#5onFri: Five Ways to Take Your Story from Good to Great

by Ashly Hilst
published in Writing

We’ve all experienced it. We finish a story or a draft and we know deep down that something is missing. It’s a good story–but it’s not great. It doesn’t have the pop and sizzle that we’ve achieved in the past or maybe that we’ve witnessed in another writer. But what’s missing?

Before you take a machete to your words, hacking away in what you hope is the right direction, review your draft for these five things that can take your story from good to great.

1) Make sure we know what the main character thinks

As writers we often have the curse of knowledge with our characters. We know what they think about everything, so we assume it’s obvious to the reader as well. But when we don’t give the reader a glimpse inside our main character’s thoughts and feelings, our story feels random and untethered.

Take this example from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. Before Harry knew he was a wizard, he experienced many strange things, including “being found on the roof of the school kitchens. Dudley’s gang had been chasing him as usual when, as much to Harry’s surprise as anyone else’s, there he was sitting on the chimney. The Dursleys had received a very angry letter from Harry’s headmistress telling them Harry had been climbing school buildings. But all he’d tried to do…was jump behind the big trash cans outside the kitchen doors. Harry supposed the wind must have caught him.”

This scene is strong because we know how Harry processed these events — he was just as surprised by it as everyone else and concluded the wind must have blown him up to the roof. Without that helpful insight into what Harry thinks about this experience, this is just exposition and the reader likely doesn’t know what to make of the information.

2) Break up dialogue

Another area that sometimes falls flat in writing is dialogue that ping pongs back and forth between characters without anyone doing anything or thinking anything. As readers, we don’t just want to witness a conversation (we can do that any day just by going to a coffee shop and eavesdropping on strangers). We want the inside scoop. We want to know the backstory, the meaning, and what the main character thinks about what the person is saying. We also want to be able to picture what the people involved in the discussion are doing while they talk. People usually aren’t just sitting across from each other talking. There is typically activity going on, even if it’s just gestures or pacing or biting fingernails.

Here’s an example of what NOT to do:

Mary backed the car out of the driveway. “Where to, John?”
John pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Take a left here.”
“Here. Right here—you missed it. I told you to go left!”
“Well I’ll turn around.”
“No, just keep going and take a right.”
“Where? Give me street names.”
“Right here—go right.”

While this dialogue is pretty true to life it’s also a yawn fest. But try the same conversation with added action and the thought process of the main character.

Mary backed the car out of the driveway. “Where to, John?”
She tried to ignore the fact that John was staring at the woman in spandex pants jogging through the crosswalk at the intersection.
John pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Take a left here.”
Mary gritted her teeth. He always did this—acted like she should know where they were going even though she clearly didn’t.
“Here. Right here—you missed it. I told you to go left!”

It’s a simple shift, but simply adding these action and thought breaks elevates a dry chunk of dialogue to one that is teeming with importance.

3) Cut out the unnecessary (or make it necessary).

One important part of revision is letting go of your little word babies. It’s one of the hardest things for a writer to do—cutting those precious sentences and words that we slaved over. But as painful as it is, it’s necessary for making a good story even better. As Lisa Cron points out in her book Wired for Story, “A story is designed, from beginning to end, to answer a single overarching question. As readers we instinctively know this, so we expect every word, every line, every character, every image, every action to move us closer to the answer.”

So when we hold on to our precious words and characters because we love them—even though they don’t serve the story in any way—we actually lose our readers. They try to make meaning that isn’t there and then get frustrated and put the book down.

The best way to take a stale story to the next level is to actually go through it with a scalpel and cut out anything—and I mean anything—that doesn’t move the story forward and work toward answering the overall story question.

4) Make sure each scene sets up the next

One of the best tricks I’ve learned in writing is to wrap up each scene with a realization and an “And So?” moment. (This is an integral part of the Story Genius method by Lisa Cron, though I’ve seen similar ideas presented in other story structures.) The idea is that at the end of each scene, the main character has gotten new information in some way or another and has a realization which leads them directly into their next action (and the next scene).

Why does this work so well? Because as readers we want to try to anticipate what will happen next and if the story isn’t building on itself—working directly from one scene into another—then it’s just random disconnected events. And random disconnected events don’t make for a compelling story.

5) Be specific

Richard Price said ““You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.” This is what we are doing as writers—taking big ideas, huge themes, and distilling them into specific characters, specific scenes, and specific words. But doing this is much harder than it sounds.

If your story is humming along at the level of perfectly adequate, the culprit might be that you aren’t being specific. The best way to fix it is to go through it with a highlighter and highlight every sentence, image, scene, or word that could be made more specific. Use Lisa Cron’s “eyes wide shut” test: if you can’t picture it in your mind, it’s too vague. Once you’ve uncovered the vague and broad sections of your story, go back through and refine them until they stand out crystal clear in your mind’s eye.

Remember that the best stories are the ones that were first written and then rewritten. No writer gets it right on the first (or second or third) try. So don’t give up on your draft. You’re armed with an arsenal of weapons now that can take your story to the next level. So go to it.

Ashly Hilst is a book coach and editor who believes that stories give us much needed hope–and we need as many stories in the world as we can get. She lives with her husband and daughter in the magical lands of the Pacific Northwest and spends her days supporting writers and working on her fantasy novel. Visit her website, www.InkandGraceEditing.com, for free writing resources.

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