There are two steps to writing the killer story. One is letting it flow. The other is assessing it critically. I’ve found many writers stop at the end of the first step. So what does a writer do if she wants to make sure each scene in a written story does what it was intended to do? Lucky for us, we don’t have to look any further than author/editor Jodie Renner’s checklist on post-writing evaluation. It’s a prompt and reminder you can even print and keep beside your keyboard.
Have your own checklist? Contact us and let us know your writing process.
Write, polish, repeat. For me, that’s the secret and Jodie helps us hit that one straight on.
By Jodie Renner
Once you’ve got the first draft of your short story or novel down, it’s time to go back and reassess each scene to make sure the characters are engaging and the scene is as compelling as it can be.
Besides advancing the storyline, every scene should:
- Reveal and deepen characters and their relationships;
- Show setting details;
- Provide any necessary background info (in a natural way, organic to the story);
- Add tension and conflict;
- Hint at dangers and intrigue to come;
- Enhance the overall tone and mood of your story.
Remember that every scene needs conflict and a change.
To bring your characters and story to life, heighten reader engagement, and pick up the pace, try to make your scenes do double or even triple duty – but subtly is almost always best.
For example, a scene with dialogue should have several layers, including:
- The words being spoken;
- The character’s real thoughts, opinions, emotions, and intentions;
- The other speaker’s tone, word choice, attitude, body language, and facial expressions;
- The outward actions, reactions, and attitudes of both.
Here are eight key ways you can intensify your writing and enhance the experience for readers:
- When introducing characters, remember to show, rather than tell.
Reveal characters’ personalities, motives, goals, fears, and modus operandi not by telling the readers about them or their background, but by their actions, reactions, words, body language, facial expressions, tone, and attitude. Additionally, for a viewpoint character, show their thoughts, emotions, inner reactions, and physical sensations. Show characters’ reactions to each other, then let the readers draw their own conclusions about the players and their true intentions.
- Use attitude when describing setting and characters.
Enhance your descriptions of the setting and other characters by filtering them through the observations, opinions, mood, attitude, and reactions of the viewpoint (observing) character for the scene. That way we’re not only witness to the most significant aspects of the surroundings and other characters, we also learn more about the POV character’s personality, tastes, preferences, and goals, and his agenda for the scene.
- Show character sensations and reactions.
Bring the scene and character alive by showing us not only what the character is seeing, but also what she’s hearing, smelling, touching (and physical sensations like heat and cold), and even, where appropriate, tasting. Also, show sexual tension between love interests by revealing heightened sensory perceptions and physical reactions.
To heighten tension and reader engagement, be sure to show the inner reactions and often-conflicted feelings of your point-of-view character. If your story isn’t in first person, use close third-person POV to show inner conflict, fears, objections, and doubts, and to illustrate how their true feelings contrast with their words and outward reactions. Increase conflict and tension between characters by showing opposing goals and values through dialogue, body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions.
- Show subtext during dialogue.
A couple might be discussing something trivial or arguing about something minor, when inside, one or both are angry or resentful about deeper problems. You can hint at their real feelings by showing inner thought-reactions like As if, or Give me a break, or You wish, or In your dreams, or Yeah? Since when? Or use body language such as running hands through hair, brows furrowed, teeth clenching, or hands forming a fist, or inner sensations, such as tightening of the stomach, shortness of breath, or cold skin.
- Make dialogue do double duty.
Dialogue should not only convey information, but also reveal character and personality and advance the storyline. Dialogue action tags like “He rubbed his eyes,” or “She paced the floor,” which can replace “he said” and “she said,” tell us both who’s speaking and what they’re doing, as well as often providing info on how they’re feeling and reacting. For example:
Chris stood up and ran his hand through his hair. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Jesse set his coffee down, determined to stay calm. “Hey, man, relax. I told you about it last week. Don’t you remember?”
- Drop hints, but hold back information to foreshadow and add intrigue.
Introduce suspense or heighten anticipation through the use of hints and innuendos or snippets/fragments of critical information. These are especially effective when alluding briefly to your protagonist’s secrets, shames, regrets, or troubled childhood. Show brief flashbacks to reveal character secrets, regrets, and fears, little by little.
- Stay out of the story.
Don’t interrupt the story as the author to explain, describe, clarify, reveal, or emphasize points to the readers. That’s heavy-handed, clunky, and intrusive. Stay behind the scenes and let the characters live the story. Keep even the narration in the POV character’s voice, rather than a neutral, authorial voice.
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series “Fire up Your Fiction: An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Stories”, “Writing a Killer Thriller: An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction”, and “Captivate Your Readers: An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction”. She has also published two clickable timesaving e-resources to date: “Quick Clicks: Spelling List” and “Quick Clicks: Word Usage”. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, at The Kill Zone blog alternate Mondays, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
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