A former private detective and reporter for a small weekly newspaper, G.B.Pool writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Mysteries. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line.”
by Gayle Bartos-Pool
As a writer I have become a fanatical editor… of other people’s work. That’s not to say I don’t edit the heck out of my own work before I send it off for publication, but I can’t watch a TV show or a movie or even the nightly news without thinking of a better line to use or a better plot or a better word to describe what they are talking about. I have ripped apart old television shows when they were so outrageously bad and rewrote the plot before the final credits ran. Even my husband is getting into the act by pouncing on a plot line when it doesn’t fit.
The moral of this post is: Don’t Send Your Work Out if it Doesn’t Make Sense.
The advantage of dissecting other people’s work is to catch the same mistakes in our own writing… and fix them. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve changed in my own work after I saw the same error in someone else’s story. Little things like using the apostrophe in dates. The “1970s” doesn’t have the apostrophe unless it is used as an adjective. Example: He lived in the 1990’s but drove a 1970’s automobile… The first is incorrect; the second is correct. I have seen this mistake in books by big name authors.
But it’s the bigger things like not tying up a loose end or having the heroes show up in a spot where they had absolutely no reason to be just so they can find a clue that drives me nuts. (I saw this recently in an NCIS episode.) It’s like you cut out the linking scene just to shorten the story. But if the connection isn’t there, you have cheated your reader.
We were watching an old episode of Columbothe other evening and the story disintegrated into foolishness when the implausible kept happening. The audience always knows whodunit from the beginning in that show, but that can also play against credibility when we know what happened and Columbo seems to have watched the same opening and spots all the clues before there is a reason to question them as clues.
I discovered this when writing the lesson plan for a course I teach called: The Anatomy of a Short Story. (It works for novels and screenplays as well.) A terrific way to see if your story hangs together during that editing phase is to write down each LOCATION and which CHARACTERSare in that scene IN ORDER. Write it like bullet points. Each location should add something new to the story or ask a question that needs to be answered later. If your characters go someplace and learn nothing, cut that scene.
Next, look at that list and see if the locations and what happens in each are a mix of HIGH and LOW points. If you have too many low points together, move a high point into the list to give your story movement. And vice versa.
Then look at those points and see if all the questions have been answered. If not, add that scene and wrap up that point.
Next, check to see if your opening is a GRABBER. Since readers are becoming scarcer and scarcer, you’ll want to pull them into the story as fast as you can and keep them. You do that by dangling a puzzle in front of them early so they have to finish reading just to find out what happens. This is what TV shows do with that four minute teaser at the beginning of the show. Works in short stories and novels, too.
Now ask yourself: Does the OPENING FIT the ENDING of your story? Any story: mystery, romance, adventure, has to have a satisfying ending. And the ending should answer the big question that is asked at the beginning.
Next, check to see if the story MAKES SENSE. This is tough because you might have a great idea in your head, but it might not have made its way onto the paper. What is your story about: Man against Man? Man against Nature? Man against Himself? Are there good reasons why your characters do what they do? Is there a resolution?
Last of all, see if your TITLE fits what you have learned while going through all those bullet points. Does the over-all meaning of your story fit that title? Sometimes you will discover a different meaning to your story and the title needs to be changed.
As one last pass-through in the editing process, while I am reading each sentence I ask myself THREE QUESTIONS:
Does it advance the story?
Does it enhance the story?
Is it redundant? Is it redundant?
For those who don’t outline before you write, remember, this outline happens AFTER you have written your story. It is a great EDITING TOOL. It lets you look at your work objectively and see if all the pieces fit. And one more benefit, it provides a TIMELINE so you can see if all the action you are writing fits into any given day. Nothing like finding out you have penciled in 32 hours of action in a 24-hour day.
Give it a try.
I am teaching a four-hour course, How to Open Your Story with a Bang, at the Woman’s Club of Hollywood on May 7th. It will cover this aspect of writing and a lot more. If you would like more information about the class, leave a note on this blog.