Writing Fiction: 3 Ways to Build a Stronger Story

Writing fiction: Build a stronger story
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Authors face a great many challenges as we put together our manuscripts. Primary among them is working to erase our tracks on the page, creating a seamless connection between readers and our fictional world.

In this, Kevin Spacey’s quote from The Usual Suspects (originally from Charles Baudelaire’s The Generous Gambler and paraphrased in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters) is remarkably apt:

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

So how do all we author-devils go about convincing our readers we don’t exist?

After analyzing all 71 individual scenes in the latest draft of my novel, I discovered one common problem: my authorial presence on the page created barriers between the action and the reader. I needed to get out of the way.

Narrowing in revealed three main areas where my footprints on the page depressed the action. I had created a protagonist I really liked, but who was onedimensional; I was filtering the action in my descriptions; and I was oversharing irrelevant setting and description details.

Developing solutions to each challenge tightened my scenes and helped build a closer connection to the conflict playing out across the narrative. Here’s how I did it:

1. Issue: A one-dimensional, likable protagonist

When I’m reading a novel and I encounter a one-dimensional protagonist, it’s like I’ve sat down in a poorly made chair. I immediately wonder, “Who made this?” If a reader asks that question of a story, the author may not have done enough work to create a character independent of themselves and let the reader experience the tale without wondering how it was made.

Great stories seem organic, as though the author channeled them, rather than created them. The writing can be brilliant, and the reader will notice the beauty in the construction of sentences and paragraphs, but what they absolutely shouldn’t notice are clunky story mechanics, including poorly realized characters. These reveal a sort of clumsiness — and clumsiness draws the author out into the open.

Great stories seem organic, as though the author channeled them, rather than created them. Click To Tweet

It’s tough to give your hero faults and flaws: vanity, an ego, even dark, criminal impulses. If you do, how can he or she possibly remain a good protagonist? Aren’t all our heroes free of vice?

The most believable heroes are people not too different from us, with all the complexities and challenges we face each and every day. A great story, in which your protagonist achieves great things, is all the more satisfying when that character reaches her goal despite the challenges of her situation and setbacks that real or perceived imperfections cause. As David Corbett says in his epic The Art of Character:

“Its far more important that we empathize with a character than like her, which is just as true of villains as heroes. And empathy is created by a well-drawn character taking on a convincing dramatic problem, in which compelling wants are at stake in the face of potentially overwhelming opposition. We feel for such a character, even if she is imperfect, for we all understand that necessity compels us to act as we must, not as we should.”

Our characters acting as they must — and not as they should — is a hallmark of separation from the author. It is the antithesis of contrivance because, as protagonists become believable individuals — with warts and all — they tend to make decisions that reflect their many varied facets.

Solution: Give your protagonist flaws

Learn to cultivate flaws in your protagonists. Collect and log them. If you don’t know where to begin, gather inspiration on key character flaws, and learn why your character needs them. We like flaws because they make our characters vulnerable and allow us to empathize with them — precisely because they are not perfect, because they are like us.

My protagonist, Duncan, had many likeable qualities in my first draft. He was well-intentioned, moral and without vice; a victim but rarely a predator. And, over the course of the book, while he dealt with certain troublesome episodes, nothing forced him to change. His flaws were in no way tied to the obstacles blocking him from achieving his goals. He was without reproach; in other words, boring.

In my rewrite, I peppered Duncan with flaws. I wrote about what might shame or embarrass him. I flung at him snobbery, pedantry and annoying idiosyncrasies. I applied these flaws to specific scenes to see how they would change his decisions — and noticed an immediate and remarkable positive effect.

Suddenly, Duncan was making his own choices, rather than me making them for him. He began acting as he must, not as he should — and in doing so gained an important separation from my undue influence.

2. Issue: Filtering the action and description

Certain words filter the action from the point-of-view character to the reader. They disrupt your story’s flow by creating distance between the reader and the action on the page.

These filter words riddled my first pass with such interruptions. In fact, here are just a few from my finished first draft, in order of their egregiousness:

to look: 300

to think:  111

to see: 91

to hear: 66

to feel (or feel like):  51

to seem: 50

to realize:  13

to wonder:  9

to watch: 8

to decide: 8

to touch:  5

Solution: Ruthlessly remove filter words

At first, it’s tough to spot these filter words. Here are a few of my favorite resources on reducing filters and eliminating telling words. Author Jami Gold has an impressive list for creating specific Word Macros that help you find filter words during your revision phase.

Below are three examples of where I found and removed filters:

Filter: “Nonsense,” Duncan said, feeling the letters N and S crash against the numb shores of this front teeth prior to completing the sounds.

No Filter: “Nonsense,” Duncan said — the letters N and S crashed against the numb shores of his front teeth.

Filter: “I advise you to pay thanks to the general for bestowing this honor upon you, rather than question the method of payment. You and I both know what this order will do for . . .” he looked around at the dirt pens, the long grass and the crumbling house, muddied, with hay tipping over onto the roof, “this business.”

No Filter: “I advise you to pay thanks to the general for bestowing this honor upon you, rather than question the method of payment,” the soldier said. The heat was sweltering in the crumbling  pens. Muddied, matted hay hung from the roof. He drew his sleeve to his nose. “You and I both know what word of our order will do for . . . this business.”

Filter: “Sure, sure,” she said. “Does he know he’s meeting you . . . Duncan?” She looked down over her empty pad toward his name, scribbled in eyeliner pencil.

No Filter: “Sure, sure,” Sheila said. “Does he know he’s meeting you . . . Duncan?” She drew her painted fingernail down over the empty pad and toward where his name was scribbled in eyeliner pencil.

As with many writing rules, consider it a suggestion more than a fundamental requirement. You may find mere awareness of filters helps you to write tighter, more vivid descriptions.

3. Issue: Oversharing setting and description details

Writers know more about their story’s setting and their characters’ thoughts than anyone else. The problem is, we often share more than is necessary, leading to large chunks of description and internal monologue that break a scene’s momentum.

We all know the rule: show more and tell less. But it’s become a cliche because it can be interpreted about a million different ways — so what the heck does it mean in practice?

When we write scenes, we present an isolated viewpoint on a moment of conflict to advance the story for the reader. In a moment of conflict, people rarely notice what’s happening around them. They don’t take in exhaustive setting details or spend time trying to analyze their surroundings. They are in the action — where every move, every word, every detail either helps them get what they want, or pushes it further away.

Imagine being in the front row of a play. To access the moment of conflict on stage, you need to be close to the action as it occurs. If a narrator is standing between you and the actors, they depress the intimacy of the action. So, showing is largely about getting out of the way of the action — drawing out into plain view only those items that advance the scene.

Subtext is important here — the ability to tease out items that add meaning to a scene without drawing too much attention to them. For example, consider Big Jim Rennie’s golden baseball in Stephen King’s Under the Dome. To Rennie, the baseball at first represents power and prestige, until it becomes a literal manifestation of those delusions. When the violent drama finally plays out on the page, the baseball’s established subtext enriches the scene without impeding the action.

Solution: Visualize your telling

In a pass during your rewrite, visualize where you tell more than show. In each scene, create two different highlights — yellow for setting and pink for internal monologue. Highlight the blocks, then print out the scene and look at where your interjections slow the action of that scene. What details are unnecessary to the subtext of that isolated moment?

Of course, telling can be useful for summary scenes to help the reader understand the aftermath of several intense scenes of conflict. In many plays, narrators come on stage at the beginning, in between scenes, and maybe at the end to recap the action. Such pacing mechanisms give the reader time to take a breath before plunging back into the action. But in most cases, scenes benefit from cutting down — or eliminating altogether — those interjections that slow action and impede the story.

Have you found it challenging to remove yourself from a story? How do you take yourself out of your fiction writing?

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W.B. Sullivan lives in Oakland. He recently completed his first novel, A Propper Man, and is working on his second. He writes about the process of writing fiction on his blog at wbsullivan.com.... .

W.B. Sullivan | @willb_sullivan

James Chartrand

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Comments

  1. Thank you! I was just starting to think I could never be a good writer…at least now I know what to pay attention to!

    • Feeling that way is common. But remember, it’s just a feeling, not a fact. Every time you feel that way, write it down – and then go find something craft related to work on. Put your anxiety, and doubt and fear into your work. Every time you want to quit – remember why you started. I saw that quote written in chalk on a brick wall somewhere, and now I think of it everyday.

      So glad you found something useful in here. Thank you for taking the time to read the article.

      Will

      • I’ve started eliminating description filters in my writing already. I haven’t had time to really focus on it, but in places where I would previously have said “*he looked up and saw* her walking down the corridor” I changed it to “she walked down the corridor, away from him.” (I don’t have a scene like that, I just thought it up as an example.)

  2. Thank you for this article. The examples of filters helped me understand what you meant and will allow me to improve my writing.

  3. THANK YOU for this article and the wonderful examples you used. This is what I try to tell my clients–many of them are first time writers–and I think this article will now serve as a go-to tool for me to use with them. I try to explain such things to my writers, especially while editing their manuscripts. It can be hard to convey at times, using only the comments feature on Word review. Awesome problem/solution stuff presented here. Thanks again!

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Tamar. Us writers need to work together to share tools of the trade, and strategies and tactics to remain motivated despite all the nay saying about the publishing world. Stories are magical and I think everyone has a story within them. The trick is knowing what work you need to do – where to spend your efforts – to help ensure you are able to tell that story in the best possible way.

      Again, thank you for taking the time to read the article.

      Will

  4. Hi Will, I enjoyed your article so much! Well said.

    In answer to your question, “how do you take yourself out of your fiction writing?” -Getting rid of filter words is a big one for me, and giving myself space from the work helps a lot. When I think it’s good, I put my work aside for a while, like months preferably. I need the distance from it.

    Thanks for the tips,

    • You’ve certainly got me there! With regards to the novel, I’m not sure I’ve reached the point where I’ve walked away from the work thinking it’s good. For me, it’s more a feeling of “did I accomplish what I set out to accomplish during this pass?” If the answer is yes, I move on. It’s an entirely technical analysis.

      Distance helps tremendously. And I think it’s one of the most difficult “skills” to learn.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Good article. Just a note – Quote from Kevin Spacey comes from C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters. Lewis is one of my favorite writers. Had to make sure he got credit. 🙂

    • Thanks for the heads up, Patricia! I’ll add that note to the post — want to make sure we give credit where it’s due.

      (Lewis is one of my favorite authors as well!)

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

      • …and in researching the quote, I learned that Lewis paraphrased Baudelaire!

        • Thanks for keeping me honest, Heather! And thank you, Patricia, for the note. I read the Screwtape Letters when I was living in Ireland just after college. I had a tiny, one-room apartment with a fireplace and I’d huddle by it every night and read a ton of borrowed books. Such a great memory.

          Will

  6. Oh, thank you so much for this! I read a quote once by Gustave Flaubert when I was still in grade-something. It goes, “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” I remembered it when I read your post. So, thanks again for the great pieces of advice. I think my pen is eying me now.

  7. Needed these three great tips – thanks!

  8. monica mastrantonio says:

    hi, thank you so much, it was exactly what i needed to hear, characters are creations that are born, grow and have an independent life on their own, we just work for them plus ink and net industry, super 🙂

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