July 17, 2012

10 Tips Guaranteed to Rescue Your Story

When you read your story, is it underwhelming? Are you bored and you’re the author? In the excitement of getting your story on

paper, developing your characters and moving through the plot, have you missed whatever it is that makes a story worth reading.

I know what the problem is: It’s the basics.

You’ve forgotten the nuts and bolts. Here are ten of them, each designed to address the most fixable parts of your story. Once you’ve edited with these in mind, re-read your story. You’ll find a huge difference. If you don’t, and only if you don’t, read the last paragraph:

  1. The story is too passive. Check for how often you use a derivation of the verb, to be. That would include was, is, were, etc. Limit them to five per page. They take the umph out of your story. Choose a more active verb. Sometimes it’s as simple as switching She was thinking to She thought. Sometimes it takes more time. Doesn’t matter if it takes a while. It’ll fix your story
  2. More dialogue. Less narrative. Dialogue is active. Narrative is passive. Dialogue pulls the reader into the action. Narrative lets them sit outside where it’s nice and safe. You want your reader to feel the plot’s danger, not feel insulated. You’ve probably heard writing professors intone, Show, not tell. This is what they mean. Dialogue shows. It’s in scene. Narrative tells. It’s outside of the scene.
  3. Don’t jump around in POVs so often. Once a chapter only. At the most, between paragraphs (I stick with a full scene for each POV). You’re reader wants to get to know the POV character and wonder about events with them, not jump into someone else’s head to find out the answers. Mystery is good. No mystery is boring.
  4. Your protagonist isn’t likable. People want to like the main character. They want to relate to that person. Your main character shouldn’t be perfect. S/he should have foibles, failures like every person on the planet. Just don’t make them dis-likable.
  5. Add detail. Be specific about the restaurant your characters eat at, the town they visit, the types of dogs in the dog park. Your readers will relate to the details. Specifics pull readers in. Generalities leave them outside the plot, wondering if they want to commit.
  6. Fix your grammar and spelling. Everyone won’t catch every error, but most people will catch some of the errors. If they catch more than a few–and I use that term loosely–you’ve lost your credibility. Catch as many as you can before you even show the mss to your writer’s group. Don’t assume your future agent will fix grammar and spelling. S/he won’t see the plot for the errors.
  7. Your characters must grow. They can’t remain static from the beginning of the novel to the end. There’s something about a trial by fire and coming out better that snares readers. Look at each character. Where did they start? Where did they end? Have they grown? If not, fix it.
  8. Vary your sentence length. Long involved sentences slow the story down. Short snappy sentences speed the action up. Make sure you use each type in the correct spot.
  9. Use picture nouns and action verbs. Every noun should evoke an entire picture in your reader’s mind. Every verb should set off a sequence of actions.
  10. Limit adjectives and adverbs. Replace a multi-adjectived noun with a fully-developed picture noun. Replace an over-adverbed verb with a descriptive verb. A rule of thumb is no more than two adjectives per noun and no more than five adverbs per page.

If these ten tips didn’t fix things for you, well, now you have to enter the murky land of intangible tips. Things like…

  • Put passion in your writing
  • Write what you know
  • Be unique and unpredictable

I know–these last are important, maybe the most important. But, you have to agree, they’re a lot harder to fix. I like to start at the beginning and proceed to the end. Keep my editing as simple as possible until I can’t.

What are your hints?

Click for more about dialogue.

Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-sixth grade, creator of two technology training books for middle school and four ebooks on technology in education. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, IMS tech expert, and a bi-weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller for her agent that should be out to publishers this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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