If your story isn’t an improvised performance, it’s probably time for an outside perspective. Sometimes we need another person to show us where we’re weak or convince us to kill our darlings. So I’ve supplied a few probing questions to ask your beta readers or reviewers.
1. Cut the Excess
If your story’s great, then you’ve cut out all the boring scenes where people talk about nothing but the weather. You’ve extracted useless characters that don’t drive the main storyline, and you’ve removed plotlines that wandered off and never found their way home.
Now do it some more.
Every piece of your story should support the whole in multiple ways. A scene should raise the tension on the main plotline, give insight into your characters, strengthen the theme, describe the world, and set up for later events. Somewhere in your story there are still elements that are freeloading off of the rest rather than doing their part.
It may be easier to trim in reverse. Pick only the most important parts of your work. Ask yourself: would the story work if I removed everything else? If the answer is no, add the next most important parts in, and ask again. At some point you may realize what’s left out should stay out.
Example of Tightening
Jadyn spent all day at his grandmother’s house eating her delicious tacos. When it got dark his dad called, and Jadyn promised to come right home. He was passing the pocket park when he saw something glowing in the trees. He went to look and found an injured unicorn. The unicorn said it came from the great kingdom of Eldacor, where the wisest of the magi ruled. It told him that to recover from its injury, it needed some sage. He promised to get it some.
He got home and found sage in the kitchen. He told his dad all about the unicorn from the great kingdom of Eldacor ruled by wise magi, but his dad thought Jadyn was playing make believe. He wouldn’t let Jadyn go back to the park. Jadyn put his pajamas on and brushed his teeth for bed.
Then Jadyn came up with an idea. He told his dad that he had left his calculator in the park. He said he needed it for the math project he and his friend Tim were working on, and that’s why he really wanted to go back to the park. His dad agreed to go look for it. Just before his dad left, Jadyn slipped a bag of sage in his jacket pocket.
Jadyn was walking home one night when he saw something glowing in the trees of the pocket park. He went to look and found an injured unicorn. The unicorn told him that to recover from its injury, it needed some sage. He promised to get it some.
He got home and found sage in the kitchen, but his dad wouldn’t let him go back to the park. Jadyn told him about the unicorn, but his dad thought he was just playing make believe and told Jadyn to go to bed.
Then Jadyn came up with an idea. He told his dad he had left a calculator he needed for school in the park, and that’s why he wanted to go back there. His dad agreed to go look for it. Just before his dad left, Jadyn slipped a bag of sage in his jacket pocket.
Ask your audience:
- Did the story feel like it was too fast, too slow, or just right?
- Which parts felt the slowest? Did you enjoy them or were you bored?
2. Strengthen the Core
Tell me in one sentence: what is your story about?
Sure, your plot is probably complex. But the heart of your story should be something strong, simple, and compelling. Is it one woman’s quest for forgiveness? Is it a kingdom’s struggle to unite against a stronger foe? If you’ve created a strong structure, you should already know.
Now go through your story and make sure a penguin wandering through a snowstorm in the dead of night wearing a blindfold couldn’t miss it. You don’t need to speak it outright, though you can have a character rephrase it in a way that sounds natural. What’s important is that everything in the story revolves around this one thing. Timing is also critical: your core should both open your story and close it. It should be the linchpin in your climax. If it’s only kinda sorta present, make it unmistakably present.
Example of Strengthening
Jadyn didn’t like his life. But one day he found an injured unicorn in a pocket park, and everything changed. He started spending his time helping her. He brought her sage to eat, bandaged her wounds, and protected her from the evil minions of Eldrin.
Finally the unicorn was whole. She told Jadyn she had to go back to fight the evil minions, and he decided to go with her. During their travels she taught him to fight by focusing his thoughts into a positive force. He wasn’t any good.
He came to the battle, but he was useless until the bad guys were about to win. At that moment he realized it was all about perspective. His positive thoughts became so strong they turned the tide.
His job done, Jadyn went back to the life he’d left behind.
Jadyn hated how boring his life was. He wished something – anything – would make it more exciting. Then he found an injured unicorn in a pocket park. She warned him the evil minions of Eldrin could be back at any moment, and they might hurt anyone nearby. Disregarding the risk, he sheltered her from Eldrin.
Once she was healed, the unicorn told Jadyn she had to go to battle against the evil minions. He begged her to take him with, saying his life hadn’t been dull since she arrived. She tried to teach him to fight with positive thoughts, but he was terrible.
He came to the battle anyway, but he could only watch as tragedy befell the unicorns. They becamed discouraged and therefore even weaker, in a spiral that was horrible to witness. He finally realized how wonderful his life had been. He’d chosen to hate it instead of focusing on good things, but no longer. Jadyn chose positive thoughts, and they turned the tide of battle.
As soon as it was over, he went gratefully back to his old life.
Ask your audience:
- What is my story about?
- What might a happy or tragic ending for this story be?
3. Add Foreshadowing
It’s common for storytellers to stumble into a deus ex machina – a solution to a problem that feels cheap because it had no foreshadowing. But when was the last time you read a story with too much foreshadowing? The better your setup is, the more satisfying your ending will be. Strong foreshadowing leaves your audience with a positive impression once your tale closes.
Create a list of all the things your audience should understand before they get to key points in your story. Perhaps they need to know a character well, or they won’t understand the character’s choice at the climax. Maybe a reveal won’t click into place unless they know specific details about your world. Once you have your list, work on bringing these details out even further.
Your story probably evolved as you wrote it; make sure your beginning and middle are still compatible with your end. If you have a surprising twist, you should also double check that your red herrings feel convincing but don’t contradict the rest of your story.
Example of Foreshadowing
One day Jadyn found an injured unicorn in his neighborhood pocket park. He tried to care for it the best he could, but as the days passed it continued to grow weaker.
Realizing that unicorns needed lots of positive attention, Jadyn organized a field trip with a local elementary school, bringing lots of children to come see the unicorn.
As soon as the children began to pet it, it was well again. It thanked everyone and returned home to the daydreams where it lived.
Jadyn witnessed the kids fighting at recess one day. He scolded them and sent them back inside. Soon after, an injured unicorn appeared in the play area. He brought it home and tried to care for it the best he could, but as the days passed it continued to grow weaker. Its eyes were filled with a growing sadness.
At preschool, the children had been upset ever since the fight in the playground. Jadyn realized that maybe they and the unicorn could cheer each other up. He organized a field trip to visit the injured creature.
As soon as the children began to pet it, the creature was well again. It thanked everyone and returned to the children’s daydreams where it lived.
Ask your audience:
- Did the end make sense?
- Did it feel like you uncovered something that was there all along?
4. Increase Impact
The best stories have an effect on their audience, whether that effect is crying at a funeral, laughing at jokes, or just sympathizing with the protagonist. Often, small changes can make the difference between a scene that resonates and one that doesn’t. Make sure you’re describing evocative details rather than telling your audience how to feel. You may want to insert more character thoughts or commentary to ensure your audience understands your hero’s emotions.
You can also restructure small or large events to raise the emotional stakes. Brainstorm changes that would make your plot points more meaningful. Let’s say your hero must join a coven to fight evil. Her choice becomes more significant if she has deep hatred of this group. If your protagonist makes a discovery, it will be more meaningful if it has personal ramifications. Perhaps he finds the source of a great problem, and it’s him.
When in doubt, add more problems, make problems worse, and show the audience why those problems matter.
Example of Intensifying
Jadyn woke up to find an injured unicorn knocking at his window. She told him that the great war against the gargoyles had begun, and they desperately needed his help. Without it, the kingdom of Eldacor would fall.
Jadyn wanted to assist them, but he didn’t know how to fight. He spent the next several weeks learning how to use his magical gifts from the unicorn. Finally she cut their lessons short, saying they couldn’t wait any longer.
When they arrived in Eldacor’s capital, they found the great city was overrun by the enemy. But the magical scepter Jadyn needed to wield was still locked in the palace vault. Gathering his courage, Jadyn snuck into the city that night and recovered the scepter. With the scepter, he freed the city and ended the war.
Jadyn dreamed every night of his homeland, only to wake and discover he was still in the lonely, mortal realm. Then one morning an injured unicorn knocked at his window. She told him that the great war against the gargoyles had begun, and they desperately needed his help. Without it, his home of Eldacor would fall.
Jadyn wanted to assist Eldacor, but the gods had banished him to the mortal realm. If he defied them by going back, they would kill him. But his homeland wouldn’t be in danger if he hadn’t angered the gods all those years ago. He had to help.
When they arrived in Eldacor’s capital, they found the city was burning. The magical scepter Jadyn needed was still locked in the palace, now under control of the gargoyles. As he couldn’t defeat the gargoyles without it, he surrendered to them instead. The gargoyle empress agreed to give him the scepter, but only if he served her. He gave her his oath. Then he merely lit the scepter, waiting for the gods to see it and unleash their wrath.
Ask your audience:
- Did you care about the story’s outcome?
- Did unfortunate twists hit you in the gut?
- Did you enjoy the happy moments?
5. Create Depth
Details are what really brings a story to life. The right details can permeate the atmosphere without derailing the business at hand. They can provide information without making the audience sit through a lecture, invoke curiosity without framing rhetorical questions, and add that touch of uniqueness that makes a world come alive.
But filling your story with the right details is difficult unless you understand your world and characters in more depth than the plot requires. Once you know the vegetation of your kingdom won’t support horses, you might put your heroes on camels instead. If you understand your future society has run out of fossil fuels, you’ll know that luxury items are the ones made from plastic. After you’ve decided a character has eczema, you’ll make them quietly shun soaps in favor of moisturizers.
It’s this reverberation from background facts to subtle implications that creates depth. You don’t need to insert paragraphs describing the resources available to your society, and you shouldn’t. Instead, research, brainstorm, or imagine your story elements more thoroughly, then check your work for details that should be changed to fit.
Example of Detailing
Jadyn heard several taps on the window and turned around. A unicorn stretched on the grass outside. Blood dripped down her haunches and soaked into her blue mane.
“Please,” she said. “The war has just begun, and we’re already lost without you.”
Jadyn heard several taps on the window and turned around. A unicorn wielding the crest of Eldacor stretched on the grass outside, her casual posture clashing with the reverent bow of her head. He wondered if she couldn’t stand; blood dripped down her haunches and soaked into her blue mane. What was a royal outrider doing here?
“Please, old one,” she said. “The war has just begun, and the legion is lost without you.”
Ask your audience:
- Does it feel like there is more to the setting and characters than what you witnessed in the story?
- Are their any aspects of the story that you’d like to know more about?
If you’ve come this far, congratulations! Your story is great. Go make it a masterpiece.
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