“I’m bored.” These two words are the hardest thing to admit, when you’re writing your deathless novel, or screenplay, or short story. You’re supposed to be creating a work of timeless brilliance. How can you be bored?
But admitting that you’re bored is the first step to not being bored.
The power of boredom
A lot of writers get really good at pretending that we’re not bored, and it’s possible to get so good at pretending that you even convince yourself that you’re interested in what you’re writing, when you’ve actually checked out a while ago. We put so much energy into motivating ourselves to keep writing, to put words on the page at all costs, that it can be a huge nightmare to admit that what we’re writing is actually not that fun or interesting. It feels like a terrible betrayal.
And a lot of writing advice boils down to “If you get bored, just keep writing until you find your way through it.” Or ways to cover up your boredom, or work around it, or distract yourself from it. Just taking a beat and saying “This is boring” feels as though it goes against the “just write a crappy first draft” ethos.
At the same time, it can be incredibly liberating and exciting to recognize that you’re actually not that interested in this story, as it currently stands. Embrace the power of boredom!
And the biggest danger of forcing yourself to keep writing, even when you’re bored, isn’t just that you’ll have more work cut out for you when you have to revise your crappy first draft. It’s that you’ll burn yourself out—or worse yet, convince yourself that writing is just boring in general. Or even worse, that your boring first draft will become a boring second or third draft, because the boringness is baked into it.
A lot of “writers block” is actually boredom.
We’ve talked before about how there are actually many types of writer’s block, and it’s not really one phenomenon—it’s a whole bunch, each with its own causes and cures. “Writer’s block” was a big myth back in the day, but nobody much believes in it any more, and it’s much more accurate to say that you get stuck, and you have to get unstuck.
But one of the root causes of “writer’s block” is actually that you’re just losing interest in the story you’re writing. It’s not that you can’t see where the story goes next, or that your muse has deserted you, or anything else—it’s just that the story has gone in a direction that is kind of blah. The characters have turned into dull people. The plot is a snooze. The action is a drag. Etc. etc.
Of course, it’s worth stressing up front that it can be hard to tell the difference sometimes between “I’m bored,” and “I’ve gotten stuck because I can’t figure out what happens next in this story, and I’m spinning my wheels trying to move forward.” Recognizing boredom, and distinguishing it from other kinds of doldrums, is part of honing your instincts as a writer—but you know in your gut when you’re just bored with what you’re writing, and you’re just going through the motions.
Boredom is actually just like any other diagnostic tool—it’s not 100 percent reliable, but you can learn to read it more accurately by listening to it and telling it apart from other warning signs.
Sometimes boredom is just telling you that you need to back up and take your story in a different, less uninspiring, direction. Sometimes boredom is telling you that you need to stop and rethink some basic stuff about the characters or the world that has turned out to be less than thrilling. Maybe you made a decision that all the guns in your world shoot confetti instead of bullets, which was fun at first but now there’s no actual danger in the gunfights. Whatever. The point is, boredom often means that you made some key decisions that seemed like a good idea but are now putting you to sleep.
Getting bored is the most powerful creative act you can perform
If you’re never bored with your own writing, then you’ll never get any better. Boredom, in fact, means that you’re acknowledging a need to improve, and find ways to at least amuse yourself more. And if you’re not amusing yourself, then what are you even doing? You have a right to be entertained by your own writing, and you should claim that right with both hands.
Something that bores you might not bore someone else, but you’re the one who has to write it. In fact, often the most boring stories are the ones that if you told your best friend the story idea, they’d say, “That sounds great!” It’s Boccaccio’s Decameron, except that they’re all undead witches? Sold! Ideas aren’t boring because they’re boring, but because when you sit down to execute them, they just go in a boring direction. Or in practice, they just don’t excite you as much as you thought they would.
Boredom can be a useful diagnostic tool when it comes to revision, too. One way to revise your fiction, or other creative work, is to keep cutting out the parts that bore you when you re-read it. And then see what’s left. Even if you end up with 100 words out of a few thousand that you originally wrote. (That was me, last weekend. Sigh.)
There might be two kinds of boredom: 1) The kind that means that you’ve missed the boat in terms of what makes the situation you’re writing about interesting (to you, and hopefully to others.) 2) The kind that means that what you’re writing is just not interesting you right now full stop, and you should put it aside and work on something else for now.
I think people feel shamed for admitting they’re bored with their own writing. It’s like you’re a distance runner and your boredom is a cramp in your side, and by god, you should just keep running through it, and work it off. Stopping and admitting that you’ve started boring yourself feels defeatist, or like having a bad work ethic.
But there’s no shame in admitting to boredom—if anything, there’s pride, because you are challenging yourself to be more interesting.
The number one reason for boredom is because you’re writing to expectations
You’re going in the direction that people who read that particular genre would expect you to go in, or you’re following the conventions of your story. You’re trying to live up to the “log line” of your story, and deliver exactly the ingredients you set out to provide in exactly the right amounts, instead of following that one character who unexpectedly popped out of the story and turned out to be the life of the party.
The opposite of boredom is spontenaiety, and if you’re bored, that often means you should shake things up. Maybe your main character isn’t who you thought it was, maybe your story needs to go in a different direction. Maybe someone needs to die unexpectedly. And so on.
But if you’re bored, then your reader will be too. Absolutely guaranteed.
It’s not the end of the world if you write a boring first draft, because you forced yourself to finish even though you were totally checked out. (Or because you were having fun at the time, but when you look back at it now, you realize it’s actually dreary.) You can fix a boring first draft, or even a boring fifth draft—it just requires a willingness to slash and burn and reinvent the story until it’s no longer boring.
But at some point, you’ll have to deal with the boredom—if not in the writing process, then in the revision process. And sure, you might be able to take a story that bored you and make it entertaining on the surface. You can revise it over and over again until it’s superficially clever or well written. But boring is boring.
For god’s sake, don’t work through the boredom. Don’t just grit your teeth, overcaffeinate and plug ahead, when you know that you’re bored. Why would you want to do that? Is this your day job? Are you getting paid by the word? Don’t just skate over it or bulldoze through it. Listen to what it is telling you. It is telling you that you are bored.
Life is too short not to be bored. Every time you sit down to write, you’re using up some of the finite amount of words that you’re going to be able to produce before you’re cremated or mulched or whatever. If you aren’t acknowledging your boredom, and actually listening to it, then you’re wasting precious time.