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Step Outside Your Story World

May 2, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 2, 2012

To look at your stories with an impartial eye, you’ve got to be able to step outside your story worlds.

While we’re writing, we tend to live in our fiction. We know the setting—we can hear, taste, and smell our worlds. We know who might come sauntering down a lane. We see the sunsets, feel the biting wind, walk unbalanced on shifting sands.

But sometimes a writer’s got to step away from the fictional world and analyze it, study it objectively.

When it’s time to check your story—to make sure you’ve covered all the craft issues, make sure you’ve got a solid product—you’ve got to disconnect from the emotional ties that bind you to your story.

You may have lived with your characters for years, may know the layout of their villages and planets better than you know your own city, but at some point you need to go outside and look through the eyes of a stranger. An analytical stranger, one without connections to your fictional world. One without understanding of that world.

And then you’ve got to coldly study the world, examine it. See what it lacks.

As every municipality has weaknesses and sub-standard services, maybe even absent services, so too will your story world have weaknesses and be missing vital elements.

You may never have noticed these missing parts because you’ve spent all your time with a few select characters and their area of town is built up, complete, without lack.

But look across the tracks. What have you forgotten to build into your story world? What have you skimped on? What did you ignore, thinking you’d eventually get to later? What missing elements did you hope no one would notice were missing?

What is overly portrayed, so much so that it masks the lack in other areas?

Take the time—no sooner than after your first draft and maybe only after the second—and dispassionately look at your story world. Make an honest assessment. What’s missing? What did you skimp on? What’s noticeably thin? Barren? Never mentioned?

What should be there, maybe in a support role, that’s not there at all?

What do you spend too much time with? What’s mentioned so often that readers would be comfortable skipping over the next time it’s mentioned? What is overly explained, left without mystery?

Make a list or a spreadsheet and investigate your story world as a student of literature might. Point out setting details and characters and plot threads. Assign weights to the elements of your stories.

Weigh the page time of characters. Weigh the amount and heft of their dialogue. Does your protagonist get more page time than anyone else? What of your major antagonist? Have you neglected your antagonist, given his minions, especially that outlandishly ghoulish one, more attention than the character who’s supposed to be the main challenger to your lead character?

Do incidentals overwhelm? Are necessities given too little emphasis?

What of secondary characters? Has your lead’s best friend been relegated to not second place but to fifth or sixth in terms of plot duties?

Does anything worthwhile happen, or have you forced your characters to think for page upon page rather than act or feel or speak?

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Don’t allow yourself to make excuses—well, this happens like that now, but the pace picks up (or something exciting happens or a new character makes a major revelation) twenty-five pages after this.

If you wouldn’t put up with it, with a lack or an overabundance of some element in a book you read, don’t put up with it in a book you write.

No dozens of pages of recounting an event from the past. No dialogue that runs forever without action. No dialogue that runs forever without interruption. No story-halting recitations of explanations for behavior or events.

No author intrusion, not even those oh-so-cool details about quarks that fascinate you even now, two years after you read about them.

Look at your story as an outsider would, one with no attachment to your words, phrases, details, characters, or scenes.

Examine—not necessarily read—your manuscript with an eye toward missing elements, under-reported elements, and heavy-handed elements.

Rather than reading one more time and getting lost in plot or story world, lost in detail, narrow your eyes and look at the big picture. Are there puzzle pieces missing? You’re not putting the puzzle together at this point, so you don’t need to connect individual pieces. You do want to step back and see where the gaps are. Is there a big empty space at the center of your puzzle, with connected pieces both before and after but no connections between? Are some pieces richly detailed and others murky? Are some pieces nearly colorless or maybe nearly blank because you didn’t know what to put there?

How about the edges? Usually puzzle edges are easy to put together, but maybe your edges are what’s murky because you don’t know where you’re sending your characters, don’t know their ending scenes. So instead of a full puzzle, you’ve got a jumble, unfinished, with missing pieces, extra pieces, and non-matching pieces that you’ve shoved together. And you’re hoping no one notices the places where pieces are missing or incorrectly joined.

The truth is, they’ll notice.

So fix the problem areas.

Fix your puzzle. Make the pieces themselves clear and then make them clearly fit with what comes before and what comes after. Any place a plot thread or character or setting detail touches another element, ensure that the fit is tight. Leave no gaps, because readers will find them. And once readers are distracted from the fiction, it’s hard to get them to buy into a story a second time.

Think tight fit. Think interlocking. Think tabs fitting into grooves (or innies fitting into outties).

Pieces must not only fit tightly, they must actually form a picture that makes sense. So while several tabs might fit into one groove, you have to make sure the resulting picture is a true picture.

Yes, I’ve taken the analogies around and around a couple of times here. But the point is to look at your stories from outside rather than only from the inside. For first-time writers, being able to step back, to step outside the story, is often tough.

Sometimes it’s nearly impossible.

It helps if you can put your manuscript aside for a while. Don’t look at it. Don’t think about it. Don’t imagine what you could’ve, should’ve, written in that one scene.

Immerse yourself in another story world. Or in your real world. Shake off the emotions and thoughts about this one story. When you can think of it coolly, go back and examine it.

Again, we’re not talking about reading and enjoying each step of the unfolding plot. We’re talking about the big picture and the connections and the elements that make up stories.

Where is there too much of any one thing—too much detail or too many characters or too much emphasis?

Where is there too little?

Where is there overlap?  What of missing connections?

Where is connection forced, so that pieces sort of fit but don’t do so smoothly? Where have you manipulated a puzzle piece, some story element, so that other pieces are squished, pushed out of shape, so they no longer smoothly fit the pieces they were once connected to?

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I admit this is one of the most difficult tasks for some writers. It’s hard, hard, hard for some to look at their work dispassionately. Characters or story world have become so much a part of their lives that they don’t know how to separate themselves from that world. They may not want to. When you’ve invested years in a project, it bears your blood, your life, everything you gave up in order to spend time creating. Who wants to admit that after all that time, a story is still not perfect?

The writer who wants a better story admits it. So does the writer who knows that both identification with a story and separation from it will strengthen it. The writer who can lose himself in the depths of story as well as ruthlessly cut out fabulous scenes and remarkable characters because they ultimately don’t fit knows it as well.

I hope this is the kind of writer you are, one who can both get lost in your fiction—write from your heart—and set yourself apart from it—analyze and rewrite from the head. Both skills will serve your writing and your stories.

If this isn’t your natural approach, not one of your strengths, have faith; both skills can be learned and sharpened.

Both skills will give your readers more engrossing adventures.

Both skills should be eagerly pursued.

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Tags: ,     Posted in: Beginning Writers, Writing Tips

5 Responses to “Step Outside Your Story World”

  1. Julie says:

    I really liked this article. While I agreed that a dispassionate look at work is always needed a number of times – I’ve never actually known what I should be checking- other than the obvious. e.g. grammar / spelling/ repetition of words etc.

    I wish there was a checklist of the things writers need to consider during the editing process, categorised under such areas as character /plot/ dialogue etc. If there is one, please let me know.

  2. Julie, I just happen to have a couple of articles that might help.

    Try Checklist for Editors and That Final Manuscript Cleanup.

    There are probably a couple of other articles, but these should get you started.

    I’m glad you found something useful here.

  3. This is really excellent advice for all writers. Thanks for sharing it. I’ve retweeted and posted it on Facebook because I felt it was so good. Thanks again.

  4. Kathy, thanks for the tweets and Facebook mention; I can tell others have followed you here.

    Separating outselves from our creations can be tough. But what a difference for the story. Here’s hoping this becomes easier for every writer.

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