Many of us, when first drafting a story, see it as if a film is unreeling in our minds. The words we apply to the page are our way of translating what we see and hear for the reader. This is a great place to start, and can, in the right authorial hands, result in a wild ride for the reader. Readers love a wild ride! But once the ride comes to a stop, the experience is often all but forgotten. We authors wish the memory of our work could linger so our efforts won’t be forgotten.
Rather than tinker with wording alone on your next several passes, here are some questions you can ask yourself about your story that can deepen its impact.
1. What is this story really about?
The essence of my novel The Far End of Happy is expressed in its logline: “Three women must make impossible choices and reveal shameful secrets while awaiting word about a loved one’s suicide standoff.” But delving into what a story is really about requires looking at the big picture. Is your book about 'seeking truth', 'unconditional love', or (like mine) 'hope'? For my protagonist, Ronnie, hope depends on the ability to dream of a brighter future. Reassess each scene to see how it can support or counter this premise. The cohesion this creates will help your story resonate longer.
2. How does your cast of characters suggest your story’s potential energy?
Assess the usefulness of each of your major characters by clarifying what they want, how their backstory motivates them to want it, and, most importantly, how each offers a different perspective on the story premise. Ronnie’s mother, for instance, believes her daughter is the one capable of creating the love she still hopes for. Ronnie’s mother-in-law has sustained hope by appeasing her son. These differences put the characters into organic conflict over the premise in a way that complicates Ronnie’s attainment of her goal while giving the reader a lot to chew on.
3. If your characters were stripped from this novel, how could the setting alone tell the tale?
This is a challenging question, but may result in ideas and images you can use to your advantage. The women wait out the standoff in a social hall they’ve been to before, back when it was decked out for baptisms, graduation parties, or funerals. Today it is stripped bare—“as if waiting to see what kind of event this will be”—and stands in for these women’s mounting anxiety.
4. If everything but else were stripped from this novel, how could action alone tell the tale?
My agency’s principal, Donald Maass, always bemoans the fact that the manuscripts he sees never contain enough action. This question was important for me, because what is a standoff but a lot of high-tension waiting? My answer was to create movement through media intrusion, the entrances and exits of secondary characters, police action, and backstory action that revealed each character’s objective.
5. Is there a symbol that could stand in for some of your exposition?
And if so, is there a way it could come back into the story again at the end in a way that signals character change? I have two, but—no spoilers.
6. Do you need all that dialogue?
Once you’ve taken these steps, some of your dialogue may be overly obvious, thanks to the enhanced support you are now receiving from your setting, your orchestrated set of characters, symbols, added action, and the way your premise is unifying each scene. Your story is now rich with subtext that will allow you to take the advice of author Melanie Bishop’s advice: “Let dialogue be like subtle arrows shot through your story.”
Thanks to Dani and the BRP team for having me back as I gear up for the release of my second novel! In the comments, I’d love to hear what makes a good read stick to your ribs.
|Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her novel based on true events, The Far End of Happy, releases on Tuesday (May 5). She is the author of The Art of Falling, also by Sourcebooks. Her monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.|