“Something” or “Nothing”: What Do You Mean?

Back when I first began writing curriculum—da Vinci was still at the sketch stage of the Mona Lisa at the time—supervisors told my fellow co-workers and me to make our lessons engaging and fun. Though we saw the merit in lessons fitting that description, this sort of feedback frustrated my coworkers and me, because both terms are subjective, rather than measurable. What’s fun or engaging to one person might not be the same to another. But I gave it a shot. Sometimes I reached the target. Sometimes I didn’t.

Mona_Lisa

That feedback returned to my mind as I read a recent review of a young adult novel. Sorry. I don’t plan to divulge the name of the book or the reviewer. (Hint: The book was not written by anyone I know nor reviewed by anyone I know.) Her review interested me, because she spent the whole post explaining why she did not finish the book. Her biggest complaint was that nothing happened.

How many times have you said the same thing about a book or a movie? I know I’ve said that phrase dozens of times. But now that I think about it, what does “nothing” really mean in this context? “Nothing that engaged me?” “A lack of good action and tension”? “I was bored”? It’s really subjective, isn’t it? I struggle with filling in the blanks.

Do you ever ask yourself, What is the “something” that should have happened? Depends on the story, right? We might define “something” as “an event that moves the plot forward”; “exciting action”; “a scene that made me laugh”; “realistic dialogue that made the characters come alive”; or in other ways.

I’m reminded of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Doerr spent three whole paragraphs talking about discoveries one of the main characters—Marie-Laure—made in the drawers of a cabinet. Drawers. In. A. Cabinet. Would you categorize that scene as “nothing happening”? Yet I was mesmerized by those paragraphs. Many other people probably felt the same way, because this book is a best-seller, a National Book Award finalist (click on the award to watch Doerr read a chapter of this book), and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

18143977

We can credit Doerr’s magical prose. But some of the “zing” that makes this scene “something” as opposed to “nothing” is due to the imagination of the reader. Doerr invites us to come along on Marie-Laure’s journey of discovery. Oh, did I mention that this girl is blind? That’s not a spoiler. The book jacket tells you that much. We see what she can only “see” through touch.

I’m tempted to quote lines from that scene. But I won’t. I’m not trying to be obstinate, honest. As I mentioned, I was mesmerized. You might not feel that way, however. Some of the people who commented on an article I read recently on Doerr’s prose had a negative view of his work. But if you are curious about which scene I mean and want to decide for yourself whether or not it has that certain “something,” you can find it on pages 29-30 in the hardback.

Engaging. Fun. Nothing. Some aspects are purely subjective. But when offering feedback, the more specific and measurable one is, the better.

Why measurable? Well, I have to go back to curriculum writing for that. My colleagues and I were always told to make lesson objectives measurable. I found a quote on the subject in the Web article, “Writing Measurable Learning Objectives”:

When you begin creating a course, you want to design with the end in mind. The best way to approach this is to start by writing measurable, learning objectives. Effective learning objectives use action verbs to describe what you want your students to be able to do by the end of the course or unit.

“What you want your students to be able to do.” So, measurable feedback at the manuscript stage helps an author know what it is you want him or her to “be able to do”; in other words, to effectively fix his/her manuscript. Yeah, I know. Telling someone, “Nothing is happening,” is easier than saying, “This scene feels static to me, because Angela is passive, rather than active” or “This scene does not advance the plot. Perhaps you could take the character to the next threshold quicker.” But such feedback gives the author a more specific idea of the “something” you have in mind.

Some people are better able to gauge what nothing happened means. Not me. I need people to spell out what they mean. And I hope I can make the effort to provide clarity for someone else too.

Smith, Tracy. “Writing Measurable Learning Objectives.” TeachOnline. Arizona State University, 02 July 2012. Web. 13 June 2015.

Mona Lisa from en.wikipedia.org.

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50 thoughts on ““Something” or “Nothing”: What Do You Mean?

  1. Think you nailed it. Nothing is when the story doesn’t grip the reader, so they feel bored. There’s no emotional reaction, so you have ‘nothing’ to think about it or enjoy. As you said, it’s entirely subjective too. I remember having to read ‘The Pearl’ by Steinbeck when I was in school. Some classmates loved it, but I gave up after the first page felt like a long description of a single wall. I felt like there was nothing for me within the pages, so I didn’t continue. But that was just me. It does get odd when a person states their opinion as unbreakable fact though.

    • I love what you said about having “‘nothing’ to think about it.” That to me is a concrete thing–something I can grasp. I’m so concrete in my thinking. “Nothing happened” is so abstract. 🙂 A statement like the one you made gives me something to hook on to. Because that’s very important. Good stories make us think.

      I know what you mean about the long description as a single wall. 🙂 A friend recommended a book she really enjoyed. But I have to say I balked when I saw a paragraph that took up three-fourths of a page. Though the description of the sea town was beautiful, my mind wandered during it. This was probably a 400-word paragraph.

      • This is what happens when I read something too quickly! 😀 My author also described a wall and other spots in the town. Granted, this book was written in 1944, when this style of writing was more acceptable. If I slowed down enough, I could probably get into it more. But my mind rebels against it right now.

      • Hmm. I never thought about that. I’m not sure. But we’re so fast paced now with television and computers dominating our lives. We’re so used to books without long, descriptive paragraphs. I can more tolerate the long paragraphs in fantasy books for some reason.

      • We’re so used to life in three- to six-minute segments, thank to YouTube. But in a fantasy book, I don’t mind being taken on a tour of the surroundings. We need to know all about the new world.

  2. A provocative post, L. Marie. Thank you. You have me thinking about my responses to books. I don’t think I ever say “nothing happened” but I do say “I just didn’t like it”. Vague. I think it is the same issue and I should, I will, challenge myself a bit more with why I don’t like something I’ve read.

    • I’ve given that response too, Penny. But when I’m a beta reader, I have to be more specific. 🙂

      When I reviewed manuscripts for publishers, we weren’t allowed to give a response like “nothing happened” or “I liked it.” We had to tell why a manuscript was effective or ineffective so the manuscript could either be salvaged or rejected.

  3. I tend to equate ‘nothing happening’ with lack of tension. I want escalating tension when I read a book, something that keeps me turning the pages. I have 50 pages left of Doerr’s book, and though he may go heavy on the prose at times, the book does have escalating tension. For me, anyway. As you say, it’s ultimately subjective.

    Interesting post!

  4. Good post, Linda ~> “At the end of this post, you will be able to . . . provide more engaging, fun, and meaningful feedback.” 😀

    When I’ve watched movies where “nothing happened” . . . it usually means that, from my perspective, the characters did not learn, grow, or change in any meaningful way. The characters seemed “stagnant” ~> starting out and ending as lumps of play*doh.

    If the dialogue is witty or engaging, I’m satisfied even if the quo remain status.

    • Thank you, Nancy. I know what you mean. You made me laugh at your mention of Playdoh. 😀 I’ve seen movies like that, where the character already seemed strong and capable from scene 1 to the last scene. There was no room for growth.

  5. Interesting! I like your examples of ‘measurable’ in the context of literature. Reading is so subjective that finding ways to ‘measure’ one’s response is quite hard. Some reviewers shortcut it by comparing a book to another, but that only works if the person reading the review has read the other book too. I don’t know if I always give a valid reason for my emotional response in reviews – I shall think about it in the next few I do…

    • It’s okay if you don’t give a valid reason. 🙂 I was thinking more in terms of someone providing feedback at the manuscript level. You’re looking at a finished product. If I’m talking to someone face to face about a book, I would love for that person to elaborate on what he or she means by “nothing happened.”

  6. I’m currently reading a novel by Liane Moriarty, and, like all her novels, I have trouble putting this one down. There’s always “something happening” in her novels, but since they’re all about women, the something doesn’t include car chases and only occasionally includes murder. Here’s why I keep reading:

    1. Her characters are real and engaging, they have lots of people in their lives, and with their real, definite personalities the characters can’t help but clash.

    2. Important things happen to these characters that the reader cares about, several important things in each book. The main character, her children, parents and friends are in jeopardy because of their own misdeeds, and/or some villain threatens them.

    I’m trying to be analytical here. I think that in order to keep the interest of a reader, we need to have interesting things happening on every page, whether it’s the contents of a drawer or the conversation of a woman with her friend/husband/lover. But the reader also needs to feel as though the story is going somewhere, that there’s a main point or problem, that there’s rising action, tension, conflict, and all those other necessary elements of a good story. (Easier said than done.)

    • I’ll have to check out Liane Moriarty! I know what you mean by a book without those action elements still being extremely engaging. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is that way for me. The characters are so well drawn and quirky. The humor is fabulous. So far, I can’t seem to keep a copy of this book. People borrow it and then long to keep it. Jane Austen’s books also thoroughly engage me.

      • I wouldn’t say that Liane Moriarty’s novels lack action elements, just the kind we’re used to seeing in violent movies. My favorite of her novels, and one I think you’d enjoy, is Big Little Lies. The action revolves around a kindergarten class and the parents of the children.

  7. This post is timely for me because I just got back a critique on the first 60 pages of my critical thesis and she said not enough happened. I’ve already done a lot of cutting in that first part (when it was my critical thesis it was close to 80 pages) and I know the chapter she thinks I should cut, but it’s really important to what comes next, as well as the philosophical underpinnings of the book. It’s also why I’m considering submitting the manuscript as an adult novel, where set-up can be more elaborate.

  8. I found that writing measurable learning objectives and having clarity helped tremendously in the raising of my children. I was the queen of posting charts and tables on to our fridge to make sure the kids were clear about what was expected of them. This gave us a measurable tool when deciding on consequences and rewards. We all could benefit from more clarity. Great post, Linda.

  9. What a great post, L. Marie, and timely for me, too. I’m currently reading a manuscript for a writer friend, and I typed those very words yesterday in my feedback — “I feel like nothing’s happening.” You’re absolutely right, “nothing” is subjective, so I did try to expand upon this opinion. “Nothing” for me is lack of conflict. In my opinion, conflict is the machine that drives the plot. A character has to want something, but an obstacle has to stand in the way of what that character wants, and this creates conflict. But it has to happen again and again as the character tries to obtain what s/he wants. And that’s the challenge of writing, isn’t it?

    • It is, Gwen. And you hit the nail on the head: “conflict is the machine that drives the plot.” I’ve struggled with this concept over the years. I’ve written scene after scene that I thought were interesting. But they were static without the conflict. Some were too encapsulated. Nothing carried over to other chapters. Which would mean a reader wouldn’t feel any sense of obligation to turn the page. Sigh.

      • I hear you, but it’s all one big learning experience, isn’t it? Every failure contributes knowledge to our next attempt. It’s never wasted effort.:)

  10. Pulling the root out of vague feedback is often challenging. Sometimes the reviewer doesn’t even know for sure what bothered them about something, only that they weren’t engaged. I think that the only thing a creator can do when confronted with something like that is try their best to figure it out, and if they can’t, move on.

    • I know what you mean. And I would appreciate a reviewer being honest and saying, “I can’t put my finger on why this bothered me.” I know that’s not always easy to do. 🙂

  11. I don’t think I would have thought to apply the measurable thing to a book review, though, if I write them, I do point out specific strengths/weaknesses. I use them for school objectives, lesson plans, & life all the time, but that’s an interesting take on them.

  12. Giving constructive feedback is a skill. We read through filters and one man’s meat is another’s fish. However there are proven techniques that work to engage the reader. Still readers may not like the story.

    Sometimes people know something didn’t work and something is missing, but they cannot dissect a work and say what the issue is. I’m very grateful for those who can give me that kind of feedback.

    Back to curriculum writing. The instruction was subjective, I agree.

    • You’re right. Good constructive criticism takes practice. So true about the filters. The worst one for me is reading through the filter of “this is how I would have written it.” That’s the toughest one to set aside. But it has to go whenever I read someone else’s work.

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