As an editor, I often have the chance to review fiction—for both traditionally and indie published authors—and throughout the years I have found one question that many people come back to me with that I love answering.
What could I have done to make this a 5 star story for you?
To me, this is one of the most important questions an author can ask an editor, a beta reader, a reviewer, or even a fan. It shows care for their work and care for their audience. For an author to actively care about how they can continue to grow and develop in their craft and produce great content for their audience is my definition of success in the writing world.
This said, I want to spend my time in this article touching on a few things that you can do to strengthen your work, set it apart from its contemporaries, and build yourself a more successful writing career with higher ratings and more positive reviews.
Please note that this will not be entirely comprehensive—and you are more than welcome to contact me if you have questions!—and that the topics mentioned here will be more editorial. These topics will be for advanced work, nearly ready for publication, and for authors who truly care about making their story the best that it can be. At the end of each section will be a group of three books that I believe serve as strong examples of writing this aspect of craft well.
I’m not here to talk about character development. Hopefully, if you’ve reached the publication stage with your writing or the final stages of editing, you’ve already established that you need to know every little thing about your characters in order to portray them as real and memorable people.
What I am here to talk about it character presentation. How are you introducing your characters? What is their mark on the world? What will we remember about them?
Everyone says that the opening scenes are the most important in your book. In a way, that’s true. But I would remind you that every character introduction and interaction needs to be just as memorable as those opening lines.
I always ask authors that I’m working with to describe their characters to me, not as archetypes, but using that character’s mark on the world. What do I mean by mark on the world? I mean, what will I remember about them, what is the first thing I notice about them upon my initial meeting with them.
To offer an example, how do we remember Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice? What is the first thing Elizabeth notices about him? He’s tall, dark, somber, sharp featured—and equally as sharp with his words. What do we remember Mr. Darcy for? He’s the man who claimed Elizabeth was not handsome enough to tempt him, then spent the remainder of the book trying to make up for it.
There are many other things we remember him for, yes, but those are our initial ones. That is the mark that Mr. Darcy leaves on our world, the rest of the book is his character arc in changing that mark from a negative one to a positive one.
This is what you need to build up with your characters. Don’t merely allow us to meet them. Give us strong moments and descriptions where we realize who this character is, what has built them, and why we should remember them.
Without Austen’s keen descriptions and interactions for Darcy, he would not be memorable. And he would reappear later in the story not as “Mr Darcy” in our minds, but as the dark haired fellow who refused to dance.
Keep in mind that your descriptions, your interactions, your tiny details that feed us specific ways of seeing a character are what can make or break them for the reader. It can make them real, or it can leave the reader seeing your characters as flat and unrealistic.
Suggested Reference Books:
Redwall – Brian Jaques
Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller
Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Bad dialogue is my pet peeve. In fact, I could probably write an entire article strictly on faulty dialogue. There are some days, when I’m writing, that I spend far too much time researching and editing single lines of dialogue to make sure they accurately represent the story, time period, and characters.
Conversely, I find that many authors’ books contain dialogue that feels too modern for their genre or too rambling or stilted for their characters. Many times, it is merely words on the page and serves no purpose to forward the plot or character development. And that is something which I hate.
To keep this short, I will give you a brisk list of things to keep in mind when writing dialogue.
- Be concise. Don’t use ten words where one good one will do.
- Be precise. Say what you mean, mean what you say. Characters may be evasive, but use their emotion and the specific word choices they make to direct the course of the conflict.
- Be accurate. Stay true to your character’s original voice. Make sure you’re using words that match their intelligence level, education, background, and personality.
- Be direct. Use your dialogue to move the plot along and reveal aspects of your characters. No word should be left untried. Every line should have a direct purpose in forwarding your story.
- Be thoughtful. While poetic lines or dialogue images can be amazing, place them thoughtfully in your narrative. Don’t wear out the strength of these devices.
Deathless – Catherynne Valente
Radiance – Catherynne Valente
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Saenz
Writing strong description is something that can cause great difficulty to certain authors. Sometimes, they get so wrapped up in what is being said or happening, that their descriptions are either lackluster or non-existent.
Chekov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” And so, I will reiterate this. Creating living descriptions isn’t about stringing together colors and sizes and shapes. Great description comes from creating vivid, distinct, emotional pictures in your writing.
During On Writing 2020, I wrote an article entitled “Picturesque: Writing Great Images.” This article breaks down the process of writing evocative images using examples from Jeffrey Overstreet’s book, Auralia’s Colors. In this article, I broke down several of Overstreet’s descriptions and analyzed them. Should description be something you want to strengthen and intensify in your writing, take a look at the link below. Please note, that this is not basic description skills but rather a look at editing and taking apart strong descriptions to further solidify them.
Auralia’s Colors – Jeffrey Overstreet
Palimpsest – Catherynne Valente
Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman
Atmosphere and world building are areas where many people struggle. And honestly, that’s understandable. These concepts can be difficult for an author to pin point how another author is writing them well, much less how to imitate that strength in their own writing.
I believe that is because atmosphere and world building are a combination of several things done well. It’s a combination of strong description, clear setting, and emotional connection. If one of these things is missing from the author’s story, the atmosphere and world will not be in clear focus for a reader.
You can create an incredible world, but if you are unable to clearly and distinctly relay that world to the reader in a memorable way, then the world may as well not exist at all.
The key to creating atmosphere and world building well is this: understand your world. You need to understand and convey in your writing not only a sense of normalcy and understanding of your world and its boundaries, but you also need to write it in such a way that we connect to the emotional conflict of the setting.
One of my favorite examples of this is the opening of Erin Morgenstern’s book, Night Circus.
The circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.
But it is not open for business. Not just yet.
Within hours everyone in town has heard about it. By afternoon the news has spread several towns over. Word of mouth is a more effective method of advertisement than typeset words and exclamation points on paper pamphlets or posters. It is impressive and unusual news, the sudden appearance of a mysterious circus. People marvel at the staggering height of the tallest tents. They stare at the clock that sits just inside the gates that no one can properly describe.
And the black sign painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, the one that reads:
Opens at Nightfall
Closes at Dawn
“What kind of circus is only open at night?” people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet as dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates.
You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.
The ticket booth clearly visible behind the gates is closed and barred. The tents are still, save for when they ripple ever so slightly in the wind. The only movement within the circus is the clock that ticks by the passing minutes, if such a wonder of sculpture can even be called a clock.
The circus looks abandoned and empty. But you think perhaps you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold.
The sun disappears completely beyond the horizon, and the remaining luminosity shifts from dusk to twilight. The people around you are growing restless from waiting, a sea of shuffling feet, murmuring about abandoning the endeavor in search of someplace warmer to pass the evening. You yourself are debating departing when it happens.
First, there is a popping sound. It is barely audible over the wind and conversation. A soft noise like a kettle about to boil for tea. Then comes the light.
All over the tents, small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. The waiting crowd quiets as it watches this display of illumination. Someone near you gasps. A small child claps his hands with glee at the sight.
When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears.
Stretched across the top of the gates, hidden in curls of iron, more firefly-like lights flicker to life. They pop as they brighten, some accompanied by a shower of glowing white sparks and a bit of smoke. The people nearest to the gates take a few steps back.
At first, it is only a random pattern of lights. But as more of them ignite, it becomes clear that they are aligned in scripted letters. First a C is distinguishable, followed by more letters. A q, oddly, and several e’s. When the final bulb pops alight, and the smoke and sparks dissipate, it is finally legible, this elaborate incandescent sign. Leaning to your left to gain a better view, you can see that it reads:
Le Cirque des Rêves
Some in the crowd smile knowingly, while others frown and look questioningly at their neighbors. A child near you tugs on her mother’s sleeve, begging to know what it says.
“The Circus of Dreams,” comes the reply. The girl smiles delightedly.
Then the iron gates shudder and unlock, seemingly by their own volition. They swing outward, inviting the crowd inside.
Now the circus is open.
Now you may enter.
Within the span of a few paragraphs we are placed into a clear, understandable, and exciting world. How did the author manage this? She wrote a clear, descriptive setting. She developed an evocative emotional response using description, dialogue, and character interactions. And, she gave us a clear understanding of the rules of this setting, this stage.
In my opinion, this is one of the hardest aspects of craft to create well, so when authors ask me about this I tell them the same advice I give for those working on their description. Read widely, analyze carefully, and practice, practice, practice.
Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
Scorpio Races – Maggie Stiefvater
Six of Crows – Leigh Bardugo
Conflict can be difficult for people to put their finger on. It has to be continually building. It can’t be cliche. It can’t end too soon, it can’t be anticlimactic or disappointing. It can be a hard thing to create and a hard thing to balance. So—when creating conflict here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Every scene, every interaction needs to have its own conflict. That is what keeps the story moving forward. If there is not a conflict in a scene or interaction, then likely that is something that needs cut from your story. As they say, kill your darlings. If it doesn’t serve a purpose to forward the conflict and the plot and the development of characters in some way—it’s fluff and you need to stone it to death.
- Conflict is not one singular strand of things going wrong. Yes, the overall conflict is what is happening in the plot or as a result of the plot. However, each character and each event spawns conflict of their own. It’s simple cause and effect.
- Sometimes it is helpful to outline conflict within your story to make sure that you are effectively tying strands and not leaving aspects of your story unfinished. Having a sketched out visual outline can help you see what chapters are lacking conflict or conflict resolution and remember how the arc of each conflict is growing and changing throughout the event of the story, as well as how those conflicts may overlap. When editing, some people also use the highlighter method—using a highlighter to mark the sentences and interactions that show the growth, change, connection, and resolution of the conflicts in each scene, using different colored highlighters to represent each type or character/events’ conflicts.
Here is my greatest piece of advice: Characters, events, and decisions require long lasting consequences.
I will dance around on that soap box until the end of the world if I have to. If you cannot stand by your decisions and give long lasting consequences to a story just because you want a happy turn out, then you have a problem.
One of my favorite examples of this that I love to harp on is actually a Marvel example that comes in the form of Tony Stark.
In the Marvel universe, for one of his movies, it is implied that because of Tony’s choices and actions, Pepper leaves him. Then, with no explanation, a movie later, they’re back together and he’s proposing. Do I hate the Tony and Pepper ship? No, that’s not the point. The point is that Marvel destroyed Tony’s character arc in one fell swoop when they brought Pepper back. Everything that Marvel had gone through with Tony to make him a changed man—or lack thereof—and to show real human consequences to his actions and choices, was thrown completely out the window with a singular scene at the end of another movie when they brought Pepper back. Not because there’s something wrong with Pepper, but because Tony had no lasting consequences and made no strides toward his own positive or negative character arc once that happened. I felt the same way about Spiderman: Homecoming when Peter gets his suit back for no reason at the end.
Stories must have lasting consequences. Characters and events must have lasting consequences. Lasting consequences are what happen in real, daily life. Without that, your story falters and ultimately fails—all in the name of a happy ending.
If you aren’t going to follow through on a line of conflict with lasting consequences, don’t pursue it.
The False Prince – Jennifer Nielsen
Raven Cycle Series – Maggie Stiefvater
Until we Have Faces – CS Lewis
I’m sure you’ve all heard the schpeel. Don’t write like a four year old. Don’t be Stephanie Meyer with her “so and so laughed, ‘haha,’ he chuckled.” Vary your sentence structures. Don’t have too similar sentence beginnings and endings right in a row. Don’t begin multiple paragraphs with the same words or sentence types. Only use repetition if it’s for style and effect. Use punctuation correctly. Don’t repeat the same words over and over.
We get it.
We’ve all heard that before.
What I want to talk about with you today is pacing. Once again, this is an easy thing to “mess up.” It can be very easy to reach a point in the story as a reader or a writer where you’re skimming, flipping pages, waiting to see when the story gets moving. Or, conversely, where you’re skimming because the speed at which everything is happening is just so overwhelming.
Last year, I read a book titled All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry. The concept was fascinating, the storyline was interesting. The descriptions and world were lovely. But the pacing was absolutely horrendous. And I don’t mean that in jest.
I picked it up and knew within the first ten pages I was going to regret my choice to read it. The plot and scenes moved so slowly. Conflict could be entirely missing and the happenings completely trivial for hundreds of pages at a time. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, something would happen and I would find myself trying to read as quickly as I could to keep up with everything that was happening, to the point I physically felt out of breath and confused while reading. Only to slow down and repeat that cycle until the end of the book.
If your readers are struggling to keep up or losing interest in your story because it’s slow and nothing is happening, it’s time to check your pacing.
I know many of you don’t like to hear this, but this is the point where an outline can be very useful. An outline, however loose it may be, can help you sketch out in a visual way what’s happening in each chapter of your story so that you can make sure that there is enough happening and not too much.
Pacing is all about balance, and if your balance is off, your reader will lose their equilibrium and ultimately, they won’t stay.
Stalking Jack the Ripper Quartet – Kerri Maniscalco
Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
Every story is about something intangible. At its core, every story is about a core belief or idea. You, as the author, need to know what that is.
I have heard authors tell me too many times that their stories are just about the plot or just about this character. Okay. Fine. Yes, they’re about that. But underneath that, what are those stories about? What themes and ideas are they carrying and teaching us? What things do we walk away from those books with?
You need to know what your themes are in a story, what you’re trying to show or represent through your book. If you don’t, it will come out feeling cluttered, confusing, and disorganized.
Themes don’t have to be difficult. Sometimes they’re big ideas of war vs peace, justice vs injustice. Sometimes they’re smaller ideas like the importance of magic and creativity in our lives, the loss of people we love, the impact of something negative or positive on our lives and how we combat that.
Let’s think about this from the perspective of a Bible story. Let’s talk about Esther. The queen who stood in the gap for her people. She was merely a beautiful woman who happened to be chosen by God and man to be queen. For such a time as this.
If we look at that story, what themes emerge? What continual emotional and mental struggles do we see? We see themes on race, on religion, on mistreatment of people, on justice, on bravery, on feminism, on marriage, on family, on trusting God, and a great many other things. Each of these is a tiny continuous string of conflict throughout Esther’s story.
When we think of this story, when we show Esther to children as a role-model, what do we tell them? We talk to them about trusting God to care for us. We talk to them about beauty not just being on the outside. We talk to them about bravery in the face of violence. We talk to them about how a truly strong, feminist woman treats others with honor, respect, and compassion. We talk about how she stood in the gap for her people and fought for justice when no one else would. We talk to children about how God often uses the people that we least expect to do the greatest work.
Those are all themes. Ideas put into place through words, actions, conflicts, details, and interactions.
When you’re editing your story, I highly suggest using the highlighter method. Pick a color for each of your themes and highlight each sentence and interaction that somehow forwards and develops that theme. This will help you visualize how active your themes are in your story and help give you ideas on how to beef them up if need be.
I’m not saying you have to walk into a story knowing what your themes are. Lord knows I don’t. Sometimes my themes don’t even present themselves until I’m several drafts into a project. But it’s important to know what your themes are and to develop them clearly because that is how we know what your story is really about.
The basic plot of Harry Potter might be a boy wizard trying to defeat a dark magic, but at the end of the day, is that what the series is really about? Because I can think of a plethora of themes—both in each book and in the series as a whole—that are much more memorable and purposeful than just that.
You need to know what your themes are because your reader needs to know what your story is about. If you don’t have themes in your story, then I daresay your story is in need of more re-reading and editing because, to put it simply, if you don’t know what your story is about, neither does anyone else.
The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas – Ursula Le Guin
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
Narnia Series – CS Lewis
The last point that I want to make is one that I hate making.
It relates to theme in some ways, but it’s more than that. And so, I’ll ask you a simple question. At the end of the day, what’s at the heart of your story? Why are you writing it?
The heart of your story is different from your theme. You theme can be strings that lead to and from that heart, but they are not the heart in and of themselves.
Picture your story for a moment like a spiders web. At the center, where the spider rests, is the heart. Going out from that are small strings, some sticky and some not. Those may represent the themes and ideas in your story. And each of those connect to other strands that represent the other aspects of story and craft. When they all connect, those strings of theme and idea are what connect the heart of your story to everything else.
So what is the heart of your story? The heart of your story is a part of yourself. A piece of yourself that you are placing in this story—whether knowingly or unknowingly—that tells us something about you, about this story and its importance.
When you’re editing your story, just like you want to draw out the themes, you want to draw out the heart of the story. Why? Because if you don’t care about your story, if you don’t care about your ideas and your characters and your plot—if you don’t care about everything that’s at the heart of your story—then neither will anyone else.
So Sang the Dawn – AnnMarie Pavese
White Wolf and the Ash Princess – Tammy Lash
Lord of the Rings Trilogy – JRR Tolkien
While this was a rather lengthy article, I hope that it was helpful to you. I hope that as you’re preparing to edit and publish your stories, you will find some grain of wisdom and advice in this article that will help you on your way. The path of a writer is not an easy one, but it is a worthwhile one. Keep at it, my dears. Edit your hearts out, and make great stories.
~ CS Taylor
CS Taylor was raised on fairy lit paths somewhere between the backstreet alleys of Jackson, Mississippi, and the jazz infested avenues of New Orleans. Currently, she’s settled in the open meadows of Iowa where the tulips grow thicker than the grass.
She spends her days teaching special needs and gifted children to read and write, and she spends her nights star gazing and ignoring her own writing. She graduated with her terminal degree in Writing and Editing from University of Nebraska (Omaha) in 2018, and now she delegates her writing efforts to mentoring young authors, providing editing services to Indie writers, and grumbling at her uncooperative characters. She hopes one day to talk those characters into becoming part of a book.
CS Taylor can be reached at her email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach out to her through Instagram, Facebook, GoodReads, Pinterest, or on her blog.