What Is “Nothing”?

Image the following conversation. Perhaps you’ve participated in one just like it.

Mom (or Dad): How was school?
Son (or Daughter): It was okay.
Mom (or Dad): Just “okay”? What happened?
Son (or Daughter): Nothing.

As an astute parent, you know “something” had to have happened. After all, your child went to school and participated in classes. But for that child, “nothing” probably meant, “Nothing I was interested in” or “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

nothing13

Having given manuscripts to beta readers to evaluate from time to time, I have had a similar conversation with them.

Me: How was it [the manuscript]?
Beta reader: It was okay for the most part.
Me: Just “okay”? What happened?
Beta reader: Nothing.

Okay, maybe the conversation was not that curt. But over the years I’ve had beta readers mark certain scenes or chapters with the assessment nothing is happening here. Clearly, I hadn’t presented a bunch of blank pages to the readers. “Something” happened on those pages. But for the readers, nothing is happening here meant, “nothing out of the ordinary” or “nothing that helped develop the plot.”

Now, I ask you, when you read a book or watch a show, what would make you think, Nothing is happening here? Perhaps the following factors might resonate with you.

Tension and Pacing
The issue of “nothing” sometimes crops up when tension dissipates. Now, some breaks in tension are necessary. A while ago, I wrote a post on Ma space (you can find it here) which included a quote by famed animator Hayao Miyazaki on this subject. Ma space is an interval between two movements or sections. Miyazaki’s movies provide great examples of respites coupled with action scenes. However, some breaks in tension are detrimental to the story.

220px-japanese_ryakuji_kan

For example, I wrote a young adult novel in which the heroine was accused of being a liar and had to vindicate herself by proving that she did indeed see what she claimed to have seen. (I hope someday you’ll get to read it.) One of my beta readers wrote nothing is happening here in a couple of the chapters. The issue was pacing. In one chapter, after being ridiculed by a crowd of people, the heroine declared that she was going off to find proof to back up her story—a scene of high tension. But instead of sending her on her way, I included two chapters in which she took a nap and then woke up to have a meal and overhear a conversation taking place between two characters. This conversation had nothing to do with the heroine’s plight. Nothing to see here, folks.

liftarn_a_person_sleeping

Nap taking and eavesdropping, while “something,” aren’t very interesting to a reader. I had to cut those chapters to ramp up the tension and make the reader want to continue reading.

Lack of Character Conflict or Development
This probably goes without saying, but if you’ve read this blog even once before, you know I usually state the obvious. Characters need to be more than interchangeable talking heads. They have to serve a purpose. Conflict is one way they serve a purpose. Having fully realized secondary characters in conflict with a main character is a great way to avoid the “nothing is happening” designation.

too-many-characters

In the young adult novel I mentioned above, my main character had a twin brother who was kind of goofy. I liked the dude. His antics made me smile. Well, an advisor of mine read the early chapters of the book and said, “He’s got to go. He serves no purpose.” I soon realized she was right. The twin brother was not in conflict with anyone. He was kind of like a chair in a room—useful for sitting on, sure, but just taking up space otherwise.

The advisor also mentioned that another character—one I had decided would not be mentioned beyond one chapter—had more potential. Like the main character, just about everyone in town had a conflict with him. Most importantly, he had a conflict with the main character. So I turned him into the sidekick of the heroine on her journey. The novel was all the better for it.

Have you ever said, or been told, that “nothing” is happening in a chapter or scene you’ve written or a book you’ve read? What did you have to do to change that dynamic?

Japanese character from Wikipedia. Nothing here sign from outwardfromnothingness.com. Sleeping person image from 1001freedownloads.com. Characters image from standoutbooks.com.

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34 thoughts on “What Is “Nothing”?

  1. I was told that with a few scenes in my first book, so I changed them to focus on some character development and highlighting. There are times when somebody claims nothing happened, but it turns out that they simply didn’t care about the section focus. Another reader will mark the scene as worthwhile. As usual, personal taste factors in. My later books definitely cut a lot of fat and flailing that the first 3 kind of had, so this could be a problem you’ll find a lot more often with new authors.

    • I agree about personal taste. I love character building chapters. Sometimes the characters need down time to give the reader some information they wouldn’t get during an action scene.

      I saw a movie that I loved recently, which someone else said had a slow beginning. I didn’t think it had, since that part involved character building and back story. No one was napping here! But I can see that someone who wanted more action points (though the first five minutes of the movie had that) would think, “This is slow.”

      • For some reason, I keep thinking about Naruto and the infamous ‘filler’ seasons that had tons of character development. Not much else and it focused a lot on the supporting cast. Only saw some of it before I wandered off to another series.

        I know a few people that rail against back story openings, but get annoyed if there’s no explanation of past events. Really hard to balance all of that.

      • I know what you mean about Naruto! I also wandered away from it. Fullmetal Alchemist seemed tighter, though some episodes seemed sillier than others.

        It’s hard to win, isn’t it? I hear conflicting things: include back story; don’t include it to avoid info dump. Yet I saw a published book which had six full pages of info dump!

      • Fullmetal Alchemist is one of those animes that has a main plot and rarely diverts from it. That and the same villains throughout it all. Naruto, Bleach, DBZ, and the others in that vein do the ‘new and stronger enemy’ thing to the point of it getting ridiculous. I mean, how many ultimate moves can there be and why can’t they just learn them all in one go? Think this is why I’ve liked the few episodes I’ve seen of One-Punch Man. He does no training. Think it’s only 12 episodes though.

        Some days I think it’s impossible to truly win. You’ll always have some people that don’t like what you do.

      • Someone else recommended One-Punch Man. Will have to check that out. I wouldn’t mind a shorter series. Series like Kuroko no basuke go on forever. (Though I liked the first season.)

      • Heard it just got a second season, but no date given. I found it on the Adult Swim On-Demand stuff, so I’m not very knowledgeable. Has good action, humor, and characters, which is always fine by me.

  2. “Nothing from nothing leaves nothing . . . and you’ve got to have something . . . if you want to be with me.”

    Books where nothing of interest happens are not very interesting. 😉

  3. Yup. In fact, it’s something I’ve gotten better at telling myself when revising. It always hurts to have to cut that stuff, but I remind myself that it wasn’t wasted time or space — I needed to get that down on paper in order to flesh out the rest of the story in my head. At least that’s how I console myself…and ice cream.

    • Ice cream definitely helps, Phillip! I need to get some!
      I was just reading a scene this morning. In it, the main character walks around a town, but does little else. 😦 He might as well be taking a nap. I’ll need to up the ante a bit!

  4. Excellent points to ponder.
    Don’t ya just love it when after you’ve waited a long time for input on whatever project you’ve finished, the comment is: “Wow,that’s great!”??? (without any deets as to why) Not saying the ‘compliment’ isn’t appreciated, but kinda hoping for a bit more…
    😉

  5. Well, not sure how to answer this, L.Marie, as I’m not a writer, but, there have been books where nothing seems to be happening. Depending on my time frame, what mood I’m in, etc., I might just put the book down, however, there have been times I’ve pushed through and was grateful that I did. Olive Kitteridge was that kind of book. I kept wondering what was going on, and then, I realized it was, just with more subtly. Ha! I realize I’m rambling and this isn’t really answering your point, so . . . good luck, dear one, as you write on! 🙂

  6. I hope this isn’t what I hear when I give my manuscript to the beta readers. After I finished my first draft, I mapped out my scenes, and there were several that needed more work. Sometimes the scenes need to be cut, but other times, they need more development to reach their potential and earn their place in the story.

  7. I read an award winning novel once. Nothing happened in the first 50 pages! I stuck with it because it had good reviews. It was a wonderful read in the end, but the first 50 pages were flat even though the language was poetic, which served to annoy me further.

    After reading this piece, it’s easier for me to diagnose the problem. No conflict or tension. The first 50 pages basically described a man’s waking moment and his movement around his house!

    This author could have done with advisors like yours. I’m very reluctant to name names. 🙂

    • I know what you mean, Timi. Some authors can get away with that, because they’re already well known. I put down a book that others raved about because I was not interested. The book was beautifully written. Just not for me. I found the beautiful language too distracting and the plot too lackluster.

  8. I’ve just re-followed you. I don’t know when I stopped! I realised, when replying to your comment on my post that I haven’t seen any of yours for a while. Sorry, back on board now.

    • Hi, Andy! That happens to me sometimes too! It’s what I don’t like sometimes about Windows 10. Sometimes you just hover over a button and it’s the same as clicking it. I hope I’m still following you. I’d better check.

      • I scroll fast on my iPad with my big clumsy sausage fingers, I need to be more careful. In the past I’ve thought ‘so and so has been a bit quiet’ and go to seek them out via Google and find I’ve unwittingly unfollowed them too.

      • I do the same on my phone. Which is why autocorrect ruins more lives. I have mistakenly sent messages autocorrected that I couldn’t delete fast enough.

  9. I think the opinion is different if you write a book of adventures,or a book of philosphy or a book to meditate. Hard to have a general rule.
    About “nothing ” you make me think of a famous song of Edith Piaf : “No, nothing oj, I regret nothing nothing”
    Please see this link :into the following comment
    In friendship
    Michel

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