Narrative fatigue

A personal plaint.

According to that fearsomely encyclopaedic source, TV Tropes, a story, any story, is dead from the moment the audience utters the Eight Deadly Words: ‘I don’t care what happens to these people.’ This is a specific instance of a larger class of story-killers, which I propose to call narrative fatigue. Some other forms that it may take:

  • ‘I know what is going to happen to these people, and I’m not enjoying the ride enough to stay till the end.’ My reaction to any fiction by David Eddings. Other writers tried to waste my time with predictable stories. Eddings bragged about it in the text itself.
  • ‘I care what happens to these people, but I’ve lost all faith that I will ever find out.’ One of many possible reasons to give up on A Song of Ice and Fire.
  • ‘I care about these people, but nothing that is happening to them makes any sense.’ The #1 pitfall of magic realism.
  • ‘The things that are happening make sense, but the people themselves don’t.’ The #1 pitfall of those ‘slice of a Manhattan neurotic’s life’ stories so beloved of The New Yorker.
  • ‘I’d like to find out what happens, but I don’t want to work this hard for it. Cliff’s Notes, please?’ The #1 pitfall of self-consciously ‘literary’ exercises in stylistic weirdness.
  • Perhaps the worst killer of all: ‘It’s blatantly obvious that nothing is ever going to happen to these people.’

When you fall into narrative fatigue as a reader, it is fatal to your enjoyment of the story. You may still slog through to the end. You may believe you have a kind of moral obligation to finish every book that you take up: if you get nothing else out of it, you can at least congratulate yourself on not being a quitter. Or (woeful fate!) you may have an external obligation to finish – usually because you have been assigned the book for an English class. If you repeatedly force yourself to finish books after narrative fatigue sets in, you may poison the well entirely, and lose all pleasure in reading thereafter. The iniquitous practice of forcing children to read dull books (and write ‘reports’ on them to prove that they read the whole thing) has, I believe, made more non-readers than any other form of educational malpractice.

It is considerably worse when a writer develops narrative fatigue about his own story. He may, like George R. R. Martin, spend years shirking the task he set himself, to the increasing anger and frustration of his fans. He may simply leave the tale unfinished, consigned to the scrap-heap of half-told tales. (Most of us writers, I believe, have had that experience at least once.) He may give up writing altogether and go off to become a tuna fisherman or an aluminium-siding salesman. I have known sad cases.

But the worst thing of all is to develop narrative fatigue about one’s own life. A man can stop caring what happens to himself: can become so discouraged or depressed that he sees no hope of any good outcome. ‘I have reached a dead end,’ he says; ‘there is nowhere to go from here – and if there is, I don’t want to see it.’ If this mood persists, it is very likely to end in insanity or suicide.

I myself, I confess, am in a slough compounded of all three of these things. My fiction has met with a cold and usually silent reception, so that I imagine anything I write will cause narrative fatigue in the reader. This weighs on me until I feel that my stories are not worth telling, and lose the gumption to keep trying: narrative fatigue in the writer. And having no other work to fall back on, no other role in society, I am sinking into narrative fatigue in real life. Lately I have often repeated (if only in my head) an altered edition of the Eight Deadly Words: ‘I don’t care what happens to me.’ It is not a comfortable place to be, nor one where I can easily be comforted.

They say that when you reach the end of your rope, the thing to do is tie a knot and hang on until something happens. You will either be rescued, or find a way back yourself – or fall.

So here I am, clinging to the knotted rope; and I could do with suggestions about what to do next, and some encouragement to help me get on.


  1. Garth says

    All I can say is, I’ve avidly read everything you’ve published that I know of. In particular, _Lord Talon’s Revenge_ moved me deeply.

    • You are most kind.

      I am thinking of reissuing poor old Lord Talon in a corrected edition – there are some typos I recently found upon rereading, and one spot where I seem to have accidentally cut an essential sentence and made nonsense of a scene. If I do so, I want to try putting it out with new cover art, to see if that encourages interest at all.

  2. I’m pretty sure I’ve bought every book you’ve published within days of it going live on Amazon, and have thoroughly enjoyed every one of them. Having gone through my own slump with writing, all I can suggest is to try to rediscover what made you want to write in the first place. Is there anything you can take pleasure in on its own? Any small idea you can play with that might help rekindle a greater interest?

    Please don’t quit on us!

    • The trouble at present is that I don’t seem to take pleasure in much of anything. My depression sits heavily on me, and I am beginning to get rather squashed. But I do thank you for your kind words. You help to alleviate the worst of my fears.

  3. Of course, then there’s, “Why can’t you ALL LOSE?”

    Even when they do, it’s not fun.

    • Or, as Mark Twain put it in ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences’:

      …the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

  4. sdorman says

    tighten those muscles. swing on that rope. keep swinging. you will be reinvigorated. if my work means anything to you it will encourage you to know i appreciate yours. Besides, you have cats. they need you. your friends pray for you.

  5. All I can say is I dearly want to find out what happens WHERE ANGELS DIE (and other stuff.) Keep writing!

  6. Matthew Salser says

    I too have bought and read everything of yours, and like it all. Lord Talon’s Revenge and Where Angels Die I in particular enjoy, and have recommended to others. Lord Talon I have actually bought twice, for the sake of convenience, and I have not regretted it either time. You are, I think, quite as good a writer as Mr. Wright, though very different, and I appreciate it all the more because I know how difficult it was to write. I too suffer from mental and physical ailments, though not, it sounds like, quite so severe as yours seem from this distance, and I do try to pray for you.

  7. Maypo says

    You remain ever present on my prayer list as Well.
    I can’t imagine the pain and suffering that you have endured over the past few years. All Ican say beyond that is to echo the above, iIhhavepurchased your works and eagerly read your blog because they are fine works of a craftsman and an artist and bring me great joy.

  8. I’ve spent most of my life dealing with some very intense psychological ailments, and have little to offer besides my sympathy. As a convert to the Catholic Church, the simple, faithful practice of the Sacraments and prayer has been everything to me, and has gotten me through innumerable times when I, too, was very much at the end of my rope. This is no magic bullet, but it is something that will endure anything and everything, down to the very dregs of our human existence–because whether you or I care about ourselves or what happens to us, God does. So long as we are alive, so long as God is and loves us (and this is always), then nothing we do or are can be entirely in vain. This can endure any degree of suffering or failure.

    In dealing with my own afflictions, the only thing I have really learned is to trust God and keep going.

    I do not assume you will find this at all helpful, but it is offered sincerely, from someone who has suffered a great deal. I do not pretend to comprehend your own difficulties and afflictions, but I do sympathize with them, and I will certainly keep you in my prayers. I have been reading your work (and especially your essays) for many years, and have gotten a sizable amount of good and pleasure out of them. You are clearly a very talented writer and thinker; and, more importantly, you are a human being. Godspeed.

    • Thank you kindly, Sir, and God bless you. Actually, I do find it helpful. Sacraments and prayer are always sound advice, especially when suggested without rancour or superciliousness. Deliverance comes from the Lord; but until it comes, human sympathy is a great help in hanging onto that rope.

  9. (Cribbed mostly from others’ posts b/c I am stealing time atm and edit faster than I write.)

    I’ve bought every book you’ve published and eagerly read your blog because they are fine works of a craftsman and an artist and bring me great joy. I dearly want to find out what happens WHERE ANGELS DIE. Keep writing! You are, I think, quite as good a writer as Mr. Wright though very different. (If only we could create a frankenwriter with your sensibilities, insight, and clear prose and his fertile ideation, audacious scope, and speed!)

    You remain ever present on my prayer list. I can’t imagine the pain and suffering that you have endured over the past few years. I do not pretend to comprehend your own difficulties and afflictions, but I do sympathize with them, and I will certainly keep you in my prayers. (I think of Samuel Johnson, and his clear writing, philosophizing, and debilitating depressions.) I have been reading your work and especially your essays for many years, and have gotten a sizable amount of good and pleasure out of them. You are clearly a very talented writer and thinker. You are my brother in Christ. Godspeed.

  10. I enjoy your writing very much, both here and in your published work.

    I sympathize with your self-questioning — I think most writers must. All I can suggest to combat depression is the cultivation of an attitude of “to hell with everyone else.” You gotta write for yourself. That’s what’ll take you through the end of a book or a series.

    Any external validation rewards are a bonus, but you can’t write (or live) for external validation, only for yourself.

  11. I shall of course pray for you daily; tomorrow I will make sure to make the time to say a rosary in your favor. But do keep writing.

  12. Tom,

    May I offer two bits of unsolicited advice?

    1) As St John Paul II said, we must pray for joy, for it is a gift. I suffer from depression and loneliness, too, and a general feeling my life may not be worth living. But when I pray for joy, joy always comes — usually in the most unexpected ways. Most recently, an incredible interest in Homer’s epic poems. I shall pray for you.

    2) As proven from other self-published authors, series do not gain traction until Book #5 comes out. That seems to be the “magical” number, if there is one. Perhaps the “usually silent reception” your fiction has met has to do with the “usually silent reception” of the author to continue his series.

  13. E. Crook says

    Although I cannot say truthfully that I have read any but your shortest fiction yet, I have been saving up my rather meager funds so that I can buy the entire body of your work as soon as possible. Judging from your books of essais, you are an excellent writer, and one deserving of a wider audience.
    Having been in a somewhat similar slough before, all I can say is that it does — eventually — get better. You might try finding small things to give thanks to God for — when you give Him gratitude, he generally gives you back peace, and often joy along with it. And looking outside of my own misery has sometimes been the thing that’s pulled me out of it.
    To echo Captain Peabody above, I don’t know that any comment I make could help you, but I enjoy your writing and believe that you are an insightful thinker; you write with great clarity and skill; and as a human being you are certainly worth more than you could ever imagine.

  14. I enjoy both your fiction and your non-fiction very much (though I think that, regarding the former, you can still be considered an advanced beginner, whereas you are already a master of the latter).

    Please do continue writing and, sooner or later (hopefully sooner) many readers will flock to your books. To that end, it is of the essence to finish more books. After all, it is the Iron Law that ‘for he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.’

    On top of that, finishing a book has the added value of injecting the author with renewed energy and hope. Regarding sadness, I’ve always found that it comes from looking too much to myself, my feelings and my expectations. The only way out is… out. In other words, to cease navel-gazing (my old and pernicious pastime of omphaloscopy) and look out to the beauty of the world, to my loved ones, to exciting challenges and quests and, most of all, to the Beauty of Him who shared my sadness in Gethsemane.

    I’m sure you already know all this and I hope I haven’t given offense by presuming to give advice. I will, of course, keep showing my appreciation of your work in the best possible way, i.e., buying all the books you publish.

    Best regards.

  15. Stephen J. says

    You can count on me as a buyer for The Grey Death whenever it sees the light of day, if only because I seriously want to see if Calin ever wises up and realizes Iriel had a thing for him. I’m a sucker for romance stories.

    With regard to the larger issue of general psychological malaise, one thing that recently kicked me out of a sustained writers’ block and got me to actually finish a novel-length story (annoyingly only a piece of fanfic so I can’t do anything with it, but the accomplishment remains) was of all things a rather negative comment to the effect of, “Well, this was good for a while but I guess you’ve abandoned it and I can see why, the story’s kind of petered out.” This happened to catch me at exactly the right angle to get me angry and reinvigorated.

    Now I do not recommend deliberately seeking out negative criticism of one’s own work, as this is as like as not to backfire and make one even more depressed in my experience, but there are a few books I keep on my shelves solely for how self-evidently execrable they are, so that, when I am feeling morose about my potential, I can read dreck that has actually been published and exclaim in disbelief, “My God, I can write better than this in my sleep!” And then I proceed to do so. You may find this helpful if you are looking for reinforcement — comparison is limited in its usefulness, but tangible proof that no, one is not the worst wordsmith ever to set pen to paper can be startlingly helpful.

  16. Stephen K says

    I can echo much of the above, and add that your critical essays are the best things I’ve read in many a long year. All the best, sir.

  17. Andrew Brew says

    Don’t stop, Tom.
    That I did not see your cri until now perhaps disqualifies me from saying anything, but I plead pressure of other work which, like all excuses, does not excuse.

    I have myself been suffering for the last three years or so from a malaise of the intellect and will that has left me not worth a fizzy drink for long periods. I think I am largely through it now, and the cures have been:
    1) Prayer
    2) Sacraments
    3) Work
    The first I will offer on your behalf. The others I will have to leave to you and your priest.

    God keep you

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