Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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.
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.
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.
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.