Writing past our weaknesses and why we should do it.

In my break down of the first chapter of FIRELIGHT, I talked about stretching the moment. And I realized two things: how powerful this can be and it has always been one of my weaknesses as a writer. Yep. I admit it.

As I write and as I go to “stretch a moment” doubt plagues me.

Will readers care enough about my character or should I go on to the next beat?
These details seem kind of trivial and I’m not supposed to have fluff in my work.
Don’t readers skim paragraphs like this?
I don’t want to lose the attention of a reader on the first page, I’d better move on.

That way of thinking is all wrong. And it comes down to lack of confidence, which is like poison in writing and spreads quickly through out the pages. The importance of a beat determines how many words you spend on it.

Why should a writer learn to “stretch a moment”?

  • Instead of killing suspense, it actually creates more.
  • Instead of boring a reader, it draws them into the character so they make a stronger connection.
  • It allows time to bring in sensory details and internal conflict.
  • It signals to the reader that this scene is important and they’ll want to read more.

A great example is the first chapter of THE LIAR SOCIETY by the Roecker sisters.

They open with a tremendous hook: Her email didn’t move or disappear or do any of the creepy things I’d expect an email from a ghost to do.

And then Lila milked this moment to absolute perfection. Their whole first chapter is filled with Kate’s reaction to this email, her physical responses and internal conflict. Kate pulls out the memory box and goes through mementos. She remembers. She laughs. She cries.

After this first chapter I felt connected. I cared. And I was 100% behind Kate when she decides to solve Grace’s supposed accidental death. Without this tender moment being stretched over the entire first chapter, I would not have cared as much. I now had a stake in Grace’s life and death.

What does this mean for me?

I’ll make a pass on my current wip just to stretch out the moments that are emotionally important. I’ll look at major plot points and also the turning point of each scene.

If I can face my giants – you can too!

What are your weaknesses? How do you write past them?

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41 Responses to Writing past our weaknesses and why we should do it.

  1. anne gallagher March 23, 2011 at 11:12 am #

    I have learned that sensory details are the key to great writing. And it doesn’t have to be much, just well placed.

    My weakness — over writing, then having to go back in and cull. I hate that.

  2. Donna Weaver March 23, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    I love your insight, Paula, as always. I’m still so new to this that I’m not sure what my strengths are, but my weaknesses are legion.

    But this is another thing I’ll need to add to my lift of things to be aware of.

  3. Donna Weaver March 23, 2011 at 12:29 pm #

    It’s too early in the morning after a short night, LAURA.

  4. Matthew Rush March 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    Sorry for the post scheduling confusion over Jen’s query. Thanks SO much for helping out with it Laura!

  5. christine danek March 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    I do this. I tend to type dialogue first and then have to go back and add in the details. I used to overwrite and now I tend to underwrite. I guess I get scared that I have too much. Oh well, live and learn.

    • Laura March 23, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

      Christine – I don’t mind being an underwriter, I just have to go out of my way to compensate for that during revisions. And this week I’ll be working on stretching those moments.

      Matthew – I was a total dork by not following directions. Sorry about that.

      Donna – It’s good to know what are strengths and weaknesses are – we all have them.

      Anne – I agree. Sensory writing is a big one that can make or break the reading experience.

  6. Stina Lindenblatt March 23, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    I’m doing that right now for my wip and what a difference it makes. I’ve been having a lot of those, ‘OMG, why didn’t I think of doing this before?’ moments. 🙂

  7. Heather Sunseri March 23, 2011 at 12:49 pm #

    I have so many weaknesses as a writer, but this is definitely one of them. I ask my self many of the same questions you do when tackling this issue.

    “That way of thinking is all wrong. And it comes down to lack of confidence, which is like poison in writing and spreads quickly through out the pages.” – Very true statement!! The self-doubt can kill our writing mojo if we let it. We must learn techniques like you express here so that we squash that kind of doubtful thinking.

  8. Kelly Polark March 23, 2011 at 12:56 pm #

    Great reminder on how to create anticipation and stretch the moment.

  9. Kris March 23, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

    Um, yes, what Laura said. This is so true, and I’m totally guilty of this as well. ::goes to look back at new chapter of novel::

    Thanks, L!

  10. Karen Strong March 23, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    It’s a delicate balance but I definitely agree. I think we don’t give readers enough credit. We always hear, “get to the action, get to the point.” But there is still room in our story to slow things down.

    I’ve read the first few chapters of LIAR SOCIETY and I also like how they slowed things down to learn more about Lila and Grace because it got me closer to the characters and their personalities.

  11. Laurel March 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    I tend to keep throwing in more plot complications instead of deeply exploring the existing ones. I have a shelved manuscript I want to dig into again that suffered a lot from over-plot-itis. I realized why it hadn’t been working–within the first five pages I’d lost sight of the main conflict by throwing too much stuff at the character. You example of stretching moments is one I think would help my work too! Thanks!

    • Laura March 23, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

      Laurel – I have to be careful of that too.

      Karen – No, we don’t give readers enough credit. I think it’s one of the pieces of advice for newbies who might ramble on without getting to the point.

      Kris – 🙂

      Kelly – I didn’t realize how much creating anticipation hooks the reader until I really studied this first chapter.

      Heather – I’m working hard to overcome any lack of confidence. We need to approach our writing boldly with confidence so the reader trusts us.

  12. Creepy Query Girl March 23, 2011 at 1:53 pm #

    Sometimes I like when the moment is stretched out and we get a real feel for the setting. I love books that not only make me care about the characters and what befalls them, but also takes me away from where I am and plops me down on a beach, or in highschool, or on a road trip, kwim? Taking time out to really put is in the story is key.

  13. Laura Josephsen March 23, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    This was fantastic. I’m so glad you posted it. I’ve been questioning myself a lot on my current WIP and whether scenes are important or whether they’re just a lot of “blah blah blah” moments that people wouldn’t care less about–but when I go to see if I could cut them, I find they have important little moments and dialogue that develop the characters and these relationships, and without them, the connections and conflict later might not be nearly as strong. Sometimes the little things make the big things. (Of course, later down the road I might have numerous people telling me “cut this, you don’t need it” and then I’ll have to reevaluate again. 😉 But for right now, this post helped a LOT. Thank you.)

  14. Tina Lee March 23, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    Cool. So helpful as always, Laura. These first chapters have been so useful to me! The really lingering on a beat is something I have to work hard on. At least I can see it now, where as before I couldn’t recognize a individual beat to save my life. And the lack of confidence thing, that is totally why I do not linger. Thanks AS ALWAYS for your help!!!

    • Laura March 23, 2011 at 2:23 pm #

      Tina – I will always be working on this aspect of my writing. I don’t think it will go away.

      Laura – Glad it could be of help. All my posts are really messages written to myself!

      Katie – I’m learning to recognize these moments in book that I read that I love.

  15. Chantele Sedgwick March 23, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    I always write dialogue without details and have to go back and fix it later. If the dialogue is there though, and my characters are telling me what to write, then I just go with it. I always go back and add little details though. 🙂 Thanks for the great post! I’m a new follower. 😉

  16. Angela Felsted March 23, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    I needed to read this today because I struggle with the exact same thing.

  17. Lisa Green March 23, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

    Mine has always been world, but because of that I’ve done quite a bit of research and practice. 😀 So when I do a second pass on a MS, I always interject more world. And now I notice I’m starting to incorporate more and more the first time around.

  18. Shannon O'Donnell March 23, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    Great post, Laura! And you are absolutely right about the first chapter of Liar Society!

  19. Tana Adams March 23, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Oh I’ve read this in so many fiction books. On the one hand it frustrates me, on the other is builds the tension. I think it’s a necessary evil.

  20. Margo Berendsen March 23, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

    This is an excellent point! When I first started writing, people told me I was running on and including too much detail. So I’ve really cut back I think to the oppoosite extreme, where I would be hesitant to “stretch the moment” – but you’re right – you do need to stretch the moment to get the emotional connection with the character. Thank you!

    • Laura March 23, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

      I”m glad I”m not the only one. And guess what I’ve been doing today? Stretching out a moment, through dialogue, to show build-up so a character’s action are more believable.

  21. Tracey Neithercott March 23, 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    I’m like that, too. In fact, my entire first draft is usually very spare. I end up adding a bunch in edits but I still have trouble drawing something out because, like you, I fear it’s just filler that will bore the reader. This is the kick in the butt I needed!

  22. Wendy March 23, 2011 at 5:15 pm #

    Cleave is doing this so well in Little Bee, the book I’m reading.

    It really is all about milking it and driving home those points of tension.
    ~ Wendy

  23. Carolina Valdez Miller March 23, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    Great point, Laura! The key is to stretch out the right moment, usually the ones with the intense emotions. But I’ve also learned to be careful not to drag those moments out too long, especially if it’s a particularly intense scene (and this varies on audience, too). You know it’s too long if you start to see a repetition of emotion within the same scene.

    • Laura March 23, 2011 at 7:29 pm #

      Great advice Carol. I agree. Everything has to have balance. And if we carry out a scene too far we run the risk of skimming and bored readers.

  24. MG Higgins March 23, 2011 at 9:05 pm #

    Excellent post, Laura. I especially relate to the idea of lacking confidence. I often shorten scenes because I don’t want to bore the reader. Guess I need to take a deeper look at this.

  25. Sherrie Petersen March 24, 2011 at 5:25 am #

    As usual, you are completely brilliant. I actually was trying to explain this to someone, how they needed to milk a scene. Now I can just refer them to this post 🙂

  26. Amie Kaufman March 24, 2011 at 9:05 am #

    Really good point. I think I do worry that people will get bored if I don’t keep moving. Patience is a virtue–mine, I mean!

  27. Jessica Bell March 24, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    Hmm … I think my weakness is to underwrite. Which means I only write what people can see on the surface without digging deep enough. I really have to make a huge effort to overcome that. I can do it. But it takes a lot of pushing!

  28. Karen Lange March 24, 2011 at 1:12 pm #

    I love that – “stretching a moment” thing. I agree, suspense is enhanced. My weaknesses? They are many! 🙂 What do I do? Read and learn all I can to improve. Starting with your blog, of course.

  29. Ansha Kotyk March 24, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    I rush through my scenes and tend to underwrite. So I’m right there with you on needing to fill out those scenes and stretch them out.
    I actually created a post-it note on this just now, and stuck it to my 3-ring binder that holds my revisions… 🙂

    • Laura March 24, 2011 at 4:18 pm #

      Thanks everyone, I’m in the middle of stretching scenes right now. A good book to read with a great example of this is Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr.

  30. Terry Lynn Johnson March 24, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    Loved this. This is a great technique to discuss and I’m so glad you used the Liar Society as an example. Sounds awesome.
    I have a hard time doing this in the first draft. I tend to be in such a hurry to get to the end. Then, you have all kinds of time to fill it in later.

  31. Jill Kemerer March 24, 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    Great point. My weaknesses? Lazy writing. By the time I get to the line-editing phase of revisions, I’m stunned to realize how many times I’ve overlooked passive verbs, repeat words, or copycat sentence structure. Yikes!

    Also, I’m weak in sensory details. I always have to add them in revisions.

  32. Julie Musil March 25, 2011 at 2:57 am #

    Laura, this is one of my weaknesses also. I don’t want to bore the reader, so sometimes I rush through a scene. This is where my critique partners are so helpful. They’ll remind me to slow down and add more to certain scenes.

    James Scott Bell talks in his book about stretching the tension, and uses Psycho as a great example.

  33. Susan Kaye Quinn March 25, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    This is a great post (see what I miss??). Marking a moment like that with enough words to do it justice is a key way to tell the reader This is important without being overbearing. And I like how the Roecker’s gave us all we needed to appreciate the launching motivation of her character (caveat: I haven’t read it, but feel like have just from your description!).

  34. angela ackerman March 25, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

    What timing–I just read a post about this while looking for something else entirely and it stuck with me. I tend to write with a strong focus on pacing, and so this one hits me square in the chest–it’s alright to stretch the moment as a technique to increase tension!

    You are awesome as always,

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  35. Jenny Lundquist March 27, 2011 at 1:19 am #

    Thank you so much for this post! I was just writing an important scene in my newest WIP and wondering if I was going too long. Your post has convinced me that it’s definitely one I need to stretch!

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