Thursday we talked about how to make a good story. (Click HERE for that.) Today we’ll go over a few do’s and don’ts.
Six of them, more or less.
- What we tend to do as new writers is describe things that are not important, like the color of Fred’s car or details about his two-story, split level house.
Why do we do that? Well, to set the scene, but that stuff isn’t important unless the wolf (there was a wold attacking Fred on Thursday) only jumps into cars the color or Fred’s, or the fire department was told to rescue the kid in the yellow, two-story split level house – like they didn’t get an address.
I see this kind of mistake a lot.
I’ll usually ask “Do we need to know this?” and if so, “Do we need to know it right here?” Usually we don’t. Get rid of it or move it.
- ADD DRAMATIC IRONY = GOOD
However, we could do a cutaway seen or a jump cut over to the pharmacy where, since it’s been a slow night, the pharmacist is thinking about closing early going home to catch the football game. So even though the store is open until 9:00, at 8:45 he’s already locking the door and heading out – but while Fred does not know this, the reader does. That’ll have readers shouting at Fred through the Kindle screen. Hurry, Fred!
Another link in the chain: when do you end the chapter?
- CLIFFHANGERS (a kind of do by don’t-ing) = REALLY GOOD
There’s an old show business adage that says always leave them wanting more. So, you don’t end the chapter with Fred getting the medicine and coming home.
You don’t end the chapter with Fred saving his daughters life. You might end the book with Fred saving his daughters life, but you end the chapter with Fred rushing to the store with the wolf on his arm trying to fix the flat tire – and then you cut away to the store owner thinking about closing early to go home and watch the football game.
At the end of a chapter, leave readers having to turn the page to find out what happens!
I cannot stress this enough. Do it whenever you can. Do it all the time.
You: Dan, that’s terrible!
If the readers find out what happens without turning the page, they don’t have to turn the page.
“But, Dan; it seems counterintuitive to ask a question and then end the chapter.”
Yes, it does.
What you do is, you add tension now by stressing the readers out, but you also add tension to the readers by manipulating them and saying do you want to know the answer to this? You must start the next chapter to find out! And when you start that chapter I’m gonna ask another question that you can have to read on to find out. In other words, you’ve got to have another fix – and I’m dragging you along every step of the way, playing you like a piano. Readers love that. They call those books page turners. Reviews say things like “I couldn’t put it down!”
Yeah, you want that.
- USE DASHES OF COLOR, NOT ADDITIONAL COATS OF PAINT
You have to describe your characters doing/feeling things that you want your reader to be doing/feeling as well.
They read it, so if Fred is nervous about getting to the store, have him biting his nails and sweating and tugging at his collar and flooring the accelerator and driving around cars and honking the horn!
You want to store owner to yawn and stretch and look at his watch and look at the clock and say, “I think I’ll go home early.” He calls his wife and says, “Honey, I think I’m gonna wrap up early,” and then starts jiggling in his pocket for his keys as he walks to the front door. (Dramatic Irony again. See #2 above.)
- Another dash is characters
Not who they are but how they act, like when somebody says you’re a character. You might have a funny person, a serious person, a smart person – and let them all have their own little quirks. When the store owner is talking about closing early, he might be thinking “My team hasn’t won a game all season, but neither has the other team, so tonight we have a fighting chance.”
Give your characters personalities. You’d be surprised at how often a reader can’t really tell one character from another without sticking the character’s name on them.
In a good story, each character is a bit unique and you can start to tell who’s talking just by what they’d say or do – no dialog tag needed.
So how many layers of paint is that? That depends on how you write. Some people are talented enough to put all that in the first draft. I don’t really know anybody like that, so make a checklist. Think about the five or six or eight things need to be in your story and understand that everything doesn’t need to be present in every paragraph, but it needs to be present in the story and it probably should pop its ugly head up somewhere.
- Then, cut.
Ask yourself “What can I cut, to make this seem tight and have it move at a good pace?” Or “Can I say this in fewer words without changing the meaning?”
Often, we cannot decide that for ourselves, but there are things you can do.
One (6A) when you read through it the second time, highlight in green the stuff that you love reading, and…
highlight in yellow the stuff that you kind of want to skip. Because if you want to skip it, probably so does the reader.
Maybe it’s important stuff, but maybe it’s wordy. Highlight it in a different color so that you can address it. Maybe it simply needs to be said in fewer words to make the point but not drag the point out.
And then use something like pink to highlight the stuff that either doesn’t seem to fit or you weren’t really sure what to do with it. Or you DO want to skip over it. If they’re necessary for readers to know, maybe those things can be whittled down and folded in later.
The second thing is (6B), have somebody else do that exercise (sort of). Let friends read it and let them give you feedback. Whether you use critique partners or friends,
let some other pair of eyes (and hopefully several pairs of eyes) look your story over and give you feedback.
And this is before you get to Beta readers. After a while you won’t see your mistakes anymore. Fresh eyes will.
These need to be people who will be honest and tell you the four paragraphs talking about the big dining scene aren’t necessary – but also people who you trust, so that when they say something you know what they mean. You want to be able to ask them questions about how to fix it. (If you don’t have those people, go on Twitter or Facebook etc., and ask for a few people to review some of your stuff. Just tell them to give honest feedback – and then listen to it.)
That’s just a few do’s and don’ts to get your story rolling down the right track. There are more; what are some of YOUR tricks of the trade?
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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Click HERE to check out his other works.