So a piece of work has been finished, or at least laid out to reasonable comprehension. There’s a sense of relief. Then anxiety. Then out-and-out despair. Because so much of it seems wrong, wrong, wrong. Or, on the other end of the scale, it’s a full and complete piece that’s been rejected on multiple occasions, and you just can’t work out what to do with it anymore – what else can be done to make it commercially viable.
You get the idea – we always second-guess our own work. We should. That’s how we evolve as writers. I think the worst thing is when we look at something we’ve written, we know it needs to be improved, but we don’t know how to improve it. We don’t know what questions to ask when we place the storylines, characters and themes under scrutiny.
So let’s go over a couple of the common questions and maybe a couple more that aren’t asked often enough. This quick list isn’t necessarily the definitive list of questions to be asked; every piece of writing comes with its own set of virtues and potential problem points. But this might act as a decent enough launch pad.
What’s it about?
Easy, right? Not always. Because it can be about several different things. But the trick is to be able to identify what the crux of the story is and lean against that as your main infrastructure – your support post. The components that define the entire story.
A more exact way of asking this question might be: What can’t be taken out? Sometimes characters and themes can be removed, and it may affect the storyline and destroy certain scenes. But the work itself can be repaired and still be essentially the same. Sometimes the ‘main character’ can be removed and events still play out in a similar fashion. Nick Carraway was mostly irrelevant in The Great Gatsby, despite being the sole narrator – the one thing that held the book together was the story and character of Gatsby. Everything else could have been changed or removed, but to remove Gatsby would have been to tear the roots out from the story.
Once you identify the components that can’t be deleted, you know what the story is about and how to arrange everything around it to service that lynchpin.
Who’s/What’s the main character?
Often it’s a no-brainer. Sometimes it might be a grey area as to who benefits the most from having the spotlight.
It’s tricky in ensemble pieces. Most characters will undergo their own arc in a collective span of time – or they have no arc or road to change at all, which in itself might be part of the story. If we take a scenario of a family gathering for a holiday, a la The Corrections, there could be an enormous bundle of stories, themes and character arcs to focus on here. So who needs to hold the narrator’s lens? Who is the most important character – if it’s not the narrator? Who deserves the attention?
Every story takes a perspective, regardless of whether the core lynchpin is a character or theme or story element. Every piece of writing has a lens – and every character you could potentially use as the reader’s avatar will have a different-coloured lens. Review the options and be sure you’re choosing the right lens.
Where should it begin and end?
Most emerging and experienced writers have heard the diatribe at some point about how in a first draft of any piece of prose, the first page is the most expendable. This is where the exposition is most commonly dumped to allow the writer to gain a sense of the story’s direction and to pick up momentum. This is where material can be most efficiently cut. Obviously it’s not a hard and fast rule, but it illustrates how important a meaningful starting point is to the effectiveness of a piece of writing.
The start should set the tone. Both by the emotion, and the opening event. Sometimes it’s not necessarily the first event in the sequence of storyline events – maybe it’s just the most important of those events. The one that embodies the conflict taking place. The moment in time that’s going to echo through to the closing sentence.
So the ending is important too. The best endings carry that echo from the beginning, and give the impression that there is little more to tell that is relevant. In many ways the ending is a stylistic fingerprint of a writer – every writer has their own way of ending something. It might be neat and final. It might be mostly resolved with a couple of threads to indicate continuity beyond the final words. It might be totally open with ongoing conflicts and issues, as long as the main focal point of the story has been brought to a relatively satisfying dénouement.
The beginning and end are, in many ways, more important than the middle. You might have complains about a sagging middle or juggling too many (or too few) events, but that’s because the beginning and end need to be redefined, and in turn will wash over everything that happens in between.
What’s unique about it?
Maybe I’m getting a little heavy-handed here. But this is an important one for me, as a short story writer – being able to identify what stands out for each piece as being just a little different from anything else I’ve written before. It might be the theme I’ve chosen; it might be the types of characters I’m writing about. It might be a certain genre, style or tone. But something is unique.
By constantly asking this question you’re pushing your boundaries, expanding your skill set and, most importantly, keeping it interesting and challenging for yourself. Any writer can fall into a rut. Making a conscious effort to avoid that rut can make any new piece of writing an exciting new challenge, a new focus. It doesn’t have to deviate too far from your standard pathways, and you can still write about what interests you and what you’re comfortable with.
And finally, keeping a mentality that favours new possibilities and options means that you’re more able to see the ways in which the above questions can be applied. How the lens of the narrator can be changed, and how the end can be redefined the better serve some of the central ideas of that particular piece.
What about you? What questions do you commonly ask when you’re placing your work under the magnifying glass?
Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen