Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Have you ever read a book that wandered, that either introduced more characters than the story could comfortably make use of or that dropped plot threads willy-nilly through scenes and chapters?
Have you ever wondered what a story was truly about or whose story it was?
Have you read stories that lacked focus?
Have you written stories that lacked focus?
A writer and I were recently talking about focus, and I thought we should explore the topic here as well.
Focus is one element that keeps a story—any piece of writing—on track, that provides cohesion as well as direction.
Focus directs not only readers but characters and plot. Focus tells everyone what’s important. It also tells readers what isn’t important, what can be ignored.
If a story’s about a teenage girl, Monica, and her growing awareness of herself as a female, it’s not also going to be about her brother’s battle with leukemia and her best friend’s abuse at the hands of her uncle and her history teacher’s quest to win American Idol and her poodle’s incontinence.
Yes, some of those issues may come up in the story, perhaps as ways to pile on tension, but the story won’t revolve around those other issues. This is Monica’s story and her interests—her thoughts, emotions, actions, and reactions—need to drive this story. Those other issues need to bolster Monica and her story, not distract from it. Definitely not compete with it.
Too much story time and page space spent on side issues and insignificant characters or events waters down the tension and conflict and emotion and significance you build around the major characters and their problems.
The less time and attention you give one character or issue, the less power and significance that character or issue has. So, if the number and intensity of the challenges of your main character are reduced to make room for other issues, the impact of those challenges is reduced. The reader’s interest in them will not be as deep as it could be.
The story becomes not the challenges of one character and her efforts to overcome them, but the problems of several characters. By necessity, the attention given the first character is reduced when attention is given to other characters or plot events having nothing to do with the first character.
A lack of focus confuses the reader, leaving her to wonder just whose story this is.
A lack of focus can also diffuse the impact of story events that should produce tension in the reader and conflict for a character.
Any time story issues don’t contribute to the true challenges and conflicts of the main character, you’re directing a story’s energy and passion away from that character and her story.
Of course you do want to layer story issues and problems. Yet for what purpose would you point toward unrelated issues and to characters who don’t influence the story events of your main characters?
Filler is simply fluff—if events, dialogue, setting, and characters don’t enhance the story issues, why are they even in the story? Story elements must serve the story they’re in. If they don’t belong, take them out.
I can hear some writers saying but the story can’t only be about my protagonist and her struggles, it can’t only be about what she’s up to and her needs.
Yes it can.
A story is exactly that. It’s about a character and some event or period or issue in her life. It’s about that character’s struggles and failures and successes and growth. It’s about specifics in that character’s life.
Use other story elements to bolster Monica’s story. Yes, do that. Use other characters and events for contrast when that works. But maintain focus. Readers shouldn’t be left guessing whose story they’re reading. Halfway through a book they shouldn’t still be wondering what the story’s about.
Give your stories focus, something and someone to look at, someone to identify with. Readers are new to your story world. Help them work their way through. Give them something to interest them, something to care about. Someone to root for. Someone to follow. Someone to be.
Use red herrings if you’re writing a mystery, but use them to direct the reader to a specific character or conclusion.
Reduce the millions of possibilities for story events and characters to the few that will make this one story full and rich and satisfying and focused. Cohesive. Complete.
Use words and phrases that identify the personality of your characters. Give characters quirks and mannerisms that further identify them. Make them consistent to themselves and distinct from one another.
Give characters reactions that fit them and that drive the story toward a specific goal.
This last one may be difficult for pantsers, those who write with little preparation and/or no firm story destination in mind, who might not know their characters well when they begin to write. The fix for this, for a character who seems all over the map in terms of traits and behaviors, is to rework that character’s personality on a rewrite. Once that character reveals who she is—or who she needs to be in order for the story to go where you want it to go—you can adjust her thoughts and emotions and behaviors to make them what they should be.
Use focus as a map to guide readers. Only reveal what you want them to see, what the story needs them to notice. A story can’t be all things. It must be one thing, one complete package. And it must be separate from all else. That is, a single story shouldn’t try to touch on every possible subject a character might have an interest in. You’re not writing someone’s life, the mundane moments as well as the newsworthy ones. You’re writing the good stuff, the moments that entertain, the parts that get readers laughing or thinking or crying.
Decide what to include. Decide what to exclude. Make conscious decisions about what makes it into your story.
Ask why something should be included. Does it advance plot? Reveal character? Increase tension? Establish or change tone? Does it do these things better than any other option would do them?
Go with the best option for the story as you want it to be.
Determine if a story thread or scene diffuses or confuses. If it does either, cut it out or rework it.
Keep in mind that not everything you think should go in your story should actually go into that story.
Should I repeat that?
Not every idea that comes to your mind for a story should ultimately end up in that story.
Your first idea will not always be the best. Your second idea may not always be the best. One idea may be a marvelous notion for driving conflict, one that would also reveal your character in an instant, but still not be right for the story you’ve crafted.
A good idea is not always the right idea. Don’t be surprised when a lot of your great story or character ideas don’t make it into your final draft.
Focus your characters and plot, focus the reader’s attention, and focus yourself toward cutting out what doesn’t belong.
Be ruthless. Take out what distracts. Take out what doesn’t fit. Keep characters and readers on track.
Make your story go to a specific place rather than every place. Rather than just any place.
Work each story element to establish the tone you want, to create the mood for each scene, to set up revelations you want readers and characters to uncover.
Use focus to create a cohesive, satisfying story.
Know the answers to the most basic questions—
What’s this story about?
Whose story is it?
What does it mean?
And then work and rework the words until the story itself answers these questions. So readers can follow and understand. So they’ll come back for more. So they’ll be able to take something away from your story.
Be deliberate in your storytelling.
Know who and what your stories are about.
Focus your fiction.