Thursday, February 04, 2021

How Do You Write a Great Story? Go Hot, Go Deep

By Dario Ciriello, @Dario_Ciriello 

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: Skimming the surface of your story might work for an early brainstorming session, but it won't get you the novel you really want. Dario Ciriello shares tips on how to dig deeper for a strong novel. 

Many years ago, the legendary, multiple award-winning editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Gardner Dozois, was telling my Clarion West class about the magazine’s slushpile. Once you got rid of the garbage, he said, you were left with quite a few publishable stories. The challenge then was finding the one that stood out from all the “not bad” ones, the story that achieved greatness and would resonate with readers. A few years later, when I had my own slushpile for the Panverse series of SFF novella anthologies I edited and published, I discovered he was absolutely right. And in the several years since, working as a freelance editor/copyeditor, I find the same to be true.

All things being equal, it’s not that hard to write a publishable story. Make the reader care, tell an interesting story, provide an interesting setting or background, and keep the reader turning the pages. Meat and potatoes. But how do you write that great story?

(Here’s more on 3 Ways to Make Your Writing Come Alive)

Over the many client manuscripts I work on, two things stand out.

Not Milking It

The first is that many authors fail to squeeze the most juice out of the dramatic situations they set up. In some cases, this is because they haven’t made the reader really feel the stakes, or raised them high enough; often, the author just doesn’t take the confrontation or drama as far as they could. In my inline comments, “Milk it” is something I often find myself advising the author to do.

Staying Shallow

The second, and closely associated, issue is simply a repeated failure to penetrate deep and hot enough into the character, to give us enough intense interiority (aka internal dialogue, aka free indirect speech) to really put us in the protagonist’s viewpoint.

This stems, I believe, from writers following the well-intended rule of “show, don’t tell” too closely and, more important, too superficially, with the result that the reader feels as though they’re getting a camera-lens view of the action rather than experiencing the scene intensely through the thoughts and feelings of the character. It’s worth mentioning that passages of interiority can do multiple duty, delivering snippets of backstory as well as letting us feel the character’s hopes, fears, desires, etc.

(Here’s more on What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell)

This is especially true in long exchanges of dialogue. If the writer’s good at dialogue and has done enough work prepping the reader so that they fully understand character motivations and stakes, a long, uninterrupted passage of dialogue can work just fine. But the author should take every opportunity to keep the reader in the viewpoint, even in the midst of dialogue, so they experience the scene as the character rather than an observer and forget they’re reading a story. This may seem obvious, but many otherwise competent, intermediate-level writers fail to do it, and the result is a “not bad” story: publishable at a pinch, but not memorable.

It’s critical to understand that interiority is showing, that internal dialogue isn’t narrative: there’s a world of difference between character interiority and simple authorial narration. Well-written viewpoint should, to my way of thinking, approach the claustrophobic. Go hot, go deep, and don’t filter, avoiding words like thought, felt, seemed, and all the rest of the words that distance us and remind us we’re reading a story. Stuff the reader hard into the VP and align them so closely with your character that they’re not an observer but a participant. Make them feel, make them fear, take their breath away. You should do this with every viewpoint character.

(Here’s more on Do You Feel It? Writing With Emotional Layers)

Here's an example from my 2013 novel, Sutherland’s Rules.

The context: Detective Inspector Khan and Detective Sergeant Vladimir Sotnikov are in the middle of a wild pursuit to catch our heroes. Note the long paragraph of interiority towards the end, in which Khan reveals his fears and frustrations, weighs the best tactic for his end game, and reaches a decision. Although the paragraph interrupts a rapid-fire dialogue in the course of a high-speed chase, does it feel like mere telling? No. Does it slow the action? Not a bit.

“They’re on the move,” said Khan. “Where are you?”

“Coming up on… er, Lamberhurst, sir. Twenty-four miles from your current.”

“Oh, saints! Vlado, get a bloody move on, will you? What’s the matter with you?”

Vlado’s voice was strained. “Am doing over sixty sir, fast as I can dare in this lot. And the bloody villages are all over the show, thick as thieves.”

Damn. But the man was doing his best. “Right. The good news is they’re headed your way, back towards the A21. So, transponder code for Sutherland’s car, enter it: Alpha seven-four-two. Got that?”

Vlado repeated the code. And a moment later, “Yes sir, I see him. Just as you say.”

“Excellent. Ten or twelve minutes and we’ll have them right between us!”

Khan kept a good mile between himself and the target—what a GPS tracker was for, after all. This close to the end, with Sutherland almost in his hands, they could still mess it up at the last minute. Point of fact, he could actually let Sutherland get all the way home and nab him on Khan’s own turf, except for the likelihood Sutherland might be headed straight for a delivery, a handoff, without taking the stuff home. True, it would make for a bigger media splash if they caught more co-conspirators; but given how far outside Barraclough’s brief Khan was already flying, he’d be happy just nabbing Sutherland and his mates. Besides which Khan couldn’t call for reinforcements, and if they tailed the bugger to a handoff and found a tough, possibly armed, crowd waiting, he and Vlado could find themselves in real shit. Better to take him now.

“Vlado? He’s just turning onto the A21 now, near Westfield. A28 junction, see it?”

“Yes sir. Is about five miles from my current.”

Khan laughed. “Right, Vlado. And you know the car. The moment you eyeball it, take the first opportunity to turn around and get behind him, okay?”

“Clear, sir.”

The great writer, critic, and teacher John Gardner, in his excellent book The Art of Fiction, reminds us that, “one way or another, all great writing achieves some kind of gusto.”

So don’t be timid. Go hot, go deep, and milk it. All the time.

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and freelance editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing.

Dario’s fiction includes Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic; Black Easter, a supernatural suspense novel which pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island; and Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short science fiction work.

Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Sk√≥pelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. The Fiction Writing Handbook: The Professional Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing, copyediting, and mentoring services to indie authors.

Website | Twitter | Goodreads | Panverse Publishing

About The Fiction Writing Handbook

A Unique Approach to the Craft of Writing Fiction

The Fiction Writing Handbook*
 is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems. Similarly, the importance of both character and narrative voice, as well as tone, cannot be overstated.

Drawing on twenty years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. The Fiction Writing Handbook gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Other topics covered in The Fiction Writing Handbook include external and internal dialog, writers' block, traditional vs. indie publishing, PoV (point of view), creating suspense, and much more.

Whether your interest lies in short stories, novels or screenwriting, The Fiction Writing Handbook shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing novel plotting formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

*Originally published in 2017 under the title, "Drown the Cat"

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo | Panverse


  1. It's always a treat to hear your sound advice, Dario. Be well... cheers Veronica Knox

    1. Thank you, Vero! I hope you're well, it's been a rough year for all of us. Hope you're writing, and keeping your head above water! ♥

  2. My nose is above water, so I'm treading water. Water-wings and waterproof pens are on order. I just finished book three of what I call 'a-middle-grade-but-not' time-slip trilogy - self-published as a Kindle a few days ago... now I'm 50 pages into the prequel. The child ghost who 'lived' in the first three books needs to have her say.

  3. Thanks for this advice. I'll try to put this into practice by upping the intensity of emotions in my writing.

  4. Thank you, Dave! i do hope it works for you :)