All those things that happen when nothing’s happening.

In my current WIP, The Worms Of Heaven, my protagonist is waiting for something to happen.

The organization for which he works has suffered numerous attacks–the leader kidnapped, a number of their employees poisoned, their corporate offices set on fire.  Unfortunately, at this point there is almost no reliable information as to who is behind it.

James has taken the defensive measures that he can and given orders to his people to investigate.  He’s set a base of operations, made sure the communication lines are open. That’s pretty much all he can do at this point.

That’s deliberate.  James & Catskinner are an action-oriented duo.  Catskinner can eliminate just about any threat, but only if James knows who and where they are. I wanted to bring James back to a point of vulnerability, to give my readers a way to sympathize with him.

The experience of tense waiting is something I suspect everyone can relate to.  Whether it’s waiting for a loved one to get out of surgery, a jury to return with a verdict, a storm to pass, or even just for grades to be posted, there is a common feeling associated with the painful and hopeless watching of the clock, willing the minutes to pass.

That’s what I am trying to convey here, and it’s harder than I expected.  Because while I want invoke the feeling of waiting, I can’t really make my readers wait.  In a film you can hold a shot for a protracted period and truly have “nothing happening”, but in a novel you have to put down words. 

Bruce Sterling in Islands In The Net has a sequence where he describes an hour as “a minute, and then another minute, and a minute. A minute. Then a minute…” repeating the word “minute” thirty times and ending with, “and then do it all again.” 

It works in the context of the scene he’s setting, a character who is sitting in a bare prison cell waiting to find out what her captors want from her, but it’s not something that I would want to emulate. 

James isn’t in a prison cell, and he’s not alone.  So what I am writing is him getting up, walking around, fiddling with things, making conversation, all the sorts of things that we do when we’re waiting for something to happen.  

What I am discovering is that this is forcing me to fill in a lot of background about my characters and the environment.  When characters are doing something, we tend to focus on the something that is being done, the job, the heist, the mystery, the kiss, whatever.  When they are waiting for something to happen, we don’t have that focus.  We can rehash the story so far, have some internal dialogue about why waiting is the best (or only) option, but that gets dull quick. 

I feel like I know James pretty well, he’s based on me in a lot of ways, and I’ve already been through two books with him.  The other characters, however, I am discovering in new ways during the writing of this scene.  It’s kind of fun.  I’m making all sorts of little side plots and foreshadowing, tucked in the small talk.  (Suzie Lightning, for example, grew up in Memphis, TN. I didn’t know that until now.) 

In any event, I’m not going to draw this out too long–a few more pages will get me to the end of this chapter and I’ll start the next one off with something happening.  Still and all, it’s been an interesting exercise and, like most of my learning experiences,  something that I didn’t plan on doing.  


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing, Worms Of Heaven and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to All those things that happen when nothing’s happening.

  1. Sue says:

    I already sympathize with James (and catskinner) It’s appropriate to fill in with subplot or back story in moments like you describe

  2. Sounds like it was a challenge for everyone involved. Sometimes the non-action scenes can be the most memorable in terms of character development.

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