You’ve written a story you’re proud of.
You’ve edited it until there’s nothing left to do. It’s perfect!
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?
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!