When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.
This list is from Janis Hubschman, recently brought to my attention by an efriend, Judith Marshall. I read this long ago and completely forgot its wisdom. Now, I’m ready for her tips, eager to fix my problems. I hope they help you, too.
A little on Janis Hubschman: Her stories have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Exquisite Corpse, The Saint Ann’s Review and more. She’s a finalist in the New Letters Alexander Patterson Cappon Prize for Fiction and received an Honorable mention from Glimmer Train. Currently, she teaches t Montclair State University. You can reach her here.
Here’s the list:
- When the story stalls, ask: what is the character thinking now? Is she thinking anything? If not, why not? Characters need to learn something about themselves, about their values and assumptions.
- Characters reveal themselves under stress. Raise the stakes. Drive the character into a tight spot. What are the psychological crutches the character relies on under pressure?
- Readers like to learn about something when they read. The details of an unusual job or hobby, the day-to-day activities of a particular place at a particular time in history, for example, draw the reader in.
- Trust the reader. Remember Hemingway’s iceberg theory: “you could omit anything if you knew you omitted it and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”
- Take apart successful published stories (or the stories of writers you admire) to see how they work.
- Give the character something to do in the scene. It brings the character and the scene to life. A character soaking in the bathtub, thinking about her rotten marriage is boring. A character performing brain surgery, thinking about her rotten marriage is a different proposition.
- To gain insight into a character, consider her history: Think about what happened before the story, what tortuous path led the character to this particular moment?
- Allow the character to misinterpret another character’s words or actions. In life, we often misread a situation, jump to conclusions. Interesting things can happen when characters make presumptions or project their own hang-ups onto others.
- Let the characters connect with others. Alienated characters, the whiney and self-absorbed protagonists that blame everyone else for their predicament have lots of precedent in literature, but can hold readers at a remove.
- Build tension by slowing down a scene. Let the scene unfold moment by moment. Linger on the details. Build silences into the dialogue.
Although saving time is the point of the list, an argument can be made for the value of all those hours we spend working through problems in our fiction. Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s ten years or 10,000-Hours Rule for realizing success. While there’s no guarantee that ten years will produce achievement, sustained effort and sometimes tedious application is necessary. For example, I revised the story that won Glimmer Train’s Open Fiction contest numerous times over a four-year period. However, the story and the protagonist really started to reveal themselves to me in the final drafts when I focused on techniques #1, #3, and #6. So, in the interest of saving a few years, you might consider stealing this list.
Steal This List
Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s seeking representation for a techno-thriller that she just finished. Any ideas? Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.