Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Most, if not all, writers have recurring weaknesses in their writing and thus weaknesses in their early drafts as well. And for many, those weaknesses include leaving out a story element or two, or maybe underplaying those elements.
Maybe you’re not good with dialogue. Maybe many of your paragraphs start with the same sentence construction. Maybe you forget to give your characters thoughts or emotions.
Perhaps you skip one or two of the sense elements—maybe you skip the sense elements altogether and your characters never see or touch or smell or hear or taste anything. And that means your readers don’t either.
Maybe your weakness is the lack of setting detail or the absence of character habits or quirks. Do your characters pass through scenes without touching anything, floating on air so they don’t crush the gravel underfoot or don’t slide across a newly waxed floor? Do they never pick up physical objects to be used or even fiddled with?
Maybe you’re not visual so you don’t give characters sights to focus on—no colors, no unusual shapes, no arresting anomalies in their story world.
But do consider sights. And colors. And sounds and atmosphere and character emotions.
Consider every element you could possibly add to a story. No, not every story needs an abundance of every story element, but each story needs multiple elements to bring richness and depth.
Make a list of your weaknesses; know what to look for. Learn the places in your stories where you tend to leave out details or dialogue. Learn your favorite sentence constructions and look for ways to vary them for impact.
If you’ve been told your stories are flat or barren, you can fix your next story so it’s neither flat nor barren. If you forget to add a necessary story element, you can always add it in.
Prepare yourself to rewrite at least one draft for the sole purpose of filling in your story gaps, no matter what their source.
A writer and I were speaking of this not too long ago. We both admitted that since we don’t pay attention to visual details in our own lives, we tend to not include them in our characters’ lives.
But our characters are not us and they need to be a part of their setting. Either they are very comfortable with it—interacting with the buildings and rooms and objects surrounding them—or they are unfamiliar with a new setting in which they find themselves and are alert to every object they see, every sound they hear.
Setting should mean something to the characters and thus to the story. The location of your story scenes should have an impact on that story and on the characters that move through it. Setting should also contribute to tone and to the mood of a scene.
Readers should know where you’ve placed your characters. Give them enough—not overmuch unless that’s done to serve the story—enough to let them picture your characters making their way through your story world.
Setting is not the only detail a writer might forget or ignore or be ignorant of. A writer could just as easily forget to convey the thoughts of a viewpoint character, either through a reporting of those thoughts or through actions or facial expressions based on those thoughts.
A writer could easily overlook secondary characters in a scene with multiple characters, forget them so thoroughly that the reader wonders why they were there in the first place.
Each writer will have his own weaknesses. But those weaknesses don’t need to remain in a finished manuscript. A writer can use one rewrite or editing pass to fold in the element that he always omits in his first or second draft.
If characters never eat, never hear music playing, or never notice the color of anything, use one of your read-thrus to add food, the hint of a song or two, the color of objects, a sunset, a bruise, or even the rosy flush of a lover’s skin.
Should the mention of animals or children be a natural for your plot? Add them in, blending and weaving so it seems they’ve been there all along.
Think about layering and variety so you don’t always have a character responding in the same way to your additions. If a character should notice music, let once instance be to notice a song on the radio, another a nightclub singer, and another a child practicing scales in a distant room.
Give your character a different reaction to each mention of music—the fact that a character is noticing the music at all reveals his interest to the reader.
While you’ll have your own list of elements you forget or overlook, one that will change over your writing career, I’ve included one to get you started. Don’t limit yourself to these items. Instead, use them as a springboard to other story elements or items you might have forgotten or ignored.
I’ve arranged the list by general topics, but many of the items could be found on multiple lists.
For setting and background—
Sight, scent, sound, taste, touch
Color—visual color as well as emotional color
Background characters going about their normal business
Background events that don’t direct story events but add to atmosphere
Character interaction with setting and with the props of a setting
Character habits and quirks
Highs and lows
Moments for readers to catch their breaths
Hooks at the ends and beginnings of chapters
Events worth following
Cause and effect
For mechanics/technical issues—
Variety in sentence construction
Variety in word choice
Word choices that fit characters
Variety in punctuation
Variety in scene and chapter length
Weaknesses won’t always remain weaknesses, especially if you go back and layer in what you’ve omitted for a couple of manuscripts. Because you’ll have thought about the issues and reworked them a couple of times, you’ll start including, in your first draft, what had once been absent. Until you do, make a point of adding those elements in a structured way, not leaving their eventual conclusion to chance.
Of course, stories can have too much of any element as well as a lack. But that’s an issue for another article.
For now, concentrate on what’s lacking from the early drafts of your manuscripts and use rewrites to add in elements where there’s a lack. Be thorough, but not heavy-handed—unless a heavy hand suits the story.
Fill in the blanks in your manuscripts without feeling as if you’re a bad writer for having to do so. Every writer has to rewrite; rewriting is where idea takes on flesh and becomes more than words on paper.
Tackle your rewrites with purpose. Put knowledge of your own weaknesses to work and create good story.