Literary Liaisons

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How to Make a Good Story Great in 7 Simple Ways

This is a partial reprint from Writers Digest

7 Simple Ways to Make a Good Story Greatcreativity

Here are seven ways successful authors make their stories crackle with authority and get the gatekeepers on their side. These techniques will work on any kind of fiction: literary, romance, mystery, sci-fi, you name it. What’s more, you can implement them no matter where you are in your writing process, from first draft to final polish.

1. Go beyond the five senses.

Most writers know enough to put in sensations beyond sight and sound. It’s always great to read about a character who takes note of the hot metal-and-oil aroma that lingers over the rails after a fast train has passed, or the weight of a new tweed coat on his shoulders.

Agents and editors love the five senses, but they want and expect more. They want physical business that deepens not just your setting, but your characterizations.

Here’s the key: The best authors use body language in their narratives. Odd thing is, I have never once heard an agent or editor comment on my (or any author’s) use of body language, and I think that’s because it goes by so smoothly it’s almost unnoticed. Yet it absolutely gives texture and depth to your work. When it’s missing, fiction feels flat.

Begin by reading up on body language. You’ll find that two things are at the root of all of it: anxiety (or lack thereof) and hidden desires. Dwell inside your characters and sense how they feel in any given situation.

Consider this:

Brian paused and lit a cigarette. He exhaled a stream of smoke at the window.

That doesn’t tell anything about the character or his state of mind. If Brian needs a cigarette, use the moment fully:

Brian paused and lit a cigarette. He held it close to his body, as if he didn’t want to take up too much space. He exhaled a stream of smoke at the window, avoiding Anne-Marie’s eyes.

We learn something about what’s going on with Brian here, without having to plow through an internal monologue from him or Anne-Marie.

2. Embrace idiosyncrasies.

People behave rationally only part of the time; the rest of the time we take stupid risks and do other things we can’t explain.

Agents and editors know this as well as anyone, but because they don’t want readers to have to work too hard to suspend disbelief, they really harp on believability. And when they do, frequently their objections have to do with a character’s motivation. (I should add that you can pick apart any masterwork on that basis: “I really don’t think Ophelia would kill herself in this situation. I mean, don’t you think suicide is way over-the-top? Much more plausible to have her develop an eating disorder, wouldn’t you agree?”) The trouble is, if you bow to this and have your characters behave totally rationally at all times, you’ll write dead-boring fiction.

Here’s the key: Human weirdness follows patterns we can all relate to (or at least understand).

One of the biggest is that love—or sex, at least—makes people irrational. We throw over the picture-perfect millionaire for the rough-around-the-edges dirt biker with debt; we lie to our faithful wife on the phone while bonking the secretary in a motel. Which goes to show that if you incorporate a strong enough motivating factor—even an irrational one—you can easily establish a plausible reason for erratic actions on the part of your characters. And those characters are far more interesting to read about than those who always behave rationally.

Similarly, any number of terrific plot turns can result when you give a character an obsession—random or not—or an idiosyncrasy that can act as a thread through the story.

For instance, someone who is obsessed can become single-mindedly so, leading to horrible errors in judgment. Control freaks turn vainglorious and become prone to fatal decisions:

“Aw, Captain, let’s just go back to port. We’ve lost half the crew already.”

“Shut the hell up! I can’t let that white whale win!”

It follows that an obsessed character must either find grace (or be forced to it), or reject growth and stick with their crippled, familiar life to the end. Either way, it’s compelling storytelling.

To embrace this side of human nature in your fiction, you needn’t get a degree in psychology. In fact, a little capriciousness here can be beneficial.

Decide which of your characters is the weakest—which one isn’t working well. Which one are you sort of avoiding dealing with?

Now, brainstorm the “-istics” of that character. Let’s say he is casual about commitments. OK: What if he categorically will not show up anywhere on time?

Automatically, this character becomes more interesting, and automatically we feel a little detonation of uh-oh: What’s going to happen when suddenly a lot is riding on him being somewhere on time—say, for an ultimatum, or a starting gun? This sort of characterization does two things: It makes a character stronger as a dramatic device, and it makes him more memorable.

A character’s weirdness can keep your readers guessing all the way along; it can keep them compelled, as they try to understand and spin theories. Or they might not even notice—but they will get a feeling that for some hard-to-pinpoint reason, this character just seems genuine.

3. Forget about being pretty.

Agents and editors can’t stand authors who put restraints on their work for the sake of delicacy.

A few years ago I was teaching a workshop and trying to get across the concept of writing freely (with no thought of whether you like the result).

A participant spoke up: “I once had an art instructor say, ‘If it didn’t have to be pretty, what would you draw?’ ”

I practically reeled from the force of the genius of that question. (Thank you, anonymous writer and unknown art instructor!) Everyone in the room immediately made the translation: “If it didn’t have to be pretty, what would you write?”

Here’s the key: Not-pretty has two meanings here: a) topics that are not attractive, like racism or incest, and b) the way you write.

Most people shy away from darkness, but as an author you must be willing to dwell there, see it truly, explore it before you represent it.

I kind of hate to say this, but I advise going back to your childhood years—the primal times before we really knew right from wrong, and before we were strong enough to defend ourselves from evil. Feel the fear that coursed through your body when you saw the neighborhood bully coming. Feel the shameless intoxication of wrecking something out of spite.

As for freeing up your writing, do the same thing. When you were a kid, you did everything with almost complete abandon. Call up that spirit as you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Banish all restraint!

4. Be true to your IQ.

When I worked for a large bookseller, we ran surveys that showed our core customers to be well educated and fairly affluent. This was not surprising: Educated people tend to like books, and their income tends to enable them to buy books.

Still, aspiring authors sometimes dumb down their work because they’re afraid of alienating the vast masses of potential customers they imagine they should be writing for. This is disastrous. You cannot do it. And you don’t need to—the average Joes and Janes are smarter than you may think.

Here’s the key: Don’t underestimate your readers. If they like to read the sorts of books you like to write, they’re right up there with your core demographic. And dumbing down your work can be doubly disastrous, because if you do, agents and editors will not be able to relate to it.

First, free your vocabulary while also keeping it in check. If abhorrent is the right word, don’t change it to yucky. And when hill is the right word, don’t change it to acclivity just to show off.

Second, resist the urge to overexplain, especially when portraying action sequences and characters’ thoughts.

Edwina stopped revving the accelerator. The car rocked back into the sand. She looked up at the thick spruce boughs that hung into the road. She got out and said, “Help me pull some of these down.”

We do not need to be told what went through Edwina’s mind; we can conjecture just fine.

Agents and editors will recognize an honest, unstilted voice, and they will respond to it. As will your future readers.

5. Use your best material only when it has a purpose.

Agents and editors have a sixth sense when it comes to kitchen-sink novels. You know what I’m talking about: novels that contain a fictionalized version of every cool, unusual or amazing thing that ever happened to the author.

I once read a novel manuscript at the insistence of a friend who knew the author. In it, a man on foot stops to talk to a man on horseback who is wearing a live snake around his waist like a belt. The incident was colorful but had no bearing on the story, and I suspected that the only reason it was there was that the author had once met up with a man on horseback who wore a snake around his waist like a belt. A casual inquiry proved me right.

An isolated cool-yet-irrelevant scene suggests the author’s immaturity as an artist, and will be noted by agents and editors.

Here’s the key: Put your best material in, but leave the kitchen sink in the kitchen.

When tempted to throw in something awesome that the story doesn’t really demand, go ahead and write it, but during revisions take it out and save it. To read the full article by Elizabeth Sims visit Writers Digest

6. Make them laugh.

Did you grin or chuckle at that last line about the snake-belt guy lacking a girlfriend? What agents and editors love above all is wit. Note that wit is not exactly humor: We might laugh reading a scene where a vain person gets a pie in the face, but that’s humor and takes no intelligence to perceive. Wit is more of a brain thing.

Here’s the key: We laugh when we’re given a perspective we’d never have dreamed of. We laugh when we can see absurdity that others can’t. We laugh when we’re surprised, and when we’re caught off-guard by understatement. All of these can serve as subtle tactics for adding wit to your fiction. To read the full article by Elizabeth Sims visit Writers Digest

7. Make them cry.

Lots of books make readers laugh and lots make readers cry, but when readers laugh and cry while reading the same book, they remember it.

What makes people cry?  To read the full article by Elizabeth Sims visit Writers Digest

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3 comments on “How to Make a Good Story Great in 7 Simple Ways

  1. bookpino
    April 27, 2015

    Reblogged this on bookpino.

  2. Claudia Long
    April 27, 2015

    This was excellent and solved the problem with my WIP! I am overthemoon happy I read this! Yeah, we all know this stuff, but there’s one suggestion here that just, well, clicked.

    • Mindy
      April 27, 2015

      Yeah! Claudia, so glad something clicked. And yes, we all know this stuff, and we all need reminders. Cheers, Mindy

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