Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Serve The Crab In Its Shell

I recently went to the Palais Garnier and saw a ballet choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj. (Check out the video clip in this link to see the most passionate ballet kiss ever.) I enjoyed the entire evening, which had a mix of traditional sections along with darker sections starring the ominous "gardeners." There was only one dance in the middle of the show that I found to be particularly boring. The women were dead and dressed in black and slowly rolling around on the floor. It brought up a concept I have in storytelling that is not very well favored by other writers I know. I argue that, in order to make a reader (or viewer or listener) feel satisfied, one often needs to include a boring center section. The crab only tastes good if you have to dig it out of its shell.

The knee jerk reaction that most writers will say is no. They'll argue that nothing in your story should be boring. Even if you slow the pace, it has to remain interesting and engaging. Everything has to be good. But is that really true?

In everything I have experienced that I find satisfying: earning my Ph.D., hiking Mt. Whitney, finishing my first novel, everything has had its tedious middle section, that horrible time when you think the goal is impossible to reach, when you consider giving up. I'd argue that without those bad times, the good feeling I got upon finishing wouldn't have been so good.

Reading a book, at least for me, brings about a sense of satisfaction. I'm always just a little proud of myself when I make it from front cover to back cover, even for a short book. The task seems even more worthwhile if there was a section in a good book that I found to be particularly slow. And, if you have other friends who have also read the book, isn't that difficult section the one that you end up discussing the most? "I loved the beginning and the end, but, dude, those hundred pages about horse genealogy really dragged" (wink, wink).

Notice I'm actually talking about bad, boring writing. I'm not talking about well-written slow scenes that balance out fast-paced action scenes. We'd probably never intentionally put boring sections into our own stories, but chances are, at least in the first draft, there's already something in the middle of the story that could use a little sparkle. What if we ended up leaving that dud section alone? Does it give the reader that feeling of accomplishment when they get past it? Does it maybe enhance the rest of the book by setting up a contrast and allowing the reader to realize how hard the task of writing actually is? I'm guessing writers will never strive to keep anything in the book that they find bad, but I'm saying maybe bad isn't such a bad thing, served in small portions.


  1. Stop stealing my thoughts. Ha ha.

    A lot of writers don't intend to include weak writing or parts of the story, but it happens. In most books I've read, I've encountered scenes or paragraphs that were worth skipping.

    Recently I wondered what would happen if I wrote a book with no sagging story or writing. Would it interest people more, or less?

    From what I hear, probably less. A lot of people say that total action is exhausting. Sharp writing is great, but what happens when the reader bleeds to death?


  2. I disagree with you on this. I don't think that a novel should not be obligated to have a boring section, or a poorly written section.

    "Does it give the reader that feeling of accomplishment when they get past it?"

    Not for me. It makes me feel disappointed, and it casts a gray tinge over the rest of the story, no matter how compelling it may be. I don't forget that part of it just sucked. If I talk about that section, it's not to dissect its merits, it's to say it sucked. I apologize for the terse language, but I'm using the words that best express how I feel...

    "Does it maybe enhance the rest of the book by setting up a contrast and allowing the reader to realize how hard the task of writing actually is?"

    I don't think the reader is concerned with how easy or hard the craft of writing is, unless that reader is a writer, but writers are in the minority among readers.

    What if DaVinci left a smudge on Mona Lisa's face to vent his frustration at layering colors and drawing emotion into a facial expression? I wouldn't view that favorably. I don't want to know if painting is hard, I want to admire the beauty of the finished product.

    Nathan Bransford once likened agenting to being a food critic, saying he didn't need to know how it was produced, he just needed to know if he liked it.

    In my first draft, there were many bad sections. Some made it to the second draft. Now I'm on the third revision, and I did a complete re-write on the first 5,600 words, and now as I tie that into prose I wrote previously, I struggle to balance the need to make it all good the lack of available time to do that before 2010. If bad sections end up staying in the manuscript and somehow survive through publication, it will be due to time constraints and not artistic choice.

  3. Hmmm...process over product. Made me think about Jackson Pollock. I don't think many readers are as apt to appreciate process over product in a novel as much as in a painting that they can just glance at. Sometimes they aren't even willing to appreciate the process of creating a painting if the product isn't something great. Da Vinci (Rensaissance) is much different than Jackson Pollock (modern). Again, it comes down to personal taste. :-) It's an age old argument! LOL Anyone ever read literary crit and theory?

    *has flashbacks of grad school*

  4. Rick, What about a Francis Bacon painting that is nothing but a sketch on the outside border? Sometimes knowing that something is hard makes a person appreciate art more. Michelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel is impressive. It's even more impressive when you realize it was painted on the ceiling.

  5. Justus, Good point. Yes, there is also that idea of pacing which can be slowed either by a quiet passage that's well-written or maybe a boring passage that's badly written!

    LitGirl, I wish I was more aware of literary criticism. That's a big gap in my knowledge base, which may be good or bad.

  6. Some great thoughts here, Davin! I tend to agree with you on many of the points you've made. However, I do think you should clarify between weak and boring.

    There are WEAK parts in a novel and there are BORING parts. If the BORING parts are strong and well-done, hey, I think they work great, as you say. I'll bet that boring part in the ballet was beautifully choreographed and really did have a point to get across. Somebody in the audience probably loved it and thought it was the best part of the piece. But to others, it was just, blah.

    So, in essence, I agree with you on this. I believe that, like a fight scene, a breather needs to follow after a period of greatness, action, whatever. Breathers can be boring, for some, but enlightening and revealing to others. I put them in my books, that's for sure!

  7.'s interesting stuff to know! Grab a lit crit and theory book. Some of it is guranteed to put you to sleep in a hurry!

  8. Davin, If I wrote a 'boring' middle section I hardly think I'd get an agent or anyone else to even finish reading it. The pace can slow down a bit and probably should, but boring?

    No reader would finish it and word of mouth would slow sales to a crawl. Plus, before it's even published critters would say, "The middle is awful, spice it up." There is no reason for a book to have a boring middle. Make things happen. We're in charge! :)

  9. Davin's comments seem to me to be written from a reader's perspective, not a writer's, and I think I might know what he's getting at. There are a lot of books that I consider Really Good Books which have middle sections that I have to fight to get through. Not all books, but certainly some of them. It's also a pretty common observation that books tend to drag in the middle. A lot of people see this as a flaw in the writing.

    What I think is going on is a twofold phenomenon:

    1. these dragging middle sections are not "boring" to every reader, and

    2. these middle sections don't drag for the writer, either, because the writer is putting in stuff he thinks is interesting.

    The middle of the book seems to be the place where, most often, writers will use the framework of the story they're telling to pause and digress about things they really want to talk about, things that fascinate them, but things that are perhaps not necessary to the actual development of the story. Byatt, in her "Babel Tower" series, takes long diversions into ideas about literary theory and theology that can be confusing if you aren't as well-read as she is. Melville put in a block of something like 100 pages of whale lore into "Moby Dick." I forget which book it is, but in one of Gunter Grass' earlier novels there is an extended section on the nature of creativity and inspiration that's got nothing, really, to do with the story.

    Some of this stuff is brilliant--to the right reader--and some of it just seems like padding. I think it depends on how much the author's side interests intersect with the reader's. I don't think any of it good or bad, but I do think that these sort of essays on related (or not) subjects might be the kinds of things that people who don't like literary fiction find objectionable. Though I've seen this done in genre fiction as well.

    Anyway, my response to Davin's actual question is that I don't think that deliberately putting a "boring" section into the middle of the book is a good idea. However, I do think that the empirical evidence suggests that if you are a writer, and you want to take a side trip along the way in your story, you can safely tuck it into the second act and the reader--if they're engaged in the story you are interrupting--will stick with you through the side trip and follow along until the end of the book. So I agree with Davin about the reality of the phenomenon, but I disagree as to its meaning.

  10. Everyone is bringing up really good points here. Thank you so much!

    Lady Glamis, you are right about the difference between boring and weak and both you and Scott mention that some readers will like it and some won't.

    I'm still sort of holding on to my original idea more as an experiment. I know it's not a popular idea to knowingly put a boring part into a book, but I still feel like it works somehow. I think the Red Hot Chili Peppers say it best: "I like pleasure spiked with pain and music is my aeroplane."

    Robyn, regarding word of mouth, I do often wonder what's forgivable. Would you ever recommend a book that had a brilliant beginning and end but a boring middle? I have a feeling I would. I have a feeling I have. I think people can often be quite forgiving if they are left with a good impression at the end and if they start one in the beginning.

    Aren't you all just DYING to read my book now? :)

  11. "Aren't you all just DYING to read my book now?"

    Yes! It's about...seafood, right?

  12. page 47: The servant returns with two tin platters of fried fish, a heap of sizzling morning glory sprinkled with red chili peppers, and a pot of mottled clams, their shells open to reveal their steaming meat.

  13. Seafood is the new "edgy" in fiction! You know that my first paragraph lists a bunch of ways to cook eels. We totally are cutting edge.

  14. There are many emotions I wish I could evoke from my readers. Boredom is not one.

    However, if some readers are bored and skim at certain points in my novel, that's long as it's not the same point for every reader.

    I have both battle scenes and love scenes in my stories. Some readers tell me they find the battle scenes boring, but they love the love scenes. Other readers tell me the battle scenes rock but they skimmed the love scenes.

    I have no problem with that.

  15. It depends on the genre and the audience.

    Like with any art, there are some pieces that are enhanced by elements that others find disturbing/boring/worthless. And those pieces are usually not well recieved by the masses--but adored by a select group of people who truly appreciate it. On the flip side, the masses love something that will entrance them and keep them entranced--hence the predominant desire for fast paced, high plot, easy reading, etc.

    I'm not saying one is right and one is wrong. I can like Jackson Pollack as well as Van Gogh or DaVinci, just as I can appreciate the classics alongside genre works. But just as most college dorms have a poster of Starry Night and not something else, most people are going to read the fast-paced easy-reads and not classics.

  16. PS: Re: Reading a book with a good beginning/end, boring middle.

    I will--and some of my favs are in this category (Victor Hugo, anyone?). BUT...something has got to carry me through. I'm more forgiving of classics than current literature...and no matter how good the beginning is, there's a very real chance I'll never get to the end if the middle is too slow and with too few redeeming characters.

    One reality of our world now is that we are in impatient people. We don't give time into anything, even our entertainment. People today are much more likely to put aside a book with a slow middle than ever before: there's more choices of books, more choices of activities, and a natural rising need to constantly be doing something productive or entertaining that limits people from putting forth the effort into reading anything they find stagnant for any period of time.

  17. Tara, You make a good point of "covering your bases." It sounds like your writing has a little something for everyone, which is a good thing to strive for.

    Beth, Really excellent insight. Yes, there is definitely that feeling of forgiveness when you start a book assuming that it's going to be good. And, there should always be something that carries the reader through the slow section. I think for me, it's that feeling of faith that the writer knows what she or he is doing, so you can trust that the book will be worthwhile in the end.

  18. From a reader's perspective, I can tell you just another every book I've ever read a slow spot, some only a few pages, some entire chapters. I agree that I don't think it's done on purpose for the most part. But come to think of it, a slow middle, makes for a more exciting end.

  19. Ughhhh....Scott, did you have to bring up "Moby Dick"?? Now I'm going to have nightmares! LOL ;-)

  20. Litgirl:

    You're kidding me, right? Moby Dick rules!

    But not only is the sea such a foe to man who is an alien to it, but it is also a fiend to its own off-spring; worse than the Persian host who murdered his own guests; sparing not the creatures which itself hath spawned. Like a savage tigress that tossing in the jungle overlays her own cubs, so the sea dashes even the mightiest whales against the rocks, and leaves them there side by side with the split wrecks of ships. No mercy, no power but its own controls it. Panting and snorting like a mad
    battle steed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe.

    Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

    That's good stuff.

  21. Some, Scott, would consider waxing lyrical about the sea the boring part.

    Some, the best part.

  22. Tara Maya,

    Exactly. Quod erat demonstrandum.

  23. Did I say Latin was allowed in my blog???

  24. Davin, I tried to follow the link to the ballet kiss, but the site is all in French and I don't know where to go after that... help?!


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