As I sit here at my desk taking a break from Ain’t No Grave, I find myself entering the Dead Zone. No, not the Stephen King novel. The Dead Zone, for me, is when you get to a portion of story that feels utterly boring. For example, my characters are walking along an empty freeway, their truck too damaged to go any farther. I know there’s a truck stop nearby with a dozen fast food joints and some cars abandoned by their rightful owners.
Question: do I go into detail about the survivors commandeering a new car, or do I skip over this episode, sum it up in a paragraph or two, and go along my merry way?
The latter is the right answer, and here’s how you find out.
If you find yourself entering the Dead Zone, sit back and survey it for five or ten minutes. If you can’t think of something interesting to say or have no peril to shove your characters into, move on. If later you think of something to write about, well, that’s what revisions are for.
Don’t endanger your characters for the hell of it. Please do not turn your writing into torture porn because we’ve already got plenty of Saw and Final Destination movies. Even Disney has it’s own vein of torture porn thanks to the work of Thomas Czarnecki.
Now, my knee-jerk reaction to this is, “Hang on! Don’t I want my readers to follow my characters’ journey every step of the way?” Yes, but there’s a catch. Some steps are bigger than others just like a leap is bigger than a shuffle.
Yesterday, I finished reading Double Dead by Chuck Wendig. There are three major geographic chunks to the story: New York, Kansas, and Los Angeles. Each of these are separated by gaps of time and distance.
New York. Coburn the vampire wakes up from a kind of coma, gets his bearings, and meets the band of human survivors he ends up protecting. Kansas. Coburn and his group encounter a religious militia called the Sons of Man with which Coburn has some bad history. Los Angeles. Coburn’s group and the Sons of Man seek out a lab supposedly working on a cure for the zombie plague and clash in a final confrontation.
Time has passed in between these three segment. Wendig is clear when he points this out. He summarizes that the survivors are being chased by zombies that have undergone a horrific mutation courtesy of Coburn’s blood. That’s not to say that the journey has been easy, but we don’t need to know the minute details. It’s probably a lot of the same thing: the survivors head west, they have maybe an encounter or two with the mutant zombies, and then they get back to the road.
And while these encounters might be great action scenes, the reader ultimately senses the repetition, and this, in turn, slows down the momentum of the story, killing the audience‘s interest. And that is why it’s called the Dead Zone.