Have you got aphids in your story?
Aphids are today’s metaphor for repetitive and unnecessary words, paragraphs, and scenes that can suck the life out of your story. Aphids undermine the health of your story by:
- destroying the pacing
- inserting flab into lines and pages
- sending the plot wandering
The story may be strong in all other respects, but flab and even short detours can cause readers to grow bored and annoyed. I’m the last person who should tell you to write tight and short, since I enjoy evocative writing. However, that style is no excuse for aphids.
Look for aphids when you’re ready to revise. Adopt a hunter attitude. You’re going to kill these sap sucking little beasts. You’ll be wearing your editor hat for this task, and adopting an editor’s attitude.
Macro level bugs.
Take a look at your chapter and scene openings. Set up paragraphs showing the character traveling, arriving, and thinking about arriving are tiny little story killers. Begin in the middle of a conversation, or at least when the door is already open and the main character’s ex-wife is standing there, frowning. Aftermath sequences where we consider what just happened guarantee that nothing happens right now. Sometimes you gotta have them, but cut out most of them, or piggy back such internal narrative on scenes that do forward the action. Beware of scenes without plot or structural purpose.
Why? Again, pacing. You don’t need one big action scene after the next, but be fearless in cutting scenes when there is no mission the scene delivers.
At the story level, pacing is a tricky element to get right. Your story’s ideal pacing will be dictated by your material and the style of book you’re writing. Also, the amount of description and context will be influenced by the inherent interest of your milieu. One trick I use to grab an overview is to make a list of every scene (whether or not it’s a chapter) and state what the forward movement is, or the vital mission. I rate the scenes from 1 to 5 for conflict and tension. Too many 2s and 3s, and I can suspect pacing is an issue.
It’s easier for readers to forgive background, exposition and character portraits early on in a book,
when the author is providing context and set up for the story. But after the middle of the novel slow pacing becomes a good excuse to put a novel down.
Micro level critters.
At the line level, watch for those life-sucking little quirks that wilt lines in a hurry: liberal use of adjectives, adverbs, and just plain too many words, saying things twice, plus repeating yourself. Any good book on editing will give you cringe-worthy lists of words or syllables that are indicators of aphids at work, such as -ly, -ion, of, that, was, were.
One of the best is Ken Rand’s concise and classic guide, The 10% Solution.
The Garden as a Whole.
It’s amazing how the quality of the whole story can be undermined by things as small as habitual word choice and a few extraneous paragraphs. But when we consider the experience of the reader, isn’t it true that the pages themselves have to flourish and shine? Every page we write gives the reader either another reason to go on or reason to consider setting this one aside. At the rate people are downloading books onto reading devices, they always have something else to read. I know I do.
Pick up a page of your manuscript at random. How inherently interesting is it? How many critters lurk in the lines?
It is undoubtedly hard to rewrite. Sometimes we get revision blindness because we’re so close to the work that the critters easily hide from us.
A few diagnostic questions.
Here are some questions I use when searching for flab in my stories.
- Why will anyone care about this scene? What is the point, here?
- Is there enough tension in this scene? How far have I strayed from strong emotion?
- Could I cut 10% from this page without hurting it? (Try it!)
- Am I using a “cinematic eye”? In this movie-obsessed age, I try to remember that my novel is not a movie. In spite of the fact that I may see a movie in my head, I will never convey this movie by writing visual descriptions.
- Are there opportunities to accelerate the pace after the midpoint, and then further in the book’s last quarter?
If we’ve worked hard at premise, story, and character, let’s not drop the ball with this part of the execution. The pace of your story and the experience of the reader at the line level will have a huge impact on its appeal.