Congratulations. You’ve done it. You’ve decided that it’s time to fire up the old laptop and write an honest-to-God story. Not just another fanfic like you did back in high school, but a story that you’ll put your name on and get published.
And then you find you’re struggling to get past Page One. Or that you’re not satisfied with your story premise. And then we get to the round of second-guessing ourselves and wondering why this was even a good idea in the first place.
I get that feeling. All writers do. And if you’re starting out for the first time, here are some guidelines that can help you avoid some simple mistakes in your plot and your pacing.
1. Find out what’s going on behind each scene.
Picture this classic setup. Person A sits in a room. Person B enters the room and begins a conversation. Something is revealed in this conversation, and the story moves forward from there.
That’s a basic scene, and while it moves the plot forward, it doesn’t tell us much about the characters and how their conversation went. Is Person A working on something, only to be interrupted by Person B? Is Person B concerned for Person A’s feelings when something important is about to be revealed? Now we’ve moved from text to subtext. We’re going into what each character has behind their actions and their dialogue.
Subtext isn’t something you state out loud. It’s something you keep in mind when you’re writing out the action of each character and the progress of each scene.
2. Set a sequence, not a scene.
It’s easy to write scenes that do nothing but deliver exposition or feature a kickass action burst. However, the trick is to ask yourself this: What’s the story here?
Think of each scene as a sequence, as a miniature story in and of itself. It might be the scene where the Hero meets their Love Interest for the first time, but think of how we get to that point. If you know that they’re going to have a “Meet Cute” in a shopping mall, then set up the encounter. Show us the Hero trying to get to the store before it closes, his mind resolved on everything but romance, and how that plan falls to pieces the moment he has an awkward bump down the escalator with the cute girl in the college sweater.
Not only does this process help you avoid writing unnecessary scenes, but you’ll also get better at seeing how your plot and your characters develop overall.
3. Look at your work like you’re a first-time reader.
I know how hard it is to stay objective about your own work. But here’s a handy idea. If you’re reading as much as you’re writing (and you should be), then how would you react if someone else handed you this exact manuscript to read?
Imagine that some version of you from a parallel universe breached the walls of reality and delivered this exact story to read and review. They’d ask you to be honest, to help them point out mistakes and tell them what they’re doing right. And so you must. When you’ve written a new scene or actually finished your story, put it away for a day or two. Then come back and read it with a fresh point of view. Does every line of dialogue fit? Did you follow up on your characters’ initial goals or motivations?
This is where you get to be your own editor. Your future readers will thank you for the effort.
4. Publish a good story rather than a perfect one.
By the same token, as much as you should reread and edit your work before publishing it, you’ll also have to avoid the risks of perfectionism. Some artists will keep their work locked away from the world, obsessing over the tiniest details because their self-esteem will suffer if they don’t put out a “flawless” product. Quality matters, but not at the expense of your sanity.
In any case, talk to any major author or screenwriter today. They’ll tell you about negative reviews and disappointing sales, even when they’re the hottest names in town. They’ll chuckle and shake their heads over what they first got published and how far they’ve come since then.
You’ll only get better if you open yourself up and put your stories out into the world. Suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism, and you’ll get a better understanding of who’s reading your work and who appreciates it.
Are there any fellow writers or editors in the audience? If so, feel free to share your thoughts or advice for new storytellers in the comments below.