Is Your Story on Cruise Control?

On the day I packed my first car with stuff for my first apartment, my dad gave me some useful advice. “Don’t lock your keys in the car.”

Does anyone actually need to be told that?

Apparently I did, because after I put the keys in the ignition, I decided I should “freshen up” one last time. (A leftover from summer car vacations and Daddy’s pre-boarding announcement: “Do your business now because I’m not stopping until we hit Mobile!”) I got out, closed the door—which was locked. One set of keys back then, too, so we had to call the dealer to cut a new set.

After that day, every time I left home, Daddy’s parting words were, “Don’t lock your keys in the car.” This spring, I noted in “I’m A Big Girl Now” how I finally redeemed myself, but I never locked my keys up again. I learned my lesson.

I’m not a car person. Like a lot of writers, I do like long drives that allow me to think about a story problem, but vehicle prestige means nothing to me. I care about gas mileage and dependability.  My husband bought a new car a few weeks ago. I’ve never driven it. It’s blue. That’s all I know.

Oops, I lie. I also know there’s no cruise control, because he complains about it.  I never use cruise control. It makes me feel out of control. I may not care about a car’s make or model, but I do want to feel in control when I’m driving it.

In writing, control is important. Every story, every tale, is about control. Think about it. Control. Who has it, who wants it, who needs it, who steals it, who denies it. What is being controlled. Why is it being controlled. What happens if the wrong person gets control. What happens when the person or entity in control gets out of control. What happens to the person who loses control.

To continue the car theme, a writer is the driver of the story. It’s the writer’s job to set the pace, move it along, and navigate the trip. It’s a big challenge, and unlike real drivers, there are no set rules and laws about a writer’s journey.  No cruise control that allows the story to write itself.

Ergo, it’s easy to lose control. How? Here are a few ways:

DROWNING: What happens if your car won’t start and you give it more and more gas as you wait for that magical sound of the engine turning over? You drown the engine and make it worse.

In writing, drowning is overloading the reader with wave after wave of information that is not action. It can be the dreaded back story info dump. It can be a long, misplaced description. It can be the history of a place, or a person, or a relationship. Whatever it is in particular, if it stops the story so that the reader has to stop to digest it. It halts momentum and destroys suspense. It kills the engine. You can’t control a dead engine. You, as a writer, will have to work much harder to bring the story back to life—if the reader hasn’t walked away to find a more dependable vehicle.

MEANDERING: Who doesn’t like a Sunday afternoon drive through picturesque scenery? What writer hasn’t written a character who pops up and does something unexpected?  A “Where did that come from?” moment can be intriguing, and it might lead your story down an unexpected path—or it might derail the whole thing. When a plot starts to go off on tangents or spends too much time on a secondary storyline, or the author intrudes to babble about a political message, social commentary or pet peeve, the reader is taken out of the real story.

If a great new unplanned idea pours out through your fingers, take a moment to consider where this is going. How will going there affect the primary plot line? Joy rides may be fun, but they can also end in disaster.  Not everyone outlines or uses note cards when creating their stories. I’m not going to try to pen in a person’s creative process. But maps can be your friend and get you to the end of the story journey in the most sensible and economical way possible. It can be a written map or a mental one, as long as you know the final destination, and how to take a reader there without needless wanderings.

STALLING – Stalling is not the same as drowning. Stalling is what a writer does when a difficult scene is ahead, and the writer doesn’t want to write it. It may be an action scene, which many writers find hard to control because of numerous characters or complex staging. Characters must be unnaturally aggressive, or there may be violence or danger. It may be a highly emotional scene, with intense internal conflict that’s tough for the author to address.

How do writers stall? They give their characters mindless tasks to do before they head out to the climactic scene. They write long dialogue exchanges that reek of avoidance. They over describe every move the character makes, or over explain why the character makes every move he makes.

If a tough scene is ahead, and you find yourself writing and writing but never getting there, take a look at what you’re writing. Is it moving you closer to the conflict, or stalling you in one spot to dither? Don’t dither. Shift. Press the accelerator. Move forward.

SPEEDING – You’re almost at the end. It’s so close, it’s palpable. You feel that “almost there” rush.  And thank goodness, because you’ve been working on this for a year and it’s time to finish and be done! So you type like a fiend, and then voila! C’est tout! And so what if maybe you didn’t explain very thoroughly or show the character’s emotional responses or tie up every loose end. Readers like to reach the end without a lot of malarkey dropped around. They aren’t dumb. They don’t need every little thing explained to them, do they?

Readers don’t want to feel rushed, so an adrenaline kick for a writer may translate into a rush job for a reader. Readers aren’t dumb, and they don’t need to have story points rehashed after a climactic scene, but a denouement is important. You and the reader have been together for 300-400 pages. She’s grown fond of characters, or grew to hate them. Either way, an emotional tie has been made. Speeding through the payoff is going to frustrate a caring reader, and leave them unsatisfied. Slow down, speed demon, and enjoy the last leg of the journey. Leave your audience something to think about. Everybody likes a trip souvenir.

Do you have trouble maintaining control of your story? Some hints on how to keep pace? Tell me about it!

6 thoughts on “Is Your Story on Cruise Control?

  1. What a great post, Ramona. I tend to throw in the over-elaborated description of place or weather. I get quite enamored of my own writing. And then my writers group will say, “But does it further the story?” Oh. Right. Many of those get cut in half or tossed entirely.

    And I totally lose track of the plot sometimes as I let the characters do their own writing (I am NOT an outliner or note-carder). One tool that helps me keep my arms around the story is to create a calendar. Just a simple Word table. As I write a scene, I note on the caldendar time of day and a real brief description of what happens where. It also helps when I’m revising – ‘Oh, right, she has a night class on Tuesdays. She can’t be having dinner at Jackie’s that night after all.”



  2. Edith, aren’t writers groups great to rein us in from some of our bad habits? I know I depend on mine to let me know when I start to do the babbling thing.

    It’s funny how strongly people feel about note cards and/or outlines. As long as you find something that works for you, written or mental, it’s good. I can tell when I’m reading manuscripts when a writer deviate from the course. Readers can, too. I believe in a plan, no matter how you implement it.


  3. I’m working with a small group of writers this summer, and I notice an unusal stalling technique—using action–way, way too much action–without taking the story anywhere. Because it’s action, we feel as if it’s doing a storytelling job, but I find it’s actually preventing the next step in the story. It’s revving the engine without going anywhere.


  4. Revving. What an interesting observation. I thought about adding idling, where the story stops in place while the author stops the action to tell the history of the town, sometimes for an entire chapter. I always think of it as research the author insists on using.

    But mindless action is as unproductive as no action. Excellent call, Nancy. Thanks!


  5. Low battery. When your car/story doesn’t have enough power to make it to the end of the trip. Charge that battery with more plot develpment and provide more conflict for your characters.


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