Most fledgling authors think that the story’s plot is what makes for a great book. It’s not. Intriguing dialogue, three-dimensional setting, and characters you can feel breathing on your face are what make a story sell. Anyone can tell a story. Anyone can twist the plot. But not many can bring a tale to life well enough to raise a pulse. It’s that feeling that a reader is in the midst of it all that raises Amazon rankings, and that only comes from loads of edits . . . way after you get that first draft on paper.
Get the Story Down
The first step is to get the story down, which means your plot and relative directions your characters will take. This is your skeleton. You may see the story in your head, but the reader doesn’t. You only care about rough word count, say, within ten to twenty thousand words. This is like outlining the picture you want to draw. It has a vague resemblance to what you want the public to see, but you have a long way to go to give it dimension.
Place Has to Feel as Real as a Map
Each book in the Carolina Slade Mystery Series is set in a different rural area of South Carolina. With each book I posted a map on the wall, noting where the characters traveled. Roads, highways, landmarks and buildings. A reader can navigate the story in real life, but there’s just enough fiction thrown in to where they cannot find the farm where the bad guy hides, or the circle of metal sheds where the antagonist chained his slaves. The reader can drive almost to the address. They might even feel the need to try, as one of my readers did.
But maybe you are writing a story without a real setting. Consider a map. Create a new world on paper and hang it on your wall. See whether the lines on the road are single or double, whether a residence has a black or silver mailbox, whether the restaurant parks cars nose in around the place or side by side in a parking lot. Are the curbs painted yellow or white, or not painted at all? Are there tolls, trees close to the edge, or medians? What birds are indigenous, and what colors are the police cars?
Look up. What do you see? Look down at your feet. How do your shoes react to the surface? How does traffic behave as you enter town, head out to the rural area, or drive past an industrial site? It’s make believe, but you can drive through real settings and note all these things, making them your own.
Weather and Time Matter
Seasons aren’t just to be mentioned then forgotten. The story opens the first of June in South Carolina. It’s hot, but not as hot as July. As the story grows, so does the temperature and the humidity. Wet underarms, hair tendrils plastered to foreheads, ceiling fans, car air-conditioning vents, mosquitoes. Continually place the reader in each chapter reminding them how miserable the outdoors can be.
It might be Monday in Chapter Two, but what is it in Chapter Fourteen? Chapter Twenty? You don’t have to tell the reader at the beginning of each chapter, but you have to subtly insert enough so that the reader is placed properly. If the reader drew out a timeline, would he have enough facts to take him from start to finish?
You have all the senses to tell time of day. Are the shadows of the Palmetto trees long or short? Are the tree frogs croaking or not? Are the robins happy or subdued? Are diner parking lots full or empty? Are taxies lined up a dozen deep at the sidewalk or driving past full of passengers? There are ways to tell time without looking at a watch.
Dialogue without the Tags
The best compliment you can receive about dialogue is that the reader knew who was talking without reading the tags. Close your eyes. Ask each of your characters the same question, such as: Why were you late? Each should answer so differently that the listener can ID the speaker. Their reactions should be representative of their personalities. My protagonist would care that she was late. Her part-time beau would answer only if he respected you. His ex-wife would sass you back and his sister might respond with a stare as she analyzed your worth. And all could be depicted without a he said or she said.
Ask the same question and imagine their physical reactions via their hands, posture, eyes, mouth, shoulders, hips, chin, nose, brow. You might find a trait in the mix that you can use in the future, therefore, avoiding a tag.
Beat Your Characters
My publisher recently asked me to find characters for a graphic promo for my newest release Palmetto Poison. After I spent six hours agonizing on the Dreamstime.com site seeking a model that worked, she told me in a terse email that we were creating a marketing image, not selecting someone for a movie. Exaggeration was part of the game. I was trying to make him too normal.
When a character appears in your story, do you see them or are they just there? Not just hair color, but their walk, the way they sit, the way they look when embarrassed or angry. Where do they buy their clothes, and what do they do with their hands when faced with dilemmas? How do they part their hair? How do they look at strangers?
Here is where beats are important. Again, you are dodging tags, painting a picture. You do this with beats. Lucille’s head held a mild tremor, but she could hold a glare. Then you follow those words with what Lucille said, the reader knows instantly who you’re talking about as well as her state of mind.
He leaned back, scanning her in that outfit. Your reader automatically senses the attitude, expecting the guy to say something that will most assuredly impact the girl. The story is moving forward. Wayne lowered the visor and studied the view. Again, momentum is propelled by the beat while likewise letting the reader know who’s speaking.
Finally, Go Back and Cut
You can always find places to cut your story. A succinct story keeps the reader turning pages, lost in your story’s reality. A wordy one makes him put down the book. Stephen King professes that a second draft is your first draft cut by ten percent. A good writer overwrites to get it all on the page, then cuts about ten percent through deletion of the repetitive and the obvious. A reader is much brighter than the average author gives him credit for, so don’t overwrite.
Omit the hammer phrases. Say it, but don’t feel the need to say it again. His fist hit the desk. His anger was evident. The reader got it the first time. Better yet, he probably preferred the first showing sentence to the subsequent telling one, which often happens when writing hammer phrases. Same goes for doublet words like Really? Seriously?
Omit the blah words. Just, really, very, now, so, that, anyway, some. Omit the useless phrases: frankly, fact is, or not, generally speaking, with regards to, the point is, try to, there is/are/were, this is/are/were. The list is endless. These become more evident when you read aloud.
Omit the parts that slow the story. Analyze each scene to see if the story can exist without it. Regardless how well they are written, some scenes are unneeded. A sure sign of such scenes is when you start looking hard at reasons to keep it because it flows so well. You’re making excuses for pretty words instead of maintaining the integrity of the story.
Omit the parts you are inclined to skim. Lists, backstory, long internal monologue, the in-between parts of chase scenes or conversations that don’t keep zing in the big picture. One of my edits, of the many versions of editing I do, is to test myself into deleting X number of words out of a chapter. I can always find a way to do it, and the story’s always better for it.
Keeping It Real
Making a story realistic isn’t just about the storyline. It’s about the edits, parts, and pieces a reader takes for granted. He may call it a good story, but you know that realism comes from characters and their quirky actions, places and their descriptions, setting and their intricate details, unique dialogue, and efficient word usage. Hard writing makes the story look easy, leaving the reader thinking you thought up a good tale. Raising a reader’s heartbeat comes from the little pieces nobody immediately sees. And writing that invisibly is the greatest compliment you could receive as an author.
C. Hope Clark is author of The Carolina Slade Mystery Series, originated based upon her experiences as an agriculture investigator. Her current release is Palmetto Poison, third adventure for Carolina Slade, published by the award-winning Bell Bridge Books. Hope is also editor of FundsforWriters.com, selected by Writer’s Digest for its 101 Best Websites for Writers for the past 13 years. Her FundsforWriters newsletters reach 45,000 readers. She lives on the banks of Lake Murray in central South Carolina when she’s not at Edisto Beach on the SC coast. www.fundsforwriters.com / www.chopeclark.com
Big money, big politics, crime, greed, and big farming—Slade, an agriculture department investigator in the steamy state of South Carolina, once again finds herself planted in a dangerous mystery.
Her assignment? Find out if there’s a sinister connection between the drug-dealing arrest of wealthy peanut farmer Lamar Sheeler and the gruesome death of Lamar’s teenage son in a car wreck. Especially since the dead teen is Governor Dick Wheeler’s nephew.
Of course, the governor’s people practically sky-write STAY AWAY FROM THE FIRST FAMILY over the Palmetto state’s capitol dome in Columbia, which doesn’t make Slade’s job easier. Couldn’t she simply back off from what appears to be a tragic and ugly—but private—family matter?
Not with hot-tempered DEA agent Pamela Largo on the case. Ex-wife to Senior Special Agent Wayne Largo, Slade’s romantic interest, Pamela’s hell-bent on using Lamar Wheeler’s situation to re-open a cold case involving an Atlanta drug lord and Wayne’s long lost sister, Kay.
Soon Slade’s shoveling crap uphill against Pamela’s obsessions, the drug lord’s vendettas, the Governor’s secrets, and the bizarre realization that those secrets involve peanuts.