Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Story Clinic 2 - Adjustments and tune-ups

While there are plenty of bestsellers that don't have wonderful prose or original ideas, almost all tell compelling tales that hook readers and keep them turning pages all the way to "The End."

Fixing the prose of the first draft may be a chore, but most people who can finish the book have enough command of English (or the language of the story) to clean things up. Unfortunately, a clean complete manuscript is not enough. The story must be compelling. And, after you've completed the draft  (which may be wonderful, but is most likely a mess), work on the story becomes the main job.

Last time, I explored some big issue story problems. If you have problems with knowing your story, starting (and ending) in the right place, or maintaining story logic, you might want to look back at my previous post, Story Clinic 1 - Where does it hurt?

If you have any of Clinic 1 problems, you'll need to solve them before going further. If you don't have these big issues, let's look at what else might be dragging down your story.

1) Distance. Reading summaries in CliffsNotes is not the same as reading a story. All the pieces are there, but it's impossible to get the immersion experience.  All too often, I read novels that outline or tell me the story, but don't put me into the story. All the elements are there, but something is missing. What?

Sometimes, it's specificity. The details that bring out the story need to be evocative. Strolling beats walking. Opening a lock with a half diamond or a snake rake beats using a pick.

Point of view makes a difference. Third person omniscient served 19th century readers well enough and put every element of the story within the writer's control, but today we want to be the character, so third person limited is more common. If you write young adult fiction, the identification with protagonists in most stories is even closer with most novels now written in first person (and, more and more, in the present tense).

And pacing provides yet another way to pull people out of stories. Abrupt changes, narration that goes too long or too short, and rhythms that make it easy to stop reading all disrupt the reading experience. Most often, these problems come from a lack of confidence in the reader (they need to know this), from rough beginnings to a new session of drafting, and from insertions and deletions made in the revision process (or revisiting scenes and chapters during drafting). Beta readers can point these problems out. Many become evident simply by reading the work aloud.

2) White spaces. Many writers, deeply engaged in their own work, leave important parts out. One of the most common is the setting.

Sometimes, writers are in a rush, and chapters and scenes begin with disembodied voices. These snatches of dialogue seem to go in and out of vogue, and some people find they raise questions and add energy. Mostly, they confuse, but, if they are an aesthetic choice (or story necessity), it's important to remember to take the story out of a white space environment and into a specific place as soon as possible. White spaces also happen when action changes location. A new place needs a new (brief) description.

A close kin to the visuals-free environment is the sensory-deprived environment. Remembering smell, lighting, the size of the space, temperature, and textures can place a reader into the scene and add life.

One more problem is the loss of the sense of the scene when dialogue takes over. What the characters say, by itself, can be rich, but don't do this accidentally. Consider how they speak, what they look like, facial expressions, body language, and... interactions with the environment. Stage plays are loaded with scenes that turn on dialogue, but a good director will block out the scene and give the characters plenty of physical things to do. Ideally, this expresses character. Minimally, it makes things more interesting.

3) Loss of clarity. This is the biggest one. Never make readers read something twice. Include all that is needed, in the right order, so no one gets disoriented. Heinlein said the best writing course he ever got was one he took at the U.S. Naval Academy on giving orders. If the order could be misconstrued by anyone, you scored zero for that day.

As with distance, beta readers can tell you when they are confused, and you should always take that seriously. For a quick check, look for these problems:
  • sloppiness
  • ambiguity
  • complexity
  • assumptions
  • missing information
  • too many characters (or lack of distinction/tags that leads to  confusion of characters)
Make adjustments and tune-ups to deal with these three problems, and readers will be much more engaged in your story. It will come across more strongly in their imaginations. But will it stand out? Will it be all that it promises to be? I'll explore that in next week's post.   


  1. I hate watching horror films because I don't like to be scared, but sometimes I'm curious about the actual plot. I would go to Wikipedia and read the summary so I could know what happened but not actually have to feel anything about it. "Reading summaries in CliffsNotes is not the same as reading a story," is right.

  2. That's a fun use of summaries, and one I hadn't heard before. I've done something similar when, for one reason or another, I haven't gotten to finish watching a movie. There must be an urge to see how it ends.
    From a writing point of view, sometimes these summaries can give you the chance to sort through the structures of similar films to look for options and commonalities.
    Thanks for the comment!