Writing Better Stories, part 1

I need to learn to see my problem areas.
I need to learn to see my problem areas.

Well, it took me a while to figure it out, but I did.

(Occasionally I’ll share a story critique here that I think will benefit all writers. We need examples of problems and examples of solutions so we can spot these situations in our own stories and correct them.)

Learn about critique partners HERE

A friend had written an end-of-the-world story about a virus, and it was interesting but it wasn’t grabbing me. I like to be grabbed.

What was wrong?

This isn’t usually the kind of story I’d usually seek out, so I had to look past that.

Then I had to read several chapters to really see it. In this case, about 9 chapters. He writes looooooong chapters, too, so this was a real effort for a friend.

My conclusion? It was too wordy, it lacked emotional depth, and it lacked tension.

Learn about tightening your story HERE

Those are serious crimes, my friends – and yet it was still a good story!

Here’s what I saw and what I said to him. Learn from these examples. (The character names and other things have been changed so we don’t ruin the story before it comes out)

  1. TOO WORDY: using too many words to convey not enough action/information.

Original story:

Hungry. He rummaged around in his bag of snacks for something resembling breakfast. A flat Diet Pepsi and one Monster Slim Jim. Breakfast of couch potato champions. But better than nothing. Alex reached up to pull his mask off, eager for a good scratch. He’d forgotten how itchy they made his face.

My analysis:

Not bad, right? It was fine by itself, but in the story we saw patterns. He was telling us and showing us. Don’t. We readers will figure it out; we’re smart. Try this:

He rummaged around in his bag of snacks. A flat Diet Pepsi and one Monster Slim Jim. Breakfast of couch potato champions. Alex reached up to pull his mask off, eager for a good scratch.

Same meaning, fewer words.

  1. trust your reader to be smart
  2. even if you don’t, or aren’t comfortable doing it, at this point (9 chapters in) they’ve figured you out or they’ve put the story down. So trust them. And trust yourself. (Usually his happens after 2-3 chapters.)

But here was the big key:

  1. Are you sitting down? THIS type of wordiness is why you are rewriting. It’s not the only reason, but it’s a big one to me. This is what you’re doing when I say you’re using too many words to convey not enough action/information.

Let’s examine:

your original paragraph is 52 words

my example replacement is 35 words, a 33% reduction with increased clarity.

Also, you say his name because you don’t want to repeat “he” too much, which I get, but do it sparingly. You can say “Reaching up to pull his mask off…” or some such thing.

The lines about “Breakfast of couch potato champions” and “But better than nothing.” are competing for the same thing. The sarcasm says it the first time, the second line flattens the first one.

Do we need to know the brand of beef jerky? Isn’t the fact that he’s going to have beef jerky for breakfast enough? We can go from “one Monster Slim Jim” to “some beef jerky” – same meaning, fewer words, and maybe less distraction. And yes, only by 1 word, and I’m not that nit picky, but it’s 25% fewer for that phrase so consider it.

Now, if we take away too much, do we lose YOU and your unique voice in the process? Because this same story written by me is a completely different story than the one you have. But the answer is no, you won’t lose your voice. It’s your story.

I could probably take each paragraph in any chapter of this story and boil it down, and you’d have 1/3 fewer words but still the same story. That may be an exaggeration, but think about it.

By carrying that computer around, he looks like he just might know something, doesn't he?
By carrying that computer around, he looks like he just might know something, doesn’t he?

TOMORROW: looking into the emotional depth and tension in this story, and showing examples of how to improve.

https://savvystories.wordpress.com/2015/06/08/writing-better-stories-part-2/

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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi” – yeah, we know. We’re trying to convince him to change that title – check out his other works here http://www.amazon.com/Dan-Alatorre/e/B00EUX7HEU/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1425128559&sr=1-1 and check back often for interesting stuff.

14 thoughts on “Writing Better Stories, part 1

  1. […] 1. You must write a good story – actually, you can write crap but then I don’t want to talk to you and you need to be a super marketer.  And you need to be a super marketer anyway. But there are a LOT of guys writing crap and making money on Ammy, so if we write good stuff we should be able to do even better. Otherwise the terrorists win. And “good story” includes no typos and all that jazz. (Learn about writing better stories HERE) […]

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  2. I like the example above. Coming from a liberal arts background, its easy to get sucked into the “wordiness” trap. I like writing in sprints i.e. trying to get 2k words done in 1 hour because it keeps me focused on the action taking place and optimizes productivity. Also, a great example of a page turner is Big Red’s Daughter (recommended by James Scott Bell), it shows how to keep the plot moving while including those beautiful descriptive nuggets that readers enjoy.

    Anyhow, I like this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 2000 words in an hour??? Holy cow, you ARE sprinting! No doubt we all occasionally get caught up in the beauty of our own prose, but that is an amazing strategy to move past it and keep the story going! Great suggestion.

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