Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Amping Up Your Story

One of the hardest things I’ve had to accept about writing is that just because you have a great idea for a story worked out in your head doesn't mean you’re anywhere close to writing a book. Writing a book is more than taking the story and slapping it onto paper. It’s about organizing that story and telling it in such a way as to maximize the reader’s enjoyment.

For one thing, the story that’s been bouncing around in your head for months (years?) is frighteningly incomplete, although you may not realize this until you begin typing it onto the computer. I’m a research chemist during the day and the companies I’ve worked for have all required I write reports and give presentations on that research. Although I find these activities annoying at times, I understand (and agree with) their purpose. They force me to consolidate my thoughts into a coherent picture, and often reveal logic flaws I’ve missed.

The same goes for fiction. How many times have you sat down and written out a scene you were sure you had all worked out in your head, only to stumble across numerous logic holes and loose ends? Character actions that made sense while they floated around inside your brain no longer seem plausible on paper, and you realize your scene is going to need one heck of a rewrite.

But fixing plot holes is only the beginning. To make the book the best it can be, you have to convey the story in the most entertaining way possible in order to make it stand out among all the other books out there. Are you writing an epic fantasy where some lowly peasant with a special ability rises up and claims the throne? If you just tell the reader what happened in a competent and straightforward manner, how will it be any different from the other hundred versions of the same story released just last week?

In other words, you have to take your perfectly logical story and amp it up a level or two. It’s not about writing a scene that moves the story forward, it’s about writing a scene in the most entertaining way possible. I fret about this all the time. Are my characters entertaining enough? How can I turn them into unforgettable characters? How can I change the setting to make the scene more interesting? How can I rearrange the order in which things are revealed to maximize their effect on the reader?

These are the habits that distinguish so-so writers from the good ones, or the good writers from the great ones. Because it’s not enough to tell a good story, it’s the way you tell it that’s most important.

So what tricks do you use to amp up your scenes beyond the ordinary?


  1. I'm struggling with that right now - still trying to flesh out the full story around my original idea. As for amping it up, I'm going to go back and add some subtle subplots. If that doesn't work, I'll toss in the kitchen sink and see what happens.

  2. It's not easy. I just apply the rules to the details, and hope it improves the big picture. Final read-through is the test (and CPs and betas, of course). It either feels right or it doesn't. If not, I try to pinpoint the cause and come up with a fix.

    Great post as usual, Ken. :)

  3. Yep. Excellent points here. I went to a writing workshop recently about imagination in fiction - and about how the failure in many books is a failure of imagination. That sounds exactly like what you're talking about here. I don't always have a good solution, but with many scenes, I try to ask myself: is this told as urgently as it can be? Is there way to raise the stakes, or escalate the danger/risk/fear/etc? What could I add to this that would be unexpected?

  4. At the end of every roughed out chapter I ask: how can I make this more exciting. Sometimes it presents itself while writing the rough. Sometimes I have to think on it. Workouts and showers seem to help. Someone I have to talk to someone to work it out.

  5. I like to examine character motivations in fine detail. I think most problems boil down to the characters themselves, and if their motives can be tweaked or strengthened, the entire book will benefit from it.

    I love Mary's approach though.

  6. No tricks. Usually, my crit partners and beta readers help me amp down my wild imagination and amp up the tension. But right now, I'm concentrating on html. I'd like to amp up my brainpower for that. What was I thinking, trying to remodel our house and my Wordpress blog at once? I was thinking one would take my mind off the other. Reading your chapter will probably work better, and I can help you amp up whatever needs it while I'm at it. But I have to lay out some tile first and move belongings from room to room again. Sigh.

  7. As a pantser, I've had to revives probably more than I would've if I'd just plotted things out to begin with. In fact, my story changed so many times, it sent me into a panic attack.

    But I just keep asking "why?" Why would he do that? Why limit it to just this event? Why make it that easy?

    Great post with a lot to think about.

  8. When I ask myself these questions, first I ask myself how I feel about any scene or character in an objective, organic way. I can't figure out what other people might think--I just have to figure out what I think.

    The next thing I do is discover what is falling flat according to me. As long as I can be honest about it, I find that scene or character and then literally meditate on what to do about making it better. I've learned to see images in my mind and interpret them like how one might interpret their dreams. It works really well for me.

    Imaginative, creative approaches to telling your story is probably the only way to bring life to it in a way no one else can. I just let my mind talk to me in the weird way it knows how to. People do all sorts of things to be open to that part of their minds that call upon creativity, so finding what works for you is key.