Writer and instructor Matthew Salesses said, “The best ‘advice’ I’ve ever heard on revision was from the wonderful teacher and writer Margot Livesey. It was something like this: if you are bored, it’s not because you’ve read that section so many times, it’s because it’s boring.”
Welp. I suppose it’s best to leave our delusions and illusions behind and be honest with ourselves. If you suspect your story is boring, it probably is. But the problem might not be as catastrophic as you think.
Maybe you do need to add more conflict to the plot, check your outline for a rise to a climactic moment, or impose a Save the Cat! beat sheet on the thing. But what’s more likely is that your story is boring in certain moments. The easiest and best remedy might be to cut those moments. However, sometimes you’ll want to salvage the scene with a rewrite.
Here are some instances where you might want to check your story for the humdrums, and examples of what you can do to fix them.
WHEN YOUR CHARACTER IS ALONE
When people are by themselves, they do things like grab snacks from the fridge, go through their mail, channel surf. It may be real life, but it’s not exactly riveting. In Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, we encounter a character alone in her apartment. See how Herron uses the eating and TV stuff to good effect:
Louisa Guy went home to her rented studio flat: examined its four walls—what she could see of them behind stuff in the way: piles of CDs, books, damp laundry on collapsible racks—and almost went straight out again, but couldn’t face the choices that would entail. She microwaved a lasagne and watched a property programme instead. House prices were in a freefall, if you owned one. They remained laughably lunar to the rent-bound.
Her phone stayed silent. That wasn’t unusual, but still: you’d think somebody would have found time to dial a number. Ask how Louisa was. If she’d done anything interesting lately…
The microwaved dinner, her lamenting that no one is calling, the wet laundry hung around (no one is coming over), and the property TV show that reminds her of her financial state are all doing heavy lifting to characterize this woman. The mundane details of her life are not just randomly noted, but purposefully used to make an impression.
WHEN YOUR CHARACTER IS MOVING FROM ONE PLACE TO ANOTHER
You might get the sense that your story is boring when your character is in a car or walking through a park. Motion is a deceptive thing because it can feel like significant action. But the forward movement of your character down a street in Manhattan does not equal forward movement in your story. In Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Clarissa Vaughn walks the streets of NYC to get flowers for her party:
Clarissa crosses Houston Street and thinks she might pick up a little something for Evan, to acknowledge his tentatively re-turning health. Not flowers; if flowers are subtly wrong for the deceased they’re disastrous for the ill. But what? The shops of SoHo are full of party dresses and jewelry and Biedermeier; nothing to take to an imperious, clever young man who might or might not, with the help of a battery of drugs, live out his normal span. What does anyone want? Clarissa passes a shop and thinks of buying a dress for Julia, she’d look stunning in that little black one with the Anna Magnani straps, but Julia doesn’t wear dresses, she insists on spending her youth, the brief period in which one can wear anything at all, stomping around in men’s undershirts and leather lace-ups the size of cinder blocks.
Cunningham uses Clarissa’s errand to keep her mind focused and uses the stores she passes to prompt thoughts of some of the other characters in the story. When our characters are moving from one place to another they are often watching and thinking, which can get tedious. Make sure your characters are vexed, inspired, and challenged by the things they see and the thoughts they think.
WHEN YOUR CHARACTER IS IN CONVERSATION
One bit of questionable dialogue-writing advice, that can definitely get a reader thinking your story is boring, is to “make it realistic.” If you recorded 15 minutes of conversation between a couple of people you don’t know at a coffee shop, it would be 5 minutes of interesting and 10 minutes of boring. That’s because we ramble, we’re imprecise, we do not get to the point and our point is often banal. Take a look at this lean little back and forth between a woman, her murderous sister, and their mother in Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer:
“What are you doing?”
“Posting it on Instagram.”
“Are you nuts?” Or have you forgotten your previous post?”
“What’s her previous post?” interjects Mum.
I feel a chill go through my body. It has been happening a lot lately. Ayoola answers her.
“I…Femi is missing.”
“Femi? That fine boy you were dating?”
“Jésù sàánú fún wa! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I…I…was in shock.”
Mom rushes over to Ayoola and pulls her into a tight embrace.
“I’m your mum. You must tell me everything. Do you understand?”
But of course she can’t. She can’t tell her everything.
I’m not suggesting you strip out all your dialogue tags or important beats of action, but see how much Braithwaite gets done in this tiny space? No need for chit-chat that doesn’t characterize or discourse that doesn’t nudge the plot. So sure, you can make your dialogue realistic, as long as you skip the boring parts.
WHEN YOU’VE WRITTEN A LONG PASSAGE OF DESCRIPTION
Setting the scene for your reader and describing where our story takes place is at the heart of good storytelling. But if you’ve written a long passage of description (beautiful or not) that doesn’t have anything to do with your plot, it needs to go or you need to rethink it. Look how Jess Walter’s protagonist describes the wanna-be Italian tourist town at the center of his novel The Beautiful Ruins:
Porto Vergogna was a tight cluster of a dozen old whitewashed houses, an abandoned chapel, and the town’s only commercial interest—the tiny hotel and café owned by Pasquales’ family–all huddled like a herd of sleeping goats in a crease in the sheer cliffs…Isolated by the cliffs behind and the sea in front, the village had never been accessible by car or cart, and so the streets, such as they were, consisted of a few narrow pathways between the houses…
In this way, remote Porto Vergogna was not so different from the quaint cliff-side towns of the Cinque Terre to the north, except that it was smaller, more remote, and not as picturesque. In fact, the hoteliers and restauranteurs to the north had their own pet name for the tiny village inched into the vertical cliff seam: culo di baldracca—the whore’s crack.
Even lovely prose will bore your reader if they can’t grasp a connection to your character’s minds or motivations or an important conflict in your story. Walter’s description here, as much as being terrific writing, never devolves into just a depiction of the town. The town as a shamed underdog is at the heart of his book and this passage is all about conveying that sense of inferiority.
Basically, anytime you’re reading through a passage of your writing and you get a vague sense that things are slogging along, that maybe it’s not quite interesting enough, that maybe your story is boring, don’t ignore that sense. Your brain might want to tell you nah, it’s fine. But your brain might also be lazy and resistant to fixing what need fixing. Don’t believe a lazy brain. Don’t ignore your gut feeling. And whatever else you do, don’t bore the reader.