Have you ever read a story where exciting things are happening but nothing feels…substantial? Like there are wars going on and we must enter this other world to get superweapons for that war but it doesn’t feel big or urgent. Could this be the just my mileage as this one particular reader or is there something the writer could have done to…help it along a little? Is there a proper word for that? And would the alternative, making everything weighty and important, be the better option?
That’s a difficult question to answer. There are many possibilities here.
First, it may be that this particular book is doing things right, but it simply doesn’t work for the reader at this particular time. I’ve DNF’ed books before, because I found something annoying or boring, and then I came back to them and realized they weren’t that bad. It’s especially bad if one is a writer and is in a place where you are dissatisfied with your own work and actively trying to level up. I remember I was working on a book and feeling like my vocabulary had shrunk to that of a three year old. When I tried to pick up a book from an author I enjoyed, I saw the word “spilled” in regard to hair. I don’t even remember who the author was at this point. In that particular book, hair spilled a lot. Like every five minutes. I couldn’t unsee it. It broke the book for me. Later on I picked it up again and wasn’t bothered by hair spilling nearly as much.
Second, the narrative might be severely flawed. Usually, when the stakes are high, but nothing feels “big or urgent” happens because the writer failed to establish an emotional connection between the reader and the main character. This is a kiss of death in writing, because when we fail to connect, we become bored.
The first draft of Hidden Legacy #3 involved an assassination of the governor. It was a decent enough plot, but neither of us felt any attachment to it. Nobody cares about the governor. We haven’t met him. It’s just a job Nevada is forced to take. Yes, the stakes are technically high, but Nevada isn’t emotionally involved, so who cares? We even blew a guy up in gory detail in the first three thousand words and it still didn’t help. We were bored, so we dumped the draft and started over in a favor of a plot with a much greater emotional punch.
Why do we care if Will Smith’s character succeeds in Independence Day? Because we saw Will Smith’s character’s life: his girlfriend and then wife, his relationship with her child, his dream to be an astronaut, his disappointment at being turned down by NASA. We care about what happens to him.
So if you want events to have heft and weight, you have to start with the character. You have to make sure the characters connect with the reader. They must be interesting and fascinating. They don’t have to be likeable – you can hate the villain and wait for the whole book for her to be killed – but they have to evoke some emotion in the reader. Otherwise, it doesn’t really matter what happens. You could blow a whole planet up, and the reader will yawn and say, “Who cares?”