Writing Fix: Reinvent Your Story

Mel has a story but he's not telling.

Mel has a story but he’s not telling.

Last post, we talked about ways to get your struggling story off life support. Now that it’s breathing again, let’s look at ways your fiction can re-energize and shine.

Writing Tip for Today: How can struggling fiction be re-imagined so that it appeals to readers? Here are some things to consider:

Interesting People in Trouble

A writing maxim states: “Character is story, and story is character.” It’s true–a lot of people would pay good money to hear a great actor recite the phone directory, yet to lift an ordinary person to that level, he/she must have qualities and a situation that commands us to read. A great fictional character has certain characteristics. We love a character who is “larger-than-life,” that is in addition to being unique this person is somehow every man or woman. Yet the less even this character has a desperate need or problem, the harder it will be to convince readers to stick around.  If you use interesting people in trouble as your guide to building characters, you’ll create characters who are much more memorable–and readable.

Feet to the Flames

These interesting people are in trouble, right? It won’t matter if the trouble is something ordinary, such as strained relationships, or if the stakes are world or universe-ending threats, as long as your character handles this trouble in compelling ways. In order to “squeeze” your character (and thus readers), remember not to let off the pressure as the story progresses. Yes, in real life sometimes we get lucky breaks and everything goes our way. But a story where nothing is risked will have a difficult time keeping readers from yawning and closing the book. As your story stakes are presented (somewhere in the first pages), it’s up to you to keep the action and tension rising ever higher. Think of it this way: If your character faces her biggest obstacle on page three, why would we need to see what happens next? It’s always going to be an anti-climax. Keep your character’s feet to the flames as a way to keep your readers turning pages.

Skip the Boring Parts

In discussions of scene and sequel, I talk about using brief moments of introspection or calm after a high-action scene. This “breathing room” of sequel is necessary for readers to see what’s going on inside the character, and slows the pace just long enough to jolt them again with more action. Elmore Leonard famously told writers to “skip the boring parts,” and he meant that we cannot recreate life in our fiction. Life often has long boring bits where nothing much happens. If you try to account for every moment in your character’s life, you’ll likely sag your story with uninteresting minutiae. You can leave out days, weeks or months where nothing significant to the story occurs with a brief transition (by Christmas, the next day, early in the morning, etc). Don’t try to chronicle your character’s life outside the boundaries of story. On a micro-level, you don’t have to write, “He reached out his hand and turned the radio knob to a different station.” If you write, “He turned the knob,” or even, “He changed the station,” readers will certainly deduce that he “reached out his hand.” And unless he lost both arms in an accident, he probably wouldn’t reach out his feet. Leave out the boring parts–whether they’re details or big chunks of time. If nothing happens, leave it out.

Your Turn: What’s the most difficult thing for you in keeping the stakes high and the feet to the flames? How do you deal with it?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

8 comments on “Writing Fix: Reinvent Your Story

  1. Good post, Linda. It summarizes so much of what we have been learning from you. We will use your wisdom as we try to restructure our story. Thanks for all your wisdom.

  2. Just what I needed at this moment – I”m trying desperately to make a story work! And I am definitely guilty of the above – thanks for pointing that out.

    Love your posts – keep them coming!!

    • Sue,
      At least you didn’t write, “EYES travel left and right.” LOL. I’m glad the posts are helpful. I generally choose topics according to what any of my students or mentees are experiencing at the time. And believe it or not, I learn from my own teaching!
      Keep Writing,
      Linda

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