couple of times on incorrect research data. My solution is to always blame those issues on my co-author. :-)

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  3. All I could think of when I saw the title of your post was "Weebles wobble but they don't fall down."

    Weird, I know.

    I don't mind SMEs as long as they don't overdo it. I tend to skip over it if they go on for more than a few sentences, or get too technical.

    I rarely over describe. Most of the time I end up adding description. The scenes where I tend to go overboard describing actions are the climax scenes, especially if the protagonist is physically fighting off the antagonist. I have a clear picture in my mind and sometimes it's difficult to get across.

    As for sentence structure, sometimes I'll look at a page and every paragraph starts with "I." Not good.

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  4. Good advice Kathryn. I find myself using that "go to" word a lot. I guess you could lump it in with the repetative sentence structure.

    Sometimes I'll do a search and destroy mission on my draft with Word's find and replace, to see how many times I use a particular word. When I see it highlighted in a paragrapgh several times I change things up.

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  5. Though I am not a thriller author, I have been checking out The Kill Zone for a while now and have learned quite a few things. Congrats! I am a Dutch girl living in Asia and working on a Chinese love story in the English. I decided to start the book by writing chapter 1 (www.cutsleevecomrades.blogspot.com) in a thriller/detective-style action scene; this perhaps influenced by your web log. I hope it’s going to work out.

    Pantau in Bangkok

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  6. Joyce, lol, I thought of that same phrase, and considered searching for a picture of a "weeble" to include with the post, but it was so late by the time I posted that I was too tired to search for one! (What does a weeble look like, anyway?

    Edward, I think it must be my background as a technical editor (and mystery writer) that makes me such a fan of SMEs. Maybe my remedy is in itself becoming--gasp--a wobble! You bring up an excellent point--even within a mystery, it's very easy to overuse a "walk on expert" who can explain something tidily, and then vanish from the scene.

    Pantau, thank you for your kind words about the blog, and good luck with your writing! It sounds as if you must have a lot of interesting material and background to draw from!

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  7. Boy, what a good post on craft. I'm unlike most people I know, in that my manuscripts grow when I rewrite. My wife always reads my stuff and tells me she can't picture where she is. I'm such an auditory learner that I can crank out good dialogue, but the description is sorely lacking. So I go back in and add the setting-as-character and a little more movement or background to each scene. My wife calls it "adding color", because my scenes are a little bland or sepia-toned without it.

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  8. Thanks Jake! Your wife's phrase "adding color," is very good, and I've also heard it referred to as "layering in." We go back and layer in tone, texture, a sense of place, and even a deepening of the story.

    Joyce, inspired by your bringing up the weeble wobble thing, I went back and found a picture of an honest-to-Gosh Weeble. I think it looks a bit like a purple cape buffalo dressed as Edith Bunker.

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  9. Kathryn -

    I'm actually a technical writer kind of person myself (I do a lot of IT documentation in my day job). Stuff like this is one reason I think we writers enjoy the craft - because there are no hard and fast rules. If you make a character interesting enough, it won't matter if the character is an SME. Just look at Carl Hiaasen :)

    Wobbling can definitely be challenging to correct in some instances. I write in a co-author team, and I think having two sets of eyes all through the process can make a big difference in eliminating wobbles.

    Plus, like Joe said, I've always got someone to blame!

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  10. I think I sometimes have writing fidgets rather than wobbles:) and boy can they be annoying. I can definitely fall into the sentence structure trap and need to vary it and stop using my favorite expressions...Thankfully so far they've only caused embarrasment in the draft rather than final stage.

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  11. We interrupt this excellent stream of comments for more on Weebles.

    Here's someone who has a whole Weebles collection:
    http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/af222/WEEBLES/list.htm.

    Personally, I think the first one (the father) looks a lot like Sidney Crosby in the blue Penguins uniform. (Let's go Pens!)

    And now back to your regular comments on writing.

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  12. Interesting points here. Having a wobbly action or character who seems out of place can really ruin a story. Just like an awkard kiss on a first date, if the awkardness is too much (ie. braces stuck, eyeglasses clicking together, tuna breath, burping at the wrong moment) one just can't get over it and the plausibility of a continued relationship is nixed.

    As far as SME's, depending on the story and the context that can be doable. If your story includes lot's of FBI, Police, Military etc an SME is not only plausible, its expected. Afterall, that's what those folks do. Since there is a war on right now, there are plenty of fresh young SME's on things like terrorism, explosives, hand to hand combat, espionage etc, just running around waiting to become characters in a story.

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  13. As far as Weeble-Wobbles, the toys, interesting factoid. I sent Leonard back in the time machine to grab my original 1972 Weeble Wobble Police Playset, which is probably worth a fortune. When he appeared in my front yard the then four year old Basil panicked and chucked one of those things at him.

    Where's the factoid in that? Original Weeble-Wobbles are apparently made of the same material as armour piercing bullets. Leonard needs a new pair of safety goggles.

    On the bright side: I am now the proud owner of an original Weeble Wobble Police Officer.

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  14. Armor piercing bullets? Basil, I'm putting a Weeble to work in my next mystery! Recyled, of course!

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