Monday, July 31, 2023

Are You Missing These Opportunities to Write a Better Story?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Transform your story by mining its hidden gems.

One of the many reasons I adore my critique groups is that they push me to tell better stories. When I slack off, they call me on it. When I miss something, they point it out. When I’m not sure what works and throw all kinds of gunk into a scene, they tell me what worked and what needs to go.

After a while, their words started echoing in my head even when we weren’t meeting. When I slack off, miss something, or have too much gunk, and I hear what I know they’re going to say when they read those pages.

Which makes me change it.

Granted, I don’t catch everything, and my changes aren’t always the right changes, but it’s made me much more aware of what I’m doing when I’m drafting a novel. I’m much better now at spotting the gems hidden in the rough words and turning them into diamonds (or at least cubic zirconia).

I guarantee you’re not taking advantage of all the hidden gems in your story.

I know, that sounds arrogant, but I don’t mean it that way. Missing things in a early draft is part of writing. There are so many moving parts and details to keep track of when writing a novel, that it’s impossible to remember them all.

We get scope locked on what we’re trying to accomplish in a scene, so when our subconscious tosses in gems, we don’t realize how fantastic they are. We’re too focused on our original idea or plan. Sometimes we spot these opportunities on the next draft, or during revisions, but often, it takes another pair of eyes to see it.

While this article isn’t about crit groups, they are handy to have for precisely this reason.

Here are three mistakes you might be making in your writing:

1. You’re not following up on something cool you did because “it didn’t really matter.”

During an early draft of my middle grade fantasy, I described a very cool storm brewing on the horizon. It was just world building, showing the magical nature of the setting and adding a little doom and gloom to foreshadow the upcoming problem. I never intended it to be more than that.

Until one of my critique partners said how intrigued she was by it, and how much she was looking forward to seeing what happened when that storm hit.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to do with that feedback, because I knew the storm wasn’t anything more than backdrop. But clearly I had hooked her with this situation and created the reader anticipation every writer wants for their story.

I had an opportunity—take advantage of this unexpected hook or disappoint my reader.

Easy choice to make.

Sure, it took extra effort to rethink the storm and what it meant for my character and my plot, but it turned out to be a critical element to the story and major motivational factor for my protagonist. It changed the book for the better.

Odds are good you have moments like this in your story.

Maybe you crafted a fascinating bit of world building like I did that could mean more than you realize. Maybe there’s a throwaway character who is a star waiting to shine. You might have a mind-bending twist if a character said yes instead of no (or vice versa).
  • What are the little moments you really like?
  • Where is there inherent conflict that isn’t being used?
  • What characters have more depth than they’ve revealed?
  • What are the moments that your crit partners or beta readers loved?
Look at your story with a critical eye and hunt for the moments that could be so much more if you spent a little more time or thought on them.

(Here’s more with How to Tell if That Throwaway Character Is Really a Star)

2. You dropped the ball on a throwaway line.

I caught one of these just yesterday (which inspired this article). I was editing a scene in my adult science fiction novel where my protagonist is going undercover into a dangerous situation. He has a thought that ends with “and I’d prefer not to run into Ms. Otwell.”

Immediately, I mentally heard my crit partners both cry out, “Now he has to!”

This was a double-bonus realization, because the day before during our crit group, both partners made comments that essentially meant, “Do more with Ms. Otwell, she’s cool, and we like her, and we think she’s up to something.” (Which fell under mistake #1)

My throwaway line was there as a reminder of what was at risk—he could be identified and his cover blown. But now, I considered what would happen if he did come face to face with Ms. Otwell, and what I could do to deepen her character and incorporate her more into the story. It won’t take much work at all to increase her role, and it’s going to add a wonderful and nuanced layer to the book.

Essentially, this is the old Chekhov's Gun idea, where if you show a gun on the mantle in the first chapter, that gun had better be used at some point in the story.

But I think it goes deeper than that.

When you suggest or outright state something like I did, it triggers a “What if that happened?” question for the reader. Sometimes it’s a subconscious thought that creates a little curiosity and anticipation, other times it’s a direct thought that hooks and becomes a question the reader wants an answer to.

Any time a character declares they’ll “Never do X” or “Always does Y,” is a fantastic opportunity to throw them into a situation where they have to do X or can’t do Y. It’s a natural way to create conflict and force the character to make a difficult decision.

You surely have declarations or lines you can use to create conflict or deepen the story.

They’re probably very similar to what I’d written, too. Your character likely:
  • Swore they’d never do something
  • Declared they always do something
  • Worried that something would or would not happen
  • Hoped a situation wouldn’t turn out a certain way
Every one of these types of lines is an opportunity to cause further trouble in your protagonist’s life. Even better, since these types of statement trigger that reader anticipation response, you’ll also build tension and create hooks. 

Following through on those hooks means readers will pay more attention and look for other clues that might lead somewhere, so you create more uncertainty and unpredictability in your scenes.

And really, who doesn’t want more hooks to keep readers engaged?

(Here’s more with The Perils of Not Knowing What Happens Next in Your Story)

3. You wrote yourself into a corner and didn’t run with it.

I’ll admit, I’m one of those writers who loves writing myself into a corner. It’s fun to set up an impossible and difficult situation and have to find a way to resolve it.

I have a scene in my adult SF where my protagonist is exploring the ruins of a place he once escaped from, and finds a tunnel leading into darkness. The chapter ends with “I entered the tunnel.”

This entire chapter (two actually), was added during my revision when I decided a smaller subplot was really the core plot of the book, so I had no idea what was in that tunnel. I had no idea there even was a tunnel until I had to figure out how to get my protagonist out without using the way he came in. I was writing myself into corners all over this part of the book.

Originally, I figured he'd make it out and have some small frights or something, but it was just a means to get him out of the location and back home to resume the murder mystery plot of the novel (it’s a detective story). Alas, I was making mistake #1 again. 

And as before, my crit partners were all excited and anticipating what would be in that tunnel and what my protagonist was going to have to face. I knew I had to do more than I'd planned, and I knew it had to be amazing, because this was the midpoint of the novel. I’d already set up and revealed a lot of shocking things that chapter, and whatever was in that tunnel had to be the cherry on top.

Yeah. No pressure.

Not gonna lie—it took me a long time to figure it out, and required some brainstorming with other writer friends to do it. But now I know, it is indeed awesome and horrible and gut-wrenching <rubs hands in glee>, and I can’t wait to write it and for my crit partners read it.

Taking the easy way out usually leads to a lackluster plot, because there are few surprises.

But writing yourself into a corner forces you to dig deep to find unusual solutions and unexpected avenues to resolve it, which leads to a plot your readers won't see coming. You often have to think outside the box and get creative in ways that aren’t obvious, frequently drawing on what you’ve already established in the story. And that makes the story feel tighter and deeper. Ask:
  • Are there any unresolved subplots you could tie in?
  • Is there a minor character or world building element that could play a larger role?
  • Is there anything in the character’s backstory that would help?
  • Can you draw from previous events or use prior details in the solution?
  • Are there earlier decisions that could have an effect?
Whenever you’re tempted to write through a scene “just to get through it,” take a moment and consider what you could do to make that scene more intense, exciting, or intriguing—even if you have no idea where it might lead. 

(Here’s more with Put Baby in the Corner: Write Yourself Into a Corner)

Early drafts are full of ideas and possibilities, and we don’t always take advantage of them until we see how the entire story plays out. The creative mind excels at finding connections and dropping hints as we write, but isn’t so good at letting us know they're there. Sometimes it takes a few passes, or another writer, to spot those opportunities.

Unlock the potential of your story by exploring its hidden gems.

Don’t be afraid to explore an idea or chase it down a story path that changes how you thought your plot was going to go. While you don’t want to do things that utterly change the book (unless you truly feel that’s the best thing to do for that story), most plots can easily survive a little tweaking and shuffling.

Look for those moments that can take your story from good to great.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine a scene for overlooked gems that could add depth and resonance to your story. Brainstorm options for each one and consider how they’d improve the story if you developed them.

How often do you find missed opportunities in your early drafts?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I'm glad to hear about you new book :)

    1. Thanks! Hopefully it'll be out next year sometime.

  2. all I can say is, sure would be fun to be your crit partner

    1. Aw, thanks! We do have a good time at our sessions.