I enjoyed searching for my answer to this question, because it allowed me to return to old author correspondence, which jostled out stories that are locked back in my mind somewhere. What I noticed popping up most often was inconsistent narrative distance and point of view.


It may be tempting for the writer to share as much as possible, especially in a first draft, but telling too much, rather than just showing the essentials, can disturb the reader's sense of place. As we read, we position ourselves around the characters, in a way. We are closer to some characters' minds, and further from others. It's important to be deliberate with the point of view and narrative distance you choose, because otherwise, even if the reader doesn’t know why, he or she will feel disoriented, unsure where to land. Point of view and narrative distance can certainly change throughout a manuscript, but only if there is a reason and it benefits the story. Most often, though, I find this to be a great tool for pinpointing larger issues in the manuscript as a whole.


Revealing too much comes from a generous place in the writer. We want to inform the reader as much as possible, right? The problem is that it often makes the story drag, repeats what the character’s actions and dialog have already revealed, or simply makes it difficult for the reader to figure out what's important. One of my favorite experiences of reading is the mystery that I’m forced to sit with. Mystery is truer to the life most of us live, the life filled with questions we’ll never answer. This limits what the author can share, but it is a great tool for picking out the most essential details. Too much information often distracts the reader and rarely serves its purpose as well as we expect. It may be better to allow the action and dialog to stand on their own, because they often can.


Originally published with The Loft Literary Center.

There are countless ways for stories to fall short after a strong beginning. We aim for a sweet spot that drives the reader toward mystery, yet away from uncertainty, compelling her to continue. But how do we ensure the action is happening at the right time, in the right order, and quickly enough?


To wrap your mind around the universe of your story, it’s helpful to create an outline, and if you know the level of momentum you’d like to sustain, you can identify where your story requires restructuring or editorial tightening. To improve the middle section, you may want to rethink how you approach the book’s ending. Could you deliver vital pieces of information to the reader earlier? Could you condense the second half by pulling the end closer to the middle, around the 75% mark?


Beyond plot structure, creating a strong narrative arc driven by character development requires taking a look at how your characters relate to their circumstances and to one another as the book progresses. Does your main character have a particular motivation that will propel the rising action in the second half, or do outside forces push the plot forward? Pay attention to where you characters’ thoughts and actions create an interesting dissonance. Use the space in your earlier scenes to plant these details artfully so they suggest the motivations for your character’s future decisions, strengthening the thread that holds the book together.


Watch how time passes from one scene to the next and identify places where time drags unnecessarily. You may find scenes that could be removed to push the story along. (On the other hand, your reader may want the occasional break in tension, so brief pauses or plateaus can be okay.) Even if the structure of your story doesn’t follow linear time, the way you reveal information to the reader can be a sustained pattern of cause and effect that adds another dimension to your narrative.


Above all, if you read as many stories as possible and take the deliberate step of articulating where things go wrong, you’ll build an internal sense of how to avoid similar choices in your own writing. There’s no denying the difficulty of providing the reader a steady drip of “Mystery” in one arm and “Discovery” in the other. But just like any art, the skill comes with practice. It’s a delicate magic that requires endless experimentation—returning and returning and returning to the page with new eyes.


Originally published with The Loft Literary Center.


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