In the last year, I’ve read and written critiques for a whole lot of stories, many of them through The Masters Review. Whether for our New Voices section, our summer and winter contests, every imaginable genre of fiction, flash, nonfiction, a couple accidental submissions of children’s books or one 300-page collection of poetry, I’ve seen some great stories and quite a few that could still use some work. Here are a few of the places that I’ve found myself most often suggesting revisions.
Many stories take way too long to get going, filling space with non-essential description or action to help us get to know the character or the world before we dive into the meat of the story. As an example: probably a quarter of the stories I review start with some variation of a character’s daily ritual—if Melanie wakes up and does five crunches before she gives up and just eats some Captain Crunch like the rest of us (am I sharing too much with you?) then takes a shower and puts on her makeup, that’s great, but that might not be the most important or interesting thing with which to start a story. Especially not if she then gets in her car and gets stuck in a traffic jam that keeps her from making it to work on-time, which turns out to be the one thing that saves her life when the earthquake brings her building down and she discovers that all of her coworkers are now dead. The Captain Crunch instead of crunches had nothing to do with the car, or with her lateness, or with the earthquake, so why start there?
I’m not saying that kind of starting point can’t work for the right story, but as a general rule of thumb: Every moment you put into a story should have some effect on the events that come after. If they’re simply there for ambiance, that’s not enough of a justification. We don’t have room, and readers don’t have much patience, for narrative throat-clearing. Get us to the stuff that matters, as quickly as possible. The quicker we get there, the quicker we’ll be invested in your pages.
We all start writing a story for some specific reason: Maybe we have an amazing line that won’t leave us alone, or a character appears in our mind that seems full of promise, or we wonder how someone would react if a choice was given to them. Those are all great places to start a piece.
That said, one constant issue I see with early drafts is that the story focuses far too heavily on that one singular element of story that first created the writer’s fascination; it’s built entirely around the concept (“A man who talks to fish”), or around the worldbuilding (“in this world, air is poison, and, and, and”), or the plot (“this happened, then this, then this”), or the main character (constant explanation of the person, and why she is the way she is), or the voice (quirky, or gritty, or sarcastic, observations overriding the actions or character notes).
While there are always going to be individual elements of story that stick out more than others, a story that does nothing but tell me about a person isn’t going to get nearly as far in our submission process as a story that manages to put together a conflict that tells me who that woman is while also showing me her struggle and therefore revealing her mindset and personality and the change that she may or may not undergo as a result of that combination of character and conflict. Even stories that have amazingly fascinating concepts aren’t going to get anywhere if the story is focused only on that one thing: that man talking to fish is cool (because apparently Jason Momoa can make anything cool), but what does that ability do to his understanding of himself and of the world (character), and how does it make him interact differently with the world around him (setting/worldbuilding), and what is he struggling with or trying to accomplish (plot)? When all of those things are utilized together, a story comes so much more fully alive.
The two most essential elements of story are plot and character, and they both stem from the same thing: desire. What a person wants teaches readers who they are as a person in the moments we’re following them, and what they will or won’t do in order to get that thing they want is what propels them into conflict. And within that, there are two levels of desire: the external (action-based) and the internal (thought/emotion-based). Every character possesses both things they want and also things they want to be or believe.
We get a ton of stories that only have one level of desire covered: either a character is trying to accomplish some action but the story doesn’t take time to give her any space to struggle with a conceptual/emotional arc, or else the main character spends the entire time worrying and thinking about their concerns but doesn’t have any action to try to accomplish in the piece. When only one of those is happening, the story feels off-balance and incomplete.
Make sure you know what your character wants, both physically (“I am hungry, so I must get food”) and emotionally/psychologically/internally (“I want to be a good person”). Ideally, the narrative of a story will work to challenge both the external and the internal conflict. Staying with that example I just provided, a character might want food, but be aware that the only place still open is, I don’t know, Taco Bell, which they avoid for ethical reasons such as how they procure their meet or their labor practices. In this incredibly simplistic example, we have a character who has an internal conflict and external conflict which are at odds with each other, and which she has to either make a decision about which is more essential to her or else has to try to find a solution that satisfies both of those desires.
We get a whole lot of stories that start with a character in the future, and then that character thinks back to the past for 90-95 percent of the story’s length. In stories of this type, most or even all of the conflict exists in the past, and the character in the future has nothing to do in the story except think about those moments. The problem with this is that these are moments the character has thought about before, meaning that unless something is changing the way that character thinks (say, new information has come to light so that the past is different than they thought it was; or, maybe you have a character who is a director being accused of assault and he’s looking back on the years he was an actor and realizing the changing power dynamics at play), unless that change is happening in the way that the future character thinks about the past, then we have a completely static character. The point here, to be as clear as I can: the past, in 98 percent of circumstances, is already fixed in itself, and so exists as a way to more deeply understand moments of conflict in a story, which almost always must exist in the moments that have not already happened. Yes, there are exceptions to this, but they are rare.
Obviously backstory is an incredible tool. The opportunity to go back in time and look in on a character, to figure out what has made them into the person they are in future moments of your story, that’s powerful. But when you’re incorporating the past, especially if it’s a significant amount of your plot, think about how those past moments affect the future character, and make sure that the future character has some actionable thing they must do or decide as a result of that information you’ve given the reader.
This is a real pet peeve of mine: a lot of writers forget that the world keeps existing while characters are speaking. If you’ve got two full pages of dialogue without any imagery, or action, or description, or thought, then we’re almost not even in a story anymore. At least throw some dialogue tags in there every now and again so that we see something outside of the quotation marks once in a while.
Think about a film, or a play. Even though the script is heavily dialogue-based, when performed as intended, we have faces to watch, and the actors are making small actions that show us as viewers how they’re reacting to the conversation. A scene that takes place in a café, where the characters have no option but to sit and speak their lines, still has characters fidgeting, and sounds from around their conversation, and all the pop of colors from the seats to the ketchup and mustard on the table. If you’re writing a scene that is pure dialogue, then your readers aren’t getting any of the ambiance of the world, and they aren’t getting anything like full context for the power dynamics that do and should exist in any dialogue—sometimes that’s perfectly fine, if that’s a choice of the story, and most of the time it’s not. Be aware: If you’re writing nothing but dialogue for pages upon pages, the effect for the reader is one of being put into conversational white space, where nothing whatsoever exists but the conversation itself.
The other big common problem that shows up with dialogue, and especially with block texts of dialogue, is that when we don’t use all the other tools in our toolbox (the imagery, action, description, thought, et cetera), we start summarizing all of that stuff in the dialogue itself, which makes the dialogue sound incredibly unnatural.
I saved this for the end, and changed my title strategy, because it’s so incredibly important. The big thing I look for in a publishable story is uniqueness. I want a story that sounds like it could only have been written by its author, with information that convinces me the writer knows their characters far more deeply than I possibly could. Way too often I find myself reading stories that are set in “a town” or in “the country,” as though any two towns are the same or any two subsets of country life are the same. We’ll follow a character that is a man or a woman, as though that on its own is enough to define anyone. They will be some indeterminate age and working an unidentified job. Plenty of these characters don’t even have names, and they seem to have no lives outside of the one singular concern that they and the story have decided is the only thing worth considering in their entire life. In other words, these people, and as a result their conflicts and their worlds, are nothing more than theoretical exercises. They’re not real, not alive on the page. They don’t exist, other than to serve an imaginary conceit.
Give me a character that has something unique about her, that has lived experience and wants to tell me about it. Give me a plot that interacts with who this person is, and that tests her resolve. I want specifics, things I can sink my teeth into and start to make my own personal judgments about these people that the story doesn’t necessarily get to control. Believe me, if you tell me that she prefers Dad’s Root Beer to Barq’s, I am going to have an opinion about that person.
One way I try to enforce this in my own writing: I tell myself my own stories aren’t complete if they doen’t have at least one word that is unique to them (whether that’s a place or a character name or a curse word or a lover’s pet name). As with most writing rules, it’s impossible to hold to that, but I’d highly suggest you run through an edit of your story with that in mind. Look for opportunities to incorporate unique place names (made-up or real) and brands or characters or landmarks that set the reader in a place that could only be your place. Look for language that you can spruce up, that you can make more uniquely your individual voice and your or your story’s place and time.
The most challenging aspect of writing is that we don’t have control of every part of the reader’s experience with our story—there’s no music playing in the background to set a mood, there are no actors’ portrayals to convey how deeply that massive decision is weighing on your narrator. It’s all on the words, one after the other, to convey everything that you as writer want to get across. Remember that the reader comes to a story the same way the writer does: with a blank page. They don’t know a single thing about the story until they’ve read that first sentence, and then from there they only know what that sentence tells them, and the next. If you don’t describe the world, then they won’t have any clue what that world looks like, and the same is true for any other piece of storytelling.
Hopefully what you’re seeing from this list is that much of your job as writer is to be thinking about every element that you could potentially put down with your next assemblage of sentences, and to then make an informed decision about which will most effectively present your vision of the story you want to tell. But getting it completely right is pretty much an impossible goal, and that’s the beauty of writing. You will never be able to perfectly express that thing you’re trying to, because the reader brings just as much to the story as the writer does. That exchange between artist and reader, the conversation between the two speakers, is a balance that means every story is different to every reader. All we’re doing, in considering these issues I’ve brought up, is doing our best to make that conversation as successful as it can be.