Thursday, November 02, 2023

Turning Good Writing into Great Writing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The first words you write aren’t always the right words to use.

Tuesday, I spent at least a half hour writing one line—and it wasn’t an opening line. I was working on a new scene for my science fiction detective novel, and it’s an emotion-packed scene right after the Dark Moment that tacks onto the All Is Lost Moment. It’s one those “this is where the protagonist reveals secrets they’d been keeping from someone important in their life, and it goes badly” situations.

I reached the end of the scene and had my upset character storm off, and then dropped the last line of the chapter.

I knew the final line was the right way to end, but it just felt meh.

I also knew the action lines leading up to it were the right ones, but they also felt meh.
I thought about changing how the scene ended, but my writer’s instinct was telling me this was the right ending, and basically the right words, even if they could be stronger. That wasn’t the problem.

The problem was what needed to go in-between those lines.

Some aspects of “great writing” are about that gut feeling you get when you know something “needs to go there” but aren’t sure what it is.

I knew the protagonist’s emotional state was critical to this scene and would make that end line land with the punch it needed. I couldn’t simply end with stage direction and then a thought—it had to have that emotional component to make it work.

Luckily, one of my critique partners was across the table from me (she helps me with Halloween and the trick or treaters), and we discussed it, hashing out the scene and the characters and how they felt about the whole situation. Eventually, we pinpointed the right emotion and I added the reaction I knew in my bones needed to be there. After a few tweaks, I got it. (cue trumpets and confetti).

We’re talking about 50 words here—but those 50 words were important to the emotional resonance of the whole scene. They were worth spending the time to get them right.

As writers, we sometime agonize over small details in our writing. There are times when that’s a bad thing, and we’re focusing on details that really don’t matter, or don’t matter during that draft—such as polishing the text if we’re not sure the plot is working.

But other times, the details do matter and we know it, even if we don’t know we know it. We just know we have to keep fiddling until that “I’ve gotta fix this” goes away.

(Here’s more with Killer Instincts: Trusting Your Writer's Compass)

Let’s take a peek at the lines that gave me pause and analyze what I did and why so you get a better sense of how to spot opportunities like this in your own writing.

Oh! One thing to keep in mind… These lines won’t have the same impact on you as they will on a reader of the entire novel since you won’t have the whole story that built up to them. There’s a lot of subtext and backstory working here that isn’t visible without the character backgrounds.

Another important detail—this isn’t a romantic relationship, but a business partnership/friendship with deep roots. Ellie is the apprentice to my private investigator protagonist, Chip, and they have a big brother/little sister dynamic. The theme of family is strong in this book, and this scene dovetails onto other scenes that explore the concept of family.

(Here’s more with Three Tips for Creating Evocative Prose)

Okay, let’s dig in.

The First Draft: There, but Not Yet Right

This is the original text, right from my brain to the page. For context, Chip has just revealed a huge secret to Ellie, and she’s rightfully pissed about it. She tells him off and storms out of the conference room and out the front door of the PI agency.
She stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind her. Another slam echoed four seconds later.

And she’d left her food behind.
Let’s be honest—this isn’t great, or even good. It lacks punch and doesn’t end with the hook I’d wanted. I got the action in and described what happens, but the importance of the left-behind food just kinda sits there. But it’s important.

Ellie leaving food is a Big Deal for the story that works with her history. She was a runaway and a street kid. It’s also something Chip would notice and react to, since he’s been noticing her food all book (her always snacking is a character quirk). I knew he—and readers—would recognize the subtext her leaving food behind represented.

Now, I could have added a reaction line after the food line, such as:
And she’d left her food behind.

Ellie never abandoned food unless something was really, really, wrong.
But this feels wrong to me. It explains the reaction after the fact, which would lessen the impact of the act and kill all the nuance. I didn’t want to bash readers over the head with it.

My gut kept telling me that the chapter needed to end with the food line. It was the symbol of just how upset Ellie was about what she’d just learned, and I had to walk that fine line between giving enough information and not stating it outright to achieve the effect I wanted.

(Here’s more with Do You Get My Meaning? Providing Emotional Clarity in Your Writing)

The Next Draft: Getting Better, but Still Missing Pieces

That’s when the discussion with my critique partner came in. We went back and forth for a good ten minutes, discussing how Chip would feel and what this meant to Ellie. This was when the “the problem is in between those lines” was hashed out.

I ended up with:
She stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind her. Another slam echoed four seconds later.

Colors drained from the room, blurring the familiar to meaningless shapes. But Ellie’s face as she’d fled was sharp and clear.

She’d left her food behind.
This gets in the emotion, but it’s not strong and it doesn’t transition very well to the food line. They’re disconnected sentences without any sense of narrative flow, and with a chapter ender, that flow is critical to keeping readers hooked.

It also leaves too much off the page—is the emotional reaction from Ellie storming out of the room, her face, or from Chip noticing the food was still there? You get the gist it’s all connected, but it’s not clear, so the text just sits there.

This still needed more work, but I was getting closer.

(Here’s more with Get What's in Your Head onto the Page)

The Final Pass: Landing the Last Line

At this point I knew the issues was in A) figuring out the right emotional reaction and B) how that reaction transitioned into the food line.

After several more edits, I ended with:
She stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind her. Another slam echoed four seconds later.

Colors drained from the room, blurring the familiar to unrecognizable shapes. But Ellie’s expression as she’d fled remained sharp and clear. Hurt. Angry. Disappointed in me.

So much so, she didn’t even take her food.
This worked for me and my critique partner, and hit the emotional note I was going for. It shows Chip’s emotional reaction, adds his take on Ellie’s feelings, then goes on to what that means for him, and transitions smoothly into why the food matters.

She was so upset at him she’d left behind something she’d never leave behind. The subtext is, if she could do that to the food, could she do that to him? His revelation hurt her so much it changed a core aspect of who she was. That’s huge. And he sees that. He goes into that more next chapter, which is where it needs to be.

I also changed the word ““meaningless” to “unrecognizable,” because it carried a stronger emotional ding and echoed how he felt. Ellie’s behavior was unrecognizable to him, and she was behaving so out of character. Same with changing “was sharp and clear” to “remained sharp and clear,” further suggesting the “left behind” fear, and making it clearer that his thought refers to what he’d seen as she left, not what he’s actually seeing at that moment. Just a little clarity tweak.

I’m happy with this, and it does what I wanted it to. I’m looking forward to seeing what my other critique partners think when they read it next week.

(Here’s more with Choosing the Right Words for the Scene: Subtle Changes Can Make a Difference)

The difference between good writing and great writing is time. Don’t be afraid to take the time you need to get the words the way you want them.

Not every line is going to take an hour to write, but sometimes you’ll stumble across a piece that takes more work than usual. It’s tempting to just write something that's “good enough” and gets you through it, but that’s a disservice to you and your book.

These lines and moments are opportunities to elevate your writing and your story. The more you take advantage of them, the better your chances of crafting a novel readers go crazy over.

Trust your gut when it tells you the words could be better. Feel free to take the time to get the line or paragraph right, even if it takes you all afternoon. You obviously don’t have to, but if you think more time will fix a problem your subconscious is nagging at you about, do it.

It might just be the line that readers remember for years to come.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Pick a line or section you know could be better if you spent extra time on it and revise so it shines.

Have you ever spent a lot of time writing and rewriting a few lines? What was the result? Were you happy to take the time or was it a waste of a day?

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

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. Thank you for sharing this, Janice, this is a very timely post for me as I wade through revisions on my novel. I've been hung up on one scene for weeks, trying to figure out how to beef up a supporting character's backstory and thus set up her deeper connection to the plot arc *without* overshadowing the scene's major emotional significance between my two main characters. It's been slow going to hit all of the beats just so, without any of them getting lost, and has left me frequently wondering if I'm wasting my time. So a reminder that I'm not the only one that goes through this struggle means a lot. Thanks again!

  2. Janice Hardy11/09/2023 8:35 AM

    Thanks! You're not alone for sure. Everyone in my crits groups have also faced this, and we all will again. That sounds like a tough chapter to write, and odds are it'll take multiple passes to find the right balance. So hang in there! You'll get it eventually :)