5 Ways To Improve A Perfect Story

Close up portrait of a young business man with the office buildiYou’ve written a story you’re proud of.

You’ve edited it until there’s nothing left to do. It’s perfect!

Isn’t it?

Of course.

But how can you enhance it?

That’s the challenge I face every day as a “copy doctor” when members of my writing program send me their work-in-progress for my comments.

Often I despair. Their stories are excellent. What can I do?

Then I ask myself these questions and – in a few moments – I find at least five ways to improve their stories.

Apply this checklist to your own work and see for yourself!

 

1. Do the characters chatter in a vacuum?

 

Maybe the dialogue snakes down the page with no indication of where the conversation is taking place. Are we still in the kitchen or the bar or… has the story shifted to the Sinai desert?

A simple way to remind us is to drop in a ‘dialogue beat,’ some trivial intrusion from the environment.

 

“That’s ridiculous,” Jack said.

Jill pouted. The barman grinned.

 

Ah, we’re still in the bar.

By the way, did we need the dialogue tag “Jack said?” Pundits tell us we should minimize repetitions of “he said/she replied.” They’re tedious.

What people say and how they say it should, in theory, give the reader enough clues. But do they? Not always.

After the third exchange we lose track. Remind us. A dialogue beat can do that.

 

“What happened to my drink?”

The barman brought Jill a Campari.

 

Now we know it was Jill speaking, not Jack.

Bring us back us to the context, continually. The story will gain depth.

 

2. Are the conversations robotic?

 

If we want to engage the reader – and we do, don’t we? – we must embed surprise, conflict, or intrigue into every passage.

I did it just then by interrupting myself with a question. Of course, that “conflict” can be as gentle as a lover’s pillow talk. But it must be there. Because conflict provokes emotions, and emotions engage the reader.

This is particularly true of dialogue. Show us the characters’ emotions throughout. Otherwise, the conversation will be flat. The simplest way to animate dialogue is to add body language.

 

“You killed my father!”

“Darling, you exaggerate.”

 

Dramatic? Yes. But what do the words mean? Reveal the emotions behind those words.

 

“You killed my father!” Her voice was broken glass.

“Darling, you exaggerate.” His eyes crinkled with amusement.

 

The next step is to drop in the characters’ thoughts or reflections. If a scene is written from the point of view (pov) of just one character, it’s no trick to present these directly to the reader.

 

You arrogant bastard, Jill thought.

 

But how can we convey the thoughts of other characters, without head hopping between different viewpoints and confusing the reader?

Have your main pov character observe the other person’s body language and speculate on their thoughts or feelings. This helps us stay in the main pov.

 

She saw his fingers tremble. Maybe she had frightened him, after all?

Or

The eyes that looked back at her were cold with anger.

In a romance they might be “fierce with unrequited lust.”

 

Body language – and its interpretations – can be laid on with a fine brush or a trowel, according to your genre.

 

3. Does a descriptive passage invoke all five senses?

 

An inexperienced author might tell us simply what their characters see and hear. The other three senses are ignored. So the story is two-dimensional. To give it depth, show us also what the pov characters smell, taste and feel.

 

The chill winter air tasted of bonfire smoke. Jill warmed her hands at the crackling log fire, fragrant with apple wood, and wished devoutly she had worn shoes that did not pinch.

 

Now we are in that scene, exploring it through all of Jill’s senses. But did you notice how slow that passage was?

To lull the pace in any scene, drop in a lot of sensory detail. To quicken the pace, refer merely to sights and sounds. The brain understands references to sight and sound much faster than it does to the other three senses.

 

4. Is the story balanced in its pace?

 

Have you ever read a passage of beautiful prose and thought “That’s lovely but it’s dead?”

Chances are, all the sentences and paragraphs were of the same length. If you want to animate a scene – say, at a moment of tension – cut the sentences. Even to fragments.

Then give the reader a comfort break in the next paragraph by lengthening them again or perhaps, by dropping in a few dependent – that is, hanging – clauses.

Just like that.

Incidentally, an easy way to check if your paragraphs are balanced is to reset a page in Word to single-spaced, 9 points Time Roman. Justify the text. Stand back from your computer. The page will now look much as it would to the reader of a Kindle or printed book.

Has your text shrunk into one grey boring slab? Vary the paragraph lengths!

 

5. How tired is the story’s language?

 

A story need not dance with wordplay. Often, the most powerful tale is written in the most prosaic style. But the words should pull their weight. Here’s where the Find utility in Word can be a great help.

First, put the term ing into the search box. That will reveal, among many other words, all your gerunds.

Gerunds? These are weak verb forms that end with ing, like walking and sighing. Ration your gerunds to, say, just two per paragraph unless you want to send the reader to sleep.

Next, input the term ly. It will highlight most of your adverbs.  Sometimes, adverbs are necessary.

If Jack laughed, did he do it happily or bitterly? We need to know.

But adverbs, which qualify verbs, can usually be replaced with a more precise verb – he grinned, leered, winked, etc. – or with a colourful expression.

 

He made a noise like a duck swallowing a frog.

 

Adjectives can be just as dangerous. If you spot more than two in one sentence, ask: could I drop them or use some figure of speech instead?

 

The chamber was cold, empty and forlorn, chilled by the relentless wind.

 

That’s too many adjectives. Why not write:

 

The room was as cold as a taxman’s heart?

 

Needless to say, there’s more than that to being a “copy doctor.”

If you don’t have a good story to start with – a structure of conflict that’s emotionally strong, and characters readers can connect with – no amount of tinkering with the language will improve it.

But if your story is otherwise competent, take action on the five steps above and you’ll turn a good tale into a great one.

What changes will you make to your perfect story? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

 

About the author: 

Dr. John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, runs the Writers’’ Village Academy program in fiction writing and is a tutor at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that succeed in his free 14-part course at Writers’ Village.

Image: How to improve courtesy of Bigstockphoto
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32 thoughts on “5 Ways To Improve A Perfect Story”

  • Cynthia Pearson says:

    Thank you for sharing these tips. They will be most helpful for my story. I will be making several changes especially with incorporating the other senses apart from seeing and hearing.

  • Thanks, Cynthia. It can be quite a challenge to build in all five senses and, I agree, they’re not always necessary. But if you bring it off, the story gains dimension.

  • Nann Dunne says:

    John, you’ve showed us some good points. Thank you for that. But I beg you to change your recommendation of no more than two gerunds per paragraph to no more than two or three gerunds per page. I’m an editor, and that roly-poly “ing” disease seems amateurish — as well as infectious. Too many writers are “catching” that lazy way of writing, in my opinion.

    • I agree, Nann. Gerunds are soporific. That said, they have tactical uses. I’m just enjoying an Austin Freeman story, penned in 1916. Its languid opening is full of gerunds. Then the narrator trips over a body and the verbs become very active indeed! That’s clever…

  • Sarah Yoon says:

    These are good reminders! I’m nearing the end of my novel’s first draft, and I know I have many issues like this to address over the next few run-throughs (AKA chop sessions).

  • Good pointers. I will use them as part of my check list in future.

  • Helpful checklist.
    Leanne Dyck recently posted..How do you get published? (a poem, of sorts)My Profile

  • These points are good. They all act as a checklist. I will use them when revising my stories.
    Thanks.

  • Amy Thompson says:

    Hello John, I have a question for the copy editor. After reading your advice, I changed every word ending with ing in a chapter I have but then I started to wonder if I have to do it every time. I discovered that the meaning changes when I changed the ing word. For example, in once sentence I said. “He was taking guitar lessons.” By this I mean that he was in the process of learning the guitar. I changed it to “ He took guitar lessons.” Since the boy in my story is dead, the meaning is changed and I wonder if I need to do that. This is not the best example, but in many cases, I find I have to use the word “that” to make the change. It is a word I dislike. Any advice?
    Amy

    • Hi Amy. It’s good to see you here. No, of course you don’t need to delete every gerund. There are times when – for reasons of syntax – we need the ‘going’ verb, as in ‘he was walking when it started to rain’. It would be absurd to write ‘He walked and it started to rain’. (Well, I sometimes get that feeling whenever I leave the house!) Gerunds exist for a purpose. My point was they invite us to be lazy, as in ‘It’s raining, or so he was thinking, so he stopped walking and began smoking, worrying that somebody might be noticing.’ (Yes, I’ve read worse.) If a gerund is vital to convey the sense, use it. Otherwise, an active verb is usually preferable for pace.

  • Jackie says:

    John,
    What a great actionable post. I also love the idea of continuing on the journey with a project after we think we are done. This allows for the story to expand, grow and evolve with the care and attention put into it.
    Jackie recently posted..What Writing a Horrible First Draft Reveals About YouMy Profile

  • A fresh pair of eyes opened mine to a perspective I hadn’t remotely considered relative to a “completed” MS. Up your questions will help me with developing this vital consideration to this story as well. Thank you!
    Joanna Aislinn recently posted..Wilson, Our Real-Life NeighborMy Profile

  • “like a duck swallowing a frog.” That is awesome! I always comb my work looking for ing and ly but using the search feature is a great idea and I am going to add it in those words to my checklist. also I like how you touched on the idea of language and how every character “talks” differently, sometimes that is time consuming to accomplish but so worth the effort.

    • ‘“like a duck swallowing a frog.” That is awesome!’ Thanks, Jessica. I confess that, when I get creative, my brain cells glow so wondrously that I am spared the expense of candles. It’s a bad habit :)

  • arundebnath says:

    A great post , an eye opener for a novice writer. Thank you.

    Pls can you let me know the details about your editing/doctoring services for a raw draft of a historical novel.

    • I’m glad you found the post useful, arundebnath. It’s interesting that you’re writing an historical\ novel. I did my doctoral thesis upon aspects of historical fiction. My copy editing service? I shouldn’t be too promotional here – it breaches etiquette! – but you can see how the Writers’ Village Academy works at: http://www.writers-village.org/courses.php

  • Great! I just forwarded this post to everyone in my writers’ group!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt
    http://www.LivingLargeInLimbo.com

  • Totally agree with 4 and 5! Love the find for the adverbs. I didn’t know about the ings. Thanks. Will tackle that one tonight. Love the simple and (not long) writing tips!
    Tam Francis recently posted..Meet Jimmy Valentine the Extraordinary One-Legged Lindy HopperMy Profile

  • Beth Havey says:

    I liked your tips a great deal and agree with them. And I’m sure I will find a lot of gerunds in my writing–will check on that.

    What I find interesting is that acceptable forms of writing dialogue have changed over the years. That’s a good thing. Reading current literary fiction helps me keep up with the trends. And attending writing workshops is an excellent way for people who want to become good writers to know what works. You don’t want to be reading dialogue and: “I realized the instructor and my fellow classmates were chuckling at my tag lines,” she said sheepishly.
    Beth Havey recently posted..What’s Time Got To Do With It?My Profile

  • Thanks for the helpful tips. I’ll use them as I edit my story soon.
    Ellen Andersen recently posted..God is LoveMy Profile

  • I didn’t notice the name of the author as I started reading this article. But after a few paragraphs, I recognized the style. The taxman’s heart clinched it. Bravo, John. Another informative post.
    Kathy Steinemann recently posted..Fire Escape: Flash FictionMy Profile

  • Thanks so much for these tips. I’m almost finished the first draft of my novel and will be starting revisions after a short break. I’ll keep these in mind as I read through to edit.
    Susan Flemming recently posted..Keep MovingMy Profile

  • Raph says:

    Those first two tips are pretty bad. If your dialogue is written well enough, you won’t need to pad it out with ‘emotion behind the words’. You’re slowing down the rapport with useless lyricism.

    • I understand your point, Raph, but I must disagree. Sure, there are times when all the focus must be on the action and the reader needs no reminder of the context. But there are also times – too many, in my experience – when the dialogue crackles along at a hectic pace but the story is as thin as a cornflake. What really is going on, behind the wisecracks? The reader needs to know!

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