I suspect most people know about serious problems with their stories, even though it may take a few questions or comments from critique partners to accept the verdict.
Do we also know what could make our stories better? Not serious problems, but those tasks that would have the biggest impact on improving the stories we feel pretty good about? I challenged myself to list five activities each for six of my stories and see what would come up. I liked this so much, I ended up writing down tasks for 8 of my fully drafted works and 3 that are unfinished. For each of these works, nothing feels seriously wrong, and I’m confident I’m on the right track, but listing tasks provided me with a powerful a combination of reminders, quick checks, and experiments.
Here are eleven notes that come up frequently or struck me as especially valuable:
1. Read the work aloud. Pretty simple and obvious, eh? In fact, in each case, I had read the stories aloud, but, for the ones that jumped out at me, it had been several revisions ago. I don’t know, but I suspect things have changed enough so the act of speaking the words will provide opportunities to find omissions and points of confusion and to smooth the language.
2. Lengthen five scenes. I tend to write very short, and my check on that is making sure each scene has three to five beats (turns, reveals, power shifts). Choosing five scenes in a completed work doesn’t seem onerous, and I’m betting (based on revisions on another work) this will make a couple of scenes better and lead to a few surprises.
3. Challenge the dialogue. I’m taking a course on fiction podcasts where the instructor said dialogue has no images to lean on, so it better be compelling from moment to moment. I’m also taking an acting course, and the instructor demonstrated maintaining attention by standing as I worked through a monologue and walking toward the door every time I bored him. I’ll see him and use that awful feeling as I work to set the bar higher for myself.
4. Check for strong conflict. The need to provide backstory and to set things up can be so acute that it’s easy to write a scene with weak or no conflict. It feels okay because so much is presented—and the AUTHOR’S problems are solved. Not good enough. Find the conflict. Make sure it provides a knock-out punch.
5. Leave them eager for more. Every scene needs to have a strong reason for being in the story. Finding that reason is already a challenge. Deciding what to include can be missed, and that can lead to a scene with complete resolution. That can work at the end of a story, but it might be a problem anywhere else. It invites readers to put the book down.
6. Question the point of view. Head hopping is one of the real sins of writing. If the point of view within a scene becomes inconsistent, readers can be confused and are almost certainly going to lose emotional connection. But the care taken for point of view can lead to a loss of opportunities to create more energy by changing point of view in different scenes. A good rule of thumb is determining who has the most to lose in a scene and at least trying to write the scene from that perspective. It might not always work.
For instance, the expectation in most romances is the story will be told from the heroine’s point of view all the way through or alternate between the heroine and the hero. Violating that expectation can be problematic. Similarly, many mysteries depend upon holding to the detective’s point of view from start to finish so information is present is a fair way to solve the puzzle. In most scenes, the detective in not the one who has the most to lose in a scene. But many stories come alive when more attention is paid to which character should have the point of view.
7. Make it more visual. According to common knowledge, Nicola Tesla imagined machines in his head so completely, he often didn’t know whether they had ever been built. I will not claim that the visual in all the scenes reach that level in my head, but it’s all too easy for me to leave out descriptions my readers need to share the experiences I have when I read my stories. I make the stories better when I review what’s actually on the page for readers to see.
8. Make me worry. My characters often don’t get into enough trouble as they could. The challenges don’t always exact a price. The stakes of failure can be higher. In my heart of hearts, I am a bit too reluctant to torture them. Going through scenes and looking at what happens through the eyes of those who can’t stand them is a painful but valuable exercise.
9. Identify five highly emotional scenes. If I can’t do this in a novel or a screenplay, something’s wrong. In fact, if I can’t figure out what they are without looking at the manuscript, I’m probably in trouble. Most readers show up for emotion, not fine ideas and arguments. Even if the emotional scenes pop out without hesitation, I may not be okay. My next step is always to read each one, to see if they are all they can be. Sometimes, oddly enough, that means going back to a less emotional scene and reworking it. Like jokes, emotions benefit from powerful setups.
10. Check the pacing. This is likely to become evident when reading aloud, but it may be necessary to look to the story logic to make sure every scene is necessary. And that there is escalation along the way. Challenges need to get tougher. Stakes need to rise. It’s all too easy to have the energy plateau, often at exactly the wrong time. When that happens, it’s an invitation to put the book down.
11. Make the theme perfect. This is a big one. The whole story pivots on it, and this is often expressed fully in one critical scene. I have to know what that scene is. I have to articulate the theme in a way that is clear, concise, and resonant. A great theme is a snatch of poetry, once the story is written. It may not sound like it to someone who hasn’t experienced the whole work, but it should open up someone who has. And, once the scene and the theme statement are indisputable, the whole story needs to be reviewed with these in mind.
You can ignore all of these tasks and still have a good story. But these activities may point to ways to make that story better, maybe as good as it can be. None of my stories will benefit greatly from all of them. I'm confident the right five tasks will do the job, and my recommendation to you is that you explore this list, and choose the five (or three) that seem to be most valuable. It’s YOUR five ways that matter. Before getting to work, feel free to add ones that are not on this list. (I did.) Don’t worry if not everything raises the level of the story. If one does, you win.