The Fatal Lull
The Most Dangerous Lull.
The most dangerous place for the fatal lull is the first chapter, or worse, the first line of the book. Whether an electronic or a print article, short story or book the first line (or few lines) should catch the reader's attention. This is often referred to as the hook. The first line should grab the reader, and then the story should carry the reader on a wave after wave of adventure and excitement.
A Much Needed Lull.
“Are you at a stopping place yet?”
For the short story reader, keeping the action raised to the highest level is seldom a problem. For the novelist, not giving the reader time to breath can be just as fatal as the lull that goes too deep. If a reader doesn’t have time to see the settings of where they are and where they are going, they may predict the ending and walk away. Not only do we need to see the bomb ticking under the table, but we need to see the people at the table enjoying their food, and discussing the weather (all while that bomb is ticking away).
I finally finished reading a novel that I had started nearly a year earlier, and had put aside because there was a lull in the action. It wasn’t because I wasn’t interested in the story, I knew there was much more excitement ahead, but for that one chapter there just wasn’t enough action going on to convince me to finish reading (until I was ready to read another of this author’s books). For an established author this can be dangerous. For the new writer, it can be fatal, so I call this ‘the Fatal Lull.’
The author I was reading is well established, and I’d read and enjoyed many of his books before with no such issues. Then later I went back to revise one of my own novels, and when I got to chapter 4 I was shocked to find the same malady I’d found in this other book, the fatal lull. Once I recovered from the shock, I began working. It took me a couple of days to figure out how to eliminate the issues that were causing the lull, and a couple more to finish integrating the changes. But I believe I fixed the problem, and in the process, here is what I learned.
First, identify the lull. Is there a place in the story where one adventure or conflict with a character or characters has been resolved and the next big conflict hasn’t been revealed yet? That is a potential fatal lull. Anywhere there is a lull without at least some undercurrent of tension (a bomb under the meeting table for example) is dangerous since a reader can easily put the book down and never finish it. Search for these places in your story and eliminate them. Here are some ways that I have discovered to resolve this issue.
Find ways to strengthen the undercurrent or over all flow of the story (plot-line). It is difficult to keep the action at a high level all of the time, not to mention it can be exhausting to the reader. Small lulls give the reader a chance to breath, but there must be enough action going on to keep the reader turning pages. Show them that the bomb is still ticking while the characters rest.
Reorder the action. There is no rule that says the action of the coming conflict can’t start (or at least be hinted at) before the resolution of the previous conflict. Also, don’t be afraid to hint at what is coming up. In the novel I was reading, a simple hint of a very nasty foe we meet at the end of the novel, could have been revealed during the lull, ramping up the interest there as well as increasing interest through the rest of the book.
Leave loose ends that readers care about. If there are loose ends left from the previous action that can’t be easily tied up and that the reader cares about, the reader is more likely to keep reading than if everything is tied up in a nice little package. Cut (or at least move) any section that does not move the action forward. A brief section on why a character does what he does, may seem like a nice way to break up an intense sequence, but it will likely kill the forward momentum and create another dangerous lull.
Finally, use multiple methods to keep the action going. In the novel I was reading, the author only used one method. Hinting at the one big thing to come. Most readers need more than that to keep them turning pages. A brief lull in the action may not be absolutely fatal to a story, but if it lasts more than a few paragraphs, it may be terminal.