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Focus—What’s This Story About?

February 17, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 4, 2012

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.

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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 happens?

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.

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Tags:     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

4 Responses to “Focus—What’s This Story About?”

  1. LeAnne says:

    I agree with this message about focus, but I wonder how the author of this post would edit many of the old books, the “classics,” from up to a couple hundred years ago. In these books, it is almost as though the events of the story happened and then the author just put them into writing. All the scenes contribute to the story, but I don’t put the book down and immediately say, “Oh, that was a story about so and so’s discovery of this or that.” Instead, I put the book down and say, “That was a good story.” It had conflict and climax and character development, but never did I feel like I was being led to a single conclusion, a single theme. Now I’m not an editor or anything – I’m just an avid reader who prefers books by authors who have been dead for awhile. However, I was wondering if you could tell me why recent novels feel as through they’ve been patterned after movies, which have to present material with a very single-minded focus due to time restraints and the attention span of the audience. Is the only reason I like old books the fact that they are dated, lending the story a sense of enchantment not possible in books using modern language, or am I on to something?

  2. LeAnne, I think we develop our tastes for many reasons and because of many experiences. So you enjoy the writing styles of earlier writers because you’re familiar with them and/or because reading them has been a positive experience for you and/or because they’re rich in many elements and you like losing yourself in those many story elements and threads.

    There are so many reasons for our tastes and even more reasons for changing tastes. I couldn’t imagine understanding all the psychology behind what makes us who we are. But it is fascinating to speculate.

    As for books being patterned after the style of movies, I don’t know that I’ve found that to be so. Most of the books I read are very different from movies. But I wouldn’t be surprised at a crossover. We learn from our experiences, and so writers who also go to the movies will pick up a technique or story element from what they find there. Movie makers learn from writers and poets. They all learn from composers.

    Then there are events that touch everyone, technologies that change how we approach our art and our crafts, whatever those crafts may be. We change. Meaning we the consumers and we the producers. Our art should reflect the changes in thought, in society, in dreams and fears. Our art reflects not only where we’ve been, but who we are today and our images of who we’ll be tomorrow. Art can look back, but it can also reflect the present. If we forget past, present, or future, we’re not considering the full range of possibilities.

    The way we produce our art can and should change as well.

    An artist learns a different style; the novelist tries a different approach. There’s nothing wrong with change. There’s also nothing wrong with enjoying what came before. We might prefer the old to the new or the new to the old, but both are options. And much is simply a matter of taste.

    As for enchantment, I think modern stories have it as well. But we look back on stories that thrilled us when story was new to us, when we first learned to read, and we remember what we loved about those stories. We carry the things we loved about story with us all our lives. We search for those pleasing elements, whether they are style or genre or word choices, and we are satisfied, maybe even comforted, when we find them.

    I’m guessing it’s not just story that we carry with us, but other loves as well. Music. Colors. Types of scenery. There’s much we’ve learned and when learning is new and fresh and wonderful, we carry the memories of that knowledge forever.

    Good questions. I’m glad you asked them.