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Writing Fiction: 3 Ways to Build a Stronger Story

by | Oct 13, 2014

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.

[bctt tweet=”Great stories seem organic, as though the author channeled them, rather than created them. “]

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?