Monday, May 9, 2016

Do You Yada Yada?

I don't have a lot of time to watch TV, but my recent trip to New York allowed me to catch a few Seinfeld re-runs. I'm still amazed at how well the humor and writing hold up. There are so many memorable lines and plots. Remember this one?

"The Yada Yada" episode came back to me after a recent meeting of my writing group. We've been meeting for almost two years now and certain patterns have been emerging in the mistakes we all keep repeating. I'm starting to think that most writing problems boil down to just a handful of common pitfalls. These pitfalls can be obvious to spot in other people's writing, but can be difficult to see in our own.

The most common problem that has been showing up in our group is the tendency to gloss over the most compelling part of a scene or plot point. The scene might start out strong, full of dialogue and vivid detail, but at the moment that requires big action or the story reaches an uncomfortable emotional pitch (in other words, the stuff we readers live for) the writer tends to summarize, back off so that everything suddenly works out, or abruptly end the scene. Rather than confront the dramatic moment, we often yada yada our way out of it. Another name for this phenomenon is "a missed opportunity".

Experienced writers are just as prone to the missed opportunity as newer writers. A few years ago, there was a much-celebrated, award-winning novel that I read that I didn't much care for. The story had all the makings of a great novel, but in my mind it fell short. I couldn't articulate what was missing until a friend of mine, who felt the same way about the book, pointed out that all the major plot points happened "off camera" with the characters discussing or retelling what happened after the fact. All the tension was kept at bay or diffused and the reader was never allowed to experience the most dramatic parts of the story.

The Causes 

As far as I can tell, missed opportunities are rooted in three causes: laziness, fear, or not knowing how to handle an aspect of the writing. No matter what the cause, a missed opportunity is a decision not to proceed.  Rather than writing through a difficult scene, confronting our fear of failure, or researching writing techniques, we are deciding at a subconscious level not to deal with it. We are fooling ourselves into believing no one will notice if we sweep it under the rug. Maybe some readers won't, but the overall effect will be a flat story, devoid of emotional engagement.

Recognizing the Symptoms

If missed opportunities happen at a subconscious level, how do you know when they're there? Answering 'yes' to any of the following questions is a clue that you've given your story the yada yada:

Do big scenes happen off the page? 
Are action scenes over within a few sentences?
When my protagonist encounters a problem, is it easily solved?
Do my characters tend to agree with one another about crucial issues?
During an emotionally intense exchange does one character give in to make peace?

The Cure

Fixing the problem is simply a matter of reversing it. If big scenes happen off the page, bring them in. Lengthen and slow down action scenes. When a character encounters a problem, don't magically fix it. Remember, it's your job to make your protagonist's difficult. The more confrontations, the more obstacles, the more thwarted desires, the better. Don't back away from drama.

Because here's the truth...As much importance as we put on the beginnings and endings of stories, what really makes them compelling is how your characters get from point A to B. That's the yada yada. Don't rob your readers of the experience.

1 comment:

Joan Dempsey said...

Stephanie, I couldn't agree with you more (both about loving these Seinfeld episodes, and your main point).

I work with hundreds of writers and I see this tendency to leave out the crucial scenes time and time again. The reasons you mention are often in evidence. I, too, call these 'opportunities', because even those writers who gloss over the tough stuff know enough to provide what I think of as 'place holders' (or hints at what's not on the page that should be on the page), and searching out those place holders will reveal opportunities to more fully develop the scenes.

I also often find that once writers dare to write those hardest pieces, their characters come to life in new ways, as do their stories.

Thanks for an interesting topic!