Thayer Literary Services ~ Book Editing

Fiction writing - page 2

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In published books you’ll see scene breaks indicated by some graphic element. You must insert a scene break when:


• The narrative point of view moves to a different character from the one in the previous scene

• A significant amount of time passes between one scene and the next

• A different set of characters enters the story

• The characters have moved to a different setting from the previous scene


When a scene ends at the bottom of a page, indicate the scene break by typing three stars with five spaces between them, centered on the page, at the bottom of that page or at the top of the next one.


Scene presentation—You should show your story it, not tell it. To show your story, you need to write dramatic scenes. When you do that, your readers can sit back and watch (the action) and listen (to the dialogue and the other “sound effects”), just as if they were watching a play presented on a stage. That’s how you should think about writing fiction. You are presenting a stage play in novel form.


Scenes with only one character—Scenes that are occupied by only one character are problematic. They lack energy, especially if little action occurs. Without the interaction of other characters, such scenes lack tension because they generate no drama. Lone characters may have to deal with inner conflicts, which is fine, but from the reader’s perspective this kind of tension is not nearly as compelling as interpersonal conflict. Therefore, readers find that such scenes are not as interesting as those with broader action, where other characters are also involved. If the story requires you to have an MC alone, make it as short as you can.

Similes and metaphors—Figurative language in fiction, in my view, adds depth and resonance to the writing and assures me that I have signed aboard for a pleasant cruise with an author who is intelligent and perceptive. I also know, however, that you can have too much of a good thing. So, although I’m not as hard-line as some editors, I caution writers against peppering their prose with similes and metaphors. In the strictest view, you should use a comparison only when: 1.) you think the reader won’t quite get the picture without it (and the visual is very important to your book) and 2.) when you aren’t able to provide an approximate description without it. If you don’t use some restraint with comparisons and they become gratuitous, you’re pushing your luck with readers, who may find them intrusive once you’ve crossed the line.


Story questions list—The answers to these questions will help you to plan your novel or analyze one that you have written.


1. Does the story start with a clear, interesting statement or line of dialogue? Does it make you care? Are you hooked?


2. Does the first paragraph give you the general idea of the whole story?

   — Where we are, who we’re supposed to be interested in and caring about? When the action takes place?


3. Who are the main characters?

   — Who is the protagonist?


4. What’s the chief goal of the protagonist?

   — What does s/he want?

   — Sympathetic or pathetic protagonist?

   — Emotions and decisions understandable?

   — Why does s/he do what s/he does (motivation)?


5. Who is the antagonist?

   — What does s/he want?

   — Is this person powerful enough to challenge the protagonist so that the best and the worst of the protagonist’s character are revealed?


6. Where is the conflict?

   — Who/what stands in the protagonist’s way?

   — Does the protagonist grow and change during the course of the story?


7. Does the action get more interesting?

   — Do things get harder for the protagonist?


8. Who is the love interest?

   — Does the protagonist have some reason for hope?


9. Who is the mirror character? (The mirror character is not the antagonist or the love interest.)


10. What is the theme?

    — What is the story about?


11. What is the premise?

    — What does the writer really believe?


12. What is the catalytic event (also known as the “motivating incident”)?

    — What event forces the main character(s) to do something?


13. Does the action of the story lead to a climax of events?


14. Are the details interesting enough to keep you reading? (Details are required to describe events, develop the setting, and to flesh out characters.)


Verbs with muscle—When you spot a weak verb in your writing like came or went or walked or ran, replace it with a strong, graphic verb. Nouns and verbs are the backbone of our language, so why not use the best verb you can find for the occasion? Using a vanilla verb like walked is okay sometimes (and preferable to the blah came and went), but English has many action verbs to describe human locomotion, all of them more visual and interesting than walk and run. A vivid verb adds energy to your writing, and its imagery can often help you to depict character. Compare: Mrs. Maxwell went out on the front porch. / Mrs. Maxwell shuffled onto the front porch. See "Verbs for Human Movement" list.


Word repetition—Avoid using the same word again and again, particularly in the same sentence or paragraph. Use a good thesaurus to find synonyms. Do the same with repeated phrases.


Wordiness—Always strive for economy by eliminating wordy expressions, which fall into three main categories: redundancy, circumlocution, and tautology. A redundant expression says the same thing twice, as in raised up and swallowed down and followed behind. A circumlocution is a string of words that goes all around the block to express one simple idea. Writers of circumlocutions will say in the event that instead of if or at the present time instead of now. Tautologies are wordy combinations such as each and every, one and the same, any and all, when and if, and separate and distinct.



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Novel title—Ideally, the title should tell potential readers at a glance what your story is generally all about or at least what category of book it is. For instance, a gazillion novels have the word dead in the title, which indicates that the story is probably a thriller or mystery/detective. In recent years novels have had the word bone(s) in the title, which also suggests the nature of the story. The best titles are short ones because then people browsing the bookstore shelves can read it easily from six to eight feet away. Long titles like The Hyperborean Giant Eats Los Angeles don’t work well.


Scene breaks—You must indicate a scene break when one scene ends and another one begins. To do this, just leave a blank, one-line, horizontal space on the page by hitting the “Return” key twice. When I edit a manuscript I indicate places where the writer should insert a scene break with this notation:

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