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It Ain’t Over Till the Full Story Sings

March 23, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 8, 2016

You ever notice how some movies with believable stories, decent acting, and no obvious visual errors still don’t fascinate, still fail to satisfy?

I’m sure you know the movies I’m talking about. The genre is one you love, the plot looks good in a movie review, but the execution falls short, even when you can’t point out anything that’s obviously wrong.

Well, the very same problem can beset novels and other long fiction.

Quite often all the elements seem to be present and seem to work individually, but there’s no spark, no flare of fascination to capture the reader.

I definitely see this in manuscripts, but I see the problem in published books as well. I want to suggest that the answer, at least for many stories, is that the story isn’t actually finished yet.

When a story seems as if it should be awesome—because its components are awesome—but isn’t, the story might have been published or submitted before its time, before it was polished. Before the full story was permitted to sing.

 

Rushing the Finishing Touches

Consider a technically competent story, one that has every major fiction element aligned correctly and whose mechanical elements are near flawless. If such a story doesn’t sing, what might be wrong?

Well, perhaps the plot, no matter how intricate, deals with unappealing subject matter.

Or maybe the main characters aren’t likable; maybe readers don’t want to spend time with the characters because they’re too nasty or too whiny or too bland.

An uninspiring setting might be the culprit, even if that setting has been faithfully portrayed and is a fitting one for genre and era and plot.

But maybe the story’s problem is none of these. Maybe the story actually is solid by every measure and even decent, but still not memorable or captivating. What else might create an uninvolving read?

Let me suggest that the story was released too soon, hurried along to the next stage by the writer before it was actually complete.

A story could look like it’s finished and yet still need attention. And the attention I’m thinking of has to do with polishing, with tweaking, with moving a story from a good one to a great one, from a great one to an outstanding one.

Even a great story may not be a finished story. And readers can often tell when this is so, wanting stories, especially good ones, to transport them to that special world of outstanding fiction.

But what are the features of stories found in that outstanding fictional world?

We may be talking about a setting that’s so real the reader wants to move there. Or maybe it’s characters the reader wants to be or meet, or plot events that readers replay in their heads or play out with their friends in the back yard (kids) or at the water cooler (adults).

You know what I’m talking about, right? Fiction that resonates and changes the reader. Fiction that revs us up or calms us down. Fiction that opens worlds and lights fires under our imaginations.

Fiction that moves us. Stories that leave imprints on our hearts or psyches or both.

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Strong and solid fiction is one milestone writers should be shooting for each time they write, but I would never counsel a writer to stop at competent and solid. There are additional milestones and higher ambitions.

You may reach that stage of rewriting and self-editing when you have no more major problems to work through, no more dangling plot threads to sort out, no more characters to knock sense into. You may have made sure that characters are in the right places at the right times and providing the right responses to provoke other characters to dramatic reactions.

You may not be able to find any blatant problems at all.

But a lack of overt problems doesn’t mean you’re done rewriting and editing. You may wish you were done. You may have gone through the text so many times working through so many different issues that you’re sick of looking at your own words, but you still may not be done.

If your story, the whole thing, doesn’t sing, you’re not done. And if you’re serious about putting out the best story you can write, then you certainly don’t want to quit so close to the end.

It ain’t over till your full story, beginning to end, sings and resonates and makes an impact.

One awesome scene isn’t enough.

One awesome character isn’t enough.

One big emotional blowout isn’t enough.

The whole story should be memorable. Chapters and scenes should be filled with memorable moments, emotion-tugging events, characters whose actions and derring-do startle us. Maybe even change us.

Phrases should sing.

Individual words should seem new because you’ve used them in unique and improbable ways.

And I’m not talking about only literary fiction here.

Any story from any genre can be polished. Every story deserves polishing. Every story deserves striking high points that sparkle.

If you’re going to spend the time to get the details of plot, dialogue, characters, and setting right, you might as well invest the time to make those elements look their best as well. Make them get noticed in ways that deepen reader response without going so far that they’re a distraction.

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I don’t have any complicated how-tos to share for this topic. Actually, the how-to is fairly easy.

Once you’ve finished your manuscript—and I mean really finished it, having completed multiple rewrites and edits—I suggest that you do one more edit pass solely for the flourishes.

Read as a regular reader would. Allow yourself to feel the story. Feel the rhythms and emotions and the beauty of the phrases. Mark places in the text where you get caught up in the events or with the characters’ travails. Mark the scenes where you cry or laugh or shudder.

Mark the high and low points. And not because you intended them to be high and low points, but because they actually are high and low points.

And then mark the places where the story goes dull.

Maybe you’ve got too many scenes without much action. Maybe two or three scenes in a row lack emotional components. Maybe your main character goes too long without sharing his feelings with the reader.

Maybe the words are all vanilla—serviceable but bland—when you should have mixed in some chocolate and raspberry and peach.

Maybe you discover you’d gotten so enamored by the rhythm and effect of terse sentences back in chapter fifteen that from that point forward you forgot to include the long and serpentine musings of your antagonist, phrases that were a highlight of the chapters they appeared in before that point.

Maybe you discover you abandoned your greatest strength—your ability to nail a character’s motives in one paragraph, your knack for digging deep in order to present an emotional knockout of a climax, your instinctive gift for linking multiple threads so that they all come together in one explosive moment at the protagonist’s darkest hour.

Whatever you discover—and at this stage it’s likely that you’re going to find that something’s missing and needs to be added in rather than find that an element needs to be cut out—give that element some attention.

Add texture or depth. Add power. Add risk.

Push deeper with the emotional effects.

Exaggerate an element or effect.

I almost never have to suggest that a writer cut back on the emotions in a scene, not even in a dramatic scene. Yet I often encourage writers to push deep, to go beyond one emotion-inducing line or short paragraph.

Make characters and readers feel—it’s okay, I promise. Make them hurt or rage or laugh or fear. Make them feel something and make them feel something in the deep places. And make them feel for longer than a second or two.

Rather than cut an emotional moment short, push. Layer on the hurt. Make your characters feel not only pain, but anguish. Make readers cry because of what your characters, rightly or wrongly, are going through.

No, not every scene needs a kick in the pants, a goosing of the emotional keister. But every solid story that doesn’t yet sing needs some boost. And ratcheting up the emotional impact is often the best choice for creating fiction that resonates.

 

Risky Writing

Don’t be afraid to take risks. Risky stories are often memorable stories. Risk causes a book to feel and look different from other books. Risk pushes writers to make choices that not only breathe life into common phrases and passages but that send excitement zinging through those passages.

You could finish a manuscript before any part of it sings, maybe before it even hums. But if you take just one more pass through your fictional world at the stage when you think it’s ready, you just might create an extraordinary story that will shake up readers. Such a story may shake you up as well. It may even change your approach to writing.

Once a writer sees the unique stories risk can create, that writer can convince herself to risk again and again.

Great risk doesn’t always pay off, but pushing beyond the common and expected certainly can produce awesome fiction. Not pushing beyond the common can never produce more than the ordinary.

Don’t write a good story that could have been, should have been, a great one. Please don’t. Readers don’t want to read a decent story that nonetheless leaves them feeling indifferent or even disappointed when they can tell it could so easily have been better.

Think about those movies that miss the mark—you don’t want readers saying about your books what they say about those movies, that they had so much going for them, they should have been better.

With a movie, the blame can be spread around. For a book, the writer rightly gets the blame for missing the mark.

Don’t create an almost masterpiece. When you’ve finished, when the pieces all fit and you’ve rewritten and pulled apart and put back together, when the problems are gone and everything that needed to be cut has been cut, then look to see what’s missing and work at adding in those elements. And then polish what you’ve got so that the foundational stones are not only strong enough to support the story elements, but they look good while doing it.

Accentuate those elements that make your story unique.

Highlight your own strengths in a way that serves the story and its characters.

Emphasize the good stuff in ways that create an impact on readers.

Go beyond cutting and framing and fitting elements together—make them shine. And make your story sing.

Don’t be satisfied with eliminating problems and errors; that simply substitutes a neutral story for a poor one. Push your  fiction in the other direction by adding delight and discovery and truths that resonate. Don’t be content with neutral and bland and error-free; strive for powerful and moving and vibrant. Think beyond pristine and flawless by imagining soaring and real and risky.

Whatever else you do, don’t stop too soon. If it ain’t over till the singing starts, make sure your stories sing before you snatch that opportunity away from them. Finish what you begin. Complete the story, every necessary step.

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22 Responses to “It Ain’t Over Till the Full Story Sings”

  1. Catherine says:

    Thank you for this post. Great advice! Always good to be reminded of that.

    It took me a long time as a writer to find out how I work and what works for me. I tend to do most of what’s recommended in this post while writing, not only at the end. I know it’s not recommended, but I need to hit all the creative processes one after the others until I can continue when I am blocked. Usually when I get in the minutia of making a sentence or a scene sing that’s when a window will open for a new idea and I don’t waste a thousand words writing something that will end up in the trash.

    As a long time reader of your blog and first time poster, I just want to add another thank you for your ongoing hard work in sharing your experience with us. It’s a privilege really.

    • Catherine, you’ve got to work the way that makes sense for you. If you can address these issues as you write, go for it. But still consider taking that final pass once you think the story is finished. See how the finished product hits your reader’s rather than your writer’s ear.

      I’m so glad you took the time to add a comment, to let us know what works for you. I love to hear from those who read the blog.

  2. Couldn’t have been more timely! Thank you!
    I sent my MS off to my editor after finishing my 6th full revision, and cutting down about 40K. I’ve cut and pruned and refined, and will do a whole lot more of that when it comes back from my editor — but I know, I feel that it’s still missing that extra depth and extra hight, that… special extra. I also know how to bring it out, but I couldn’t have done it earlier, couldn’t have seen it before I cut all that dead wood and the nasty weeds out of the actual MS.

    • Veronica, I love being timely. I’d started three other articles in the last few days, but this is the one that wanted to be written last night.

      I know exactly what you mean about not being able to add the oomph, that extra something, before the garbage is cut away. Even if it’s exactly what the story needs, if it doesn’t fit with the stuff that needs to be cut—and why would it?—then it’s difficult to see how it truly fits the story. It’s a great idea to get rid of what you know doesn’t work in order to better see the gaps.

  3. MK says:

    I needed this encouragement. Thanks. But after working on one book for YEARS, I worry that I won’t be able to see the places where my book chokes rather than sings. It’s hard to read like a reader when I know what I intended.

    • MK, the best suggestion I have for you is to set aside your manuscript when it reaches the point you think it’s ready.

      I’m sure you’ve heard that advice before—to put a manuscript aside so you can come back to it with fresh eyes—but I’m going to suggest you go beyond putting yours aside for only a couple of weeks.

      If you’ve been working on a story for years, that tells me it doesn’t need to be published next week. And that means you’ve got time for this next step.

      Hide your printed manuscript. Close up the files on your computer. And don’t look at this story for at least a month, maybe two.

      Don’t tweak just that one sentence. Don’t reread your favorite scene. Don’t rework the ending.

      At the same time, turn to something else. It can be related to writing, but it doesn’t have to be. You could take a course on one of the writing elements. You could take a class on gardening. You could tackle the paint job in the spare bedroom.

      Whatever you do, clear your head and heart of your story. Clear out the rhythms, the phrases, even the little plot threads that you so carefully weaved through the major plot.

      The hardest part of this advice will be to actually follow it. And especially those first couple of weeks. If you’ve been immersed in your story world and actively rewriting and editing, you’ll want to “just change that one little thing.”

      But resist. Clear the links to your story from every part of you. And let it go long enough that you actually forget some of the wording.

      Start another story. Or begin rewriting or editing another story. Get your mind involved in something different.

      Once you get back to the first story, you’ll have a better chance of being able to read with a reader’s eyes and ears. And remember to read that next pass from hard copy and away from your computer. You want to erase all links to your writing and editing personas and simply enjoy the story as a reader would.

      Now, this isn’t necessarily the same advice I’d give to someone with an approaching deadline. But once a story is nearly finished, every manuscript can benefit from the coldest read the writer can give it. In this way you’ll not only see the still-weak spots, but you’ll see the perfect ones as well. There’s nothing like reading a manuscript once the links to it have cooled off and yet still find that there’s some pretty good writing in it.

      I wish you great success in bringing your hard work to a satisfying conclusion.

  4. Deborah says:

    I recognized the problems with my novel in progress in every line of this post – better yet, I recognized the solutions. Thanks so much.

  5. Barb says:

    A good editor help the process, too.

  6. This was a great article. I’m currently struggling with the “book three blues” and there was a lot of great advice here to start ideas swirling. It’s awesome when you get ideas and information at the same time.

    • Annette, I do love it when an article accomplishes multiple purposes; thanks for letting me know. And I wish you quick recovery from your blues. Are you under deadline or do you have time to step away for a bit, maybe charge your batteries and fill up your personal fuel tank? If you’ve been writing and editing and writing and writing some more, maybe it’s time for some reading. If you can, step away from the creating for a while and read. Load up on a favorite author or find a new author and read everything he/she ever published. It sounds like you need to fill up your reserves.

      Or you could try getting into something else—cleaning out the attic, repainting the spare bedroom, cleaning out the garage. Just getting out of the rhythms of writing and editing can be helpful. One afternoon might do it for you, or you may need to take a break for a week. If you’ll be three or four more times more effective after a break, taking one is worth the delay in getting to a certain page number in a new manuscript. Plus you might get something done around the house that you’ve been putting off.

  7. Janet says:

    I’m going to share this with my critique groups. One member wants to send out her first 3 chapters now when her book is half way(?) done. When we urge her to wait, she says it’s going as soon as she types “The End.” Maybe you can convince her when we can’t!

    • Janet, I hope you and your group members are awesome at encouragement, successful at encouraging this writer to wait, wait, wait, that is.

      No agent or publisher wants a query letter or submission for an incomplete manuscript from an untested writer. That means the manuscript needs to be finished before a writer approaches the agent or publisher of her dreams. Remind the group member that it’s to her advantage to be able to include the words complete manuscript in her queries.

      And do remind her of the limitations of a first draft. Maybe that would be a great topic for a presentation to the group as a whole? Not everyone gets the necessary information from online sources and books on craft, so it might be a great idea for your group, even if it’s primarily a critique group, to invite speakers in to cover particular topics. Or even better, each month or quarter have a different group member present a topic to the group. That way each of you gets to dig deep into some writing issue.

      But let me see if I can help a bit. Beyond this article, you might want to share either or both of these—The First Draft, What It Is and What It Isn’t and Why Writing “The End” Doesn’t Mean You’ve Finished.

  8. A lot of great advise, Beth, particularly about allowing time to pass between the drafting (or a few rounds of draft revisions). Since revision is a process, it’s also a good idea to physically enhance the switch from Creativity to Self-Editing. I do this by taking hard copy from my office upstairs (where I create) to my dining room (which is not associated with creative endeavors–and it’s quiet, with no machinery running) to read and self-edit. I recently read an article in THE WRITER magazine whose author said he went to his local thrift store and bought specific clothing to match his editor persona, his creative persona, etc. Personally, that’s a lot of clothes (LOL), but I have heard of writers who don “editor’s visors” when editing. The bottom line is that such a change reinforces a writer’s mindset to focus on the objective of having a great story.

    • Catherine, I love the idea of matching clothing to the job—we wear uniforms in all sorts of occupations, why not as writers or editors, especially if doing so helps? (Or simply because it makes our kids or grandchildren or neighbor kids giggle or roll their eyes.)

      When I’m doing my first edit pass, it’s always on hard copy and always away from my desk. It’s also typically somewhere outside my office. I can get a much better feel for flow and pace and the tone and mood of a story if I read it from paper, if I know how far I’ve come and how far I have to go, whether it’s for the story as a whole, a particular chapter, or a just a scene. I get a sense of the wholeness of the story. On a computer screen, the text is reduced to single lines or a paragraph or two or to a single page.

      ———-

      And, as you pointed out, that change in mindset from writer to editor is important. Though the jobs are related, they are different and require different mental strategies. A writer should use whatever works for him in order to switch hats from writer to editor, even if that means literally switching hats.

  9. This was a terrific post! Both inspiring and practical. I’m in a 3rd rewrite of a book that I love and that I worry is taking me too long to complete. But your post encourages me to think I should take the time and trouble to make it everything it can be. Thanks for all the points above. You’ve renewed my enthusiasm for the work needed.

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