We keep rewriting.
In that uncertain stage between writing and abandonment (and it’s only for the purposes of this that they’re at all ordered, as the chronological crossover is itself a thing not fixed), we strive to improve our words. As much as we rely on feedback from others to tell us what doesn’t work (beyond what we have uncovered ourselves), that doesn’t make the words better. No amount of reading improves what is written. Only writing can do that.
Reading, critiques and other analysis can tell us what needs to be cut, what can be left alone, and what needs to be rewritten. None of that will change a word.
Writing (or rewriting) does.
It’s not a guaranteed method of fixing what you’ve written, which is why you should expect to do it countless times. The reality of your writing, is that every line (and indeed, every word) is there to serve the story. That is all it has to do. We have sentences we love. I mean, they’re absolute treasures. If we’re lucky, they add to the story. No, this isn’t another kill-your-darlings post. It’s the other side of the coin.
As I said, every line is there to serve the story. It’s not to pop. It’s not to get praise. It’s to convey what’s necessary, whether it’s action, backstory, description, dialogue, or whatever else. Not every line needs to be special. Some of them will be downright routine. I don’t consider that a problem.
Yes, you want some pop. You want some sizzle. In non-lingo terms, you want there to be clever turns of phrase, poetic use of language, and a dose of excitement.
Yes, you can write poorly. Horribly written sentences are torturous to read, but in general terms, it’s the scene itself that is tedious to read, rather than the way its presented. You can only dress up the mundane with so many vials of glitter before people become suspect. You need to be clear about what the purpose of a scene or sentence is to be sure that it belongs. In this I’m concerned with the minute details, rather than the overall story.
Let’s say you have a minor such detail in your story – A girl is hungry and wants to eat.
Why is it important that she’s hungry? Yes, it’s a part of life, but why is it part of the story? Because we’re using the scene to show something else. The fact that she’s hungry doesn’t matter. Everyone gets hungry. It’s what she does next that matters.
- In the first draft, she feels hungry and looks for something to eat.
- In the second draft, she simply goes to the kitchen and takes an apple out of the fridge.
- In the third draft, she goes to the fridge, finds the pickings slim, and orders pizza.
None of this is gripping, but what are some things we might learn from either of these three versions? The first doesn’t do much at all. It tells us, but there’s nothing special in it. In the second draft, it shows us – and we might be able to extrapolate from there that she’s healthy, or easily pleased. In the second, it could show the household is not organised. There’s an escalation because there’s now an obstacle to what she wants.
Subsequent drafts could make the scene do more.
- Four, she could ask her Dad to make her something to eat.
- In five, she could act stroppy and be presented with a sandwich from someone that knows that she (like myself and many of us) get cranky when we’re unknowingly hungry.
In those versions, we learn more. There’s two characters, and they have a familial relationship. Their interactions are polite or patient, suggesting respect for one another, or that they’re used to each others behaviour. The first of these also introduces dependency on another character. The second tells us about their relationship instead. Some combination of three, four and five has the most promising avenue for the addition of drama, though there’s no conflict.
- Sixth, her dad might argue back instead of realising that she’s hungry.
To me, that’s a pointless escalation. It could turn into a mindless argument that might have some great insults that make you laugh, but that don’t move things forward. With restraint, it could be powerful – and never understimate the power of non-verbal responses in dialogue.
- Seventh, she suggests ordering pizza. He says she’s just had lunch, so she should be fine.
In this scene, he’s dismissive of what she thinks and feels, and they’re in disagreement on what the problem is. Also shows that they don’t have good communication or mutual respect.
- Eighth, Dad starts ordering pizza, but they can’t agree on topping. They give up on that (while on the phone), argue a little, then Dad tosses her an apple.
Characters disagreeing on a goal is one type of drama, but so is characters agreeing on a goal yet disagreeing on the means to achieve it.
None of these drafts changed the premise of the scene, but they were all capable of showing much more once we started pulling the scenario apart.
Not every scene can go to this level. They don’t have to. Pushing that level in all scenes will make the narrative stutter instead of flow. If your entire story is about one girl’s struggle to get to school on time, that might work. If (and I’d say it’s more likely) it’s just a touch of background colouring, version two could be enough. Not every sentence has to be special. If the point of the scene was for her to have a quick bite and head out to adventure, preserve your words and get on with the real story.