Last month, I wrote about overstaging. In it I covered the propensity for new authors to over direct their descriptions, settings, characters, and plots. This over directing can lead to a whole host of problems, which we will cover in part here.
Overstaging is a progressive trap. It begins with an author who keeps an iron-clad grip on their novel, characters, and plot. They direct every scene, blink, and twitch down to the minutest detail. Unfortunately, this leads to a phenomenon I call creative exhaustion.
While creative exhaustion is not a type of overstaging, it is the bright red flag that indicates there’s a problem in that area. And if you come down with a bad case of overstaging, you are sure to develop a co-infection of creative exhaustion because nothing wears an author out quicker than controlling everything.
Together, these two create a slow and unyielding destruction of a book. I am convinced overstaging and creative exhaustion are what cause authors to abandon manuscripts. And it is what causes readers to say: the book started out so good but it just fell apart.
Creative exhaustion leads to laziness and shortcuts, and that in turn leads to a manuscript that is riddled with tons of junk. And it quickly becomes a whirlwind of mundane content and filler that only saps the remaining creative mojo an author is trying so desperately to hold on to.
It is easy for a reader to spot creative exhaustion. It is the moment when the flow of the story begins to fall apart. Instead of words and scenes that move smoothly, the reader is left with choppy or wavy narrative and a sense of things being contrived or forced. The pacing of the story comes to a halt or rushes forward at a crazy rate, and then the reader begins to hear that buzzing noise in their head.
Creative exhaustion generally manifests in three areas. We’ll cover those below.
If it is easier to describe imaginary settings than it is to help your readers connect emotionally with the characters, you’re creatively exhausted. When this happens, you’ll write page after page of mundane descriptions or re-relate information to the readers because you cannot think of anything better to fill out the scene with. We call this filler.
Filler is made up of mundane action, step-by-step action, redundancies, stating the obvious, and Barbie and Ken action.
What’s Barbie and Ken action? Well, let’s go back to our example from our article on staging.
Barbie has just ruined her petal-pink Corvette in an accident when Ken ran a red. She hops out of her car to see the damage and maybe check on the hot guy she hit when…uh…when…when…
What happens next? Well, with children who are telling the story in real time, they do something that authors also do. They stall and redirect their audience’s attention. Instead of the child saying that Barbie screams at Ken and then relating the discourse, she would instead describe Barbie looking around, rubbing her sore neck, scratching her leg, and adjusting her skirt. Why? She’s thinking of what great action to insert next into the story, but she can’t be silent while she thinks of it. Instead she uses filler as cover. In Barbie-and-Ken play, this creative exhaustion manifests in one way: over description of character motion. When this over description happens in a novel, it upstages the plot, discourse, and characterizations. Inserting character motion into a story in such a way that it feels like a natural extension of a character is a learned art form and only comes with practice, practice, and more practice.
Next is unvaried body language. Usually, this is focused on the face and little movement below the shoulders. If there is movement below the shoulders, it generally is the same thing over and over (like shrugging the shoulders). This type of body language always involves the eyes. Always. Instead of having full-bodied (in more way than one) characters, the manuscript is full of floating heads that blink, look, gaze, stare, glower, and raise eyebrows. The second biggest body language offender is sound: breathing, sighing, laughing, chuckling, huffing, humming, etc. After that, it’s smiling and frowning. If you find yourself writing scenes full of this type of body language, you are in a creative rut.
Objectification of Characters
Like a child playing with a doll, an author may fall into a creative rut or creative exhaustion and begin to treat their characters like objects instead of people. The characters in a story can begin to feel like part of the set. In other words they are cardboard instead of lifelike. When this happens, description of the characters’ motions and expressions tend to overwhelm the scene, replacing inner thought, showing descriptions, action, and even dialogue. The plot suddenly becomes distorted by constant “he went here and moved there, smiled at such and such, and bent like so.” Not only is a lot of this content tedious, it’s a scene destroyer. There is no greater tragedy than to see a well-developed character or plot transformed into stop-motion clay animation.
Another area in which creative exhaustion manifests is when characters position on the set is unrelated to their action. It feels as if the author picked the character up and inserted them into the setting. Instead of a character moving somewhere, they just suddenly appear there.
I know you’ve heard it before, but word choice matters. But did you know that word choice can indicate your level of creative exhaustion? If you find yourself repeating words or phrases, using idioms, adverbs, and dead verbs, it’s a sign of either newness as an author or laziness. And laziness is a sign of… You guessed it.
When an author is creatively exhausted, it becomes hard to make good word choices. You just can’t think of the right word. You may find yourself reaching for the thesaurus. If that’s happening a lot, you probably should take a break.
The second area where exhausted authors go wrong is in their sentence structures. This is generally seen when the type of sentences are the same. For example, overusing sentences with participial phrases or introductory clauses. It’s also seen when every sentence is the same length. This creates problems with the flow of the story. It may feel plodding or choppy or even wavy (if the issue involves participial phrases).
If your paragraphs are beginning to take on the feel of “see Jane run”, you’re exhausted.
Please note, I am referring to this type of structure in your revised manuscript. This is not referring to writing exercises in your first draft where you are just trying to get words on the page. That type of writing is not indicative of the type of exhaustion I am talking about. But if you are writing in a manner you feel is your best and this is happening, then there’s an issue.
There are some ways that you can spot over staging in your novel. You’ll need to pay attention to the flow and “feel” of the narrative more than looking in a specific place.
The following can be warning signs that indicate you are creatively exhausted:
- Alterations in the author’s unique “voice”
- Sudden distant narrative perspective—sense of being behind the camera observing the character instead of in the character’s mind, heart, soul, and shoes
- Sudden rushed pacing
- Pacing that drags only in certain places
- Clumps of sentences that all have similar lengths
- Clumps of sentences that use a similar sentence structure
- Paragraphs full of character motion but lack emotional connection, inner thought, dialogue, etc.
- Emotionless writing
- Mundane filler in narrative
- Stilted dialogue or narrative
- Narrative that suddenly develops a juvenile feel
- Rushed pacing in which the author does not cover important events or leaves out necessary details (This happens when the author just wants to get things over with)
- Rushed or unsatisfying endings
- Excessive descriptions of the face indicating staring, gazing, looking, laughing, chuckling, smiling, frowning, etc.
- Disembodied motion
What to do if you are falling into the staging trap.
–Walk away from your computer
I’m serious. Walk away and take a break. Brush your hair and take a shower. Reconnect with your family. Go get a pedicure. Visit the park. Take a nap. Do anything but sit in front of your computer typing out one mundane paragraph after another.
–Get around people
Since one of the main issues with creative exhaustion is mundane and repetitive descriptions, it would be a good idea to get around real people. Just take some time to hang out and chat or people watch. Not only will it break the spell your cursor has put on you, but it will also give you some great fodder to put in your book.
–Reread what you have already written and reconnect with your story
Sometimes an author needs to remind themselves of what was great about their characters or plot. Sit down and just read your story. And be prepared to take notes. Your muse is going to speak to you.
–Work on something else
It’s okay to take a break from your story, especially if it has become a chore to write. If writing your book is the literary equivalent of doing laundry and washing dishes, just imagine what it’s going to feel like to your readers. Just like in love, absence from your novel can make your heart grow fonder.
I’ve spent the majority of this article talking about creative exhaustion as a result of over direction on the part of the author, but overstaging is not the only thing that can cause creative exhaustion, and it is possible to have creative exhaustion without overstaging and vice versa. Sometimes it’s a result of writing oneself into a corner, self-doubt, taking too long of a break, losing a feel for the characters, or loss of the muse.
Creative exhaustion is a pervasive issue and all authors are susceptible, no matter their level of experience. So be on the look out. At best creative exhaustion gives your editor plenty to do. At worst, it could cause you to walk away from your dream.
I hope today’s article has help you spot this story destroyer. Let me know what you thought.
Now back to writing. 🙂