Tag Archives: editing advice for writers

A Return Engagement

My last appearance on the Fully Booked podcast went so well, hosts Craig Tuch and Roland Hulme invited me back for another chat. This time, we talked about the importance of story stakes. We talked about why the stakes in Jaws and The Hunger Games were so effective, why Jack Reacher will never have a girlfriend, and how you can raise the stakes in your novel, no matter which genre you’re writing.

We touched on a lot of the things you can find in NO HERO WANTS TO SAVE THE WORLD. We also went beyond what’s in the book, to discuss some brand-new things!

You can watch Fully Booked on YouTube (look for episode #35). But this is a podcast, so it’s much, much better to listen to it. Here is the direct link to listen online. You can also find it on apple podcasts, Amazon podcasts, and Spotify, or wherever you like to listen.

Happy listening!

Ask the Editor: What’s the Difference Between Conflict and Story Stakes?

Dear Alex,
I know that all stories need to have conflict. That’s what makes a plot, right? My novel has lots of conflict. But my critique partners say my story is “flat,” and “lacks tension.” They keep talking about story stakes, but I don’t really see a difference between conflict and stakes. As long as I have two opposing forces both trying for the same goal, I have stakes, don’t I?

–Levi

Hi Levi!

It’s great that you’re thinking deeply about what makes a great story, and I’m glad that your critique group has been helpful to you. You’re correct that a story needs conflict, but it also needs stakes. Think of it this way: stakes are what gives conflict meaning.

If you’ve written a story about two boys racing each other home from school, you’ve written a conflict. After all, only one of them can win the race and be first through the door. The other will lose. Perhaps the winner will have first pick of the snacks or he’ll get to the TV first. The winning boy might taunt the loser, but can’t do much more. This is a contest without stakes. The reader won’t really care.

Story stakes are a way to make your reader care.

Let’s reframe that footrace. Let’s say that these aren’t two random boys, but brothers. Their parents are dead and they’re set to be put into foster care today at three o’clock. They’re going to two different households, although the fostering families don’t really care which boy goes where. They’ll take whichever boy gets into their car first. One of the families is nurturing and kind. The other treats foster children like abused servants.

Boris, the elder brother, is cruel and manipulative, and is determined to get to the good family before his younger brother Lars can. Lars has been living with his brother’s brutality for years. If he can just get home before Boris does today, he’ll go to a nicer place where he’ll never have to deal with his brother’s nastiness again. However, if his elder brother beats him home, Lars will be going to a family that will treat him worse than Boris ever did.

Now the race home from school has stakes. Not only is there a life-changing reward for winning, there are terrible consequences for losing. The odds are also stacked against our hero. Lars is younger than Boris, so he’s smaller and weaker. Boris has put rocks in Lars’s backpack and also slipped out the back door of the school before the final bell to get a head start.

Readers of this second scenario will be rooting for Lars to win. At the same time, the reader will be afraid he’ll lose. Worry about the outcome will make them turn the pages faster. As a writer, that is the way you want your readers—interested, worried, and desperate to learn the outcome.  That’s what story stakes can do for your novel.

To give your conflict stakes, first make sure that your hero wants something. He wants it desperately, more than he wants anything else. Spell out the specific reward for achieving that goal. Most importantly, make sure there are terrible consequences for failure. Finally, make sure that this goal isn’t easy to reach. This goal is going to take one hundred percent of your hero’s time, effort, and will to accomplish, and even then, the odds of success are low.

You need to do this work on two levels. There need to be high stakes in the overarching plot of the entire novel. Also, each scene has to have stakes. The hero begins each scene wanting something and uses that scene to try to get it. If you can keep feeding readers those high-stakes scenes, they will follow your story right to the end, so they can find out what happens. And if you resolve the stakes in a satisfying way, readers will close your book feeling happy. And then they will buy your next book.

Keep writing, you’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor and the author of No Hero Wants to Save the World, a book all about story stakes.

Ask the Editor: How Much Research is too Much?

Dear Alex,
Is it possible to do too much research for a novel? I want my story to be as realistic as possible, so I keep stopping to do research, and I end up going down rabbit holes and spending all my precious writing time just getting my basic facts right. How do professional writers do it? There aren’t enough hours in the day to learn everything I need to know to write this book and also write the book.

–Wendell

Hi Wendell!

One of the best things about being a writer is that you get to learn so many interesting things. You can study the history of photography, or French baking styles, or starship propulsion technology, or Celtic swords. You’re not just learning these things for fun, but because it’s your job, which is actually very cool.

Some genres rely heavily on facts. If you’re writing a thriller and you get your guns mixed up, you’ll lose readers. If you’re writing historical fiction, you need to know about dresses, meals, and carriages. If you’re writing fantasy, you’ll need to get your swords correct, and also research things like horses and boats.

Readers of genre fiction are passionate about the details and they will savage you if you get them wrong. Even contemporary novels will often deal with areas outside your expertise. Is your heroine a musician? You’ll have to know (or learn) about musical notation, performance venues, and artist management. Is your hero a barista? You’d better know the difference between a cappuccino and a latte.

The danger is when writers start to think of the research as an end in itself. You think you need to read just one more article, or buy one more book, or travel to one more place, and then you’ll be able to write your novel. It seems very efficient to do all the research up front and then go write, but this always backfires.

For one thing, this is a spectacular form of procrastination. The research feels like a necessary step, and it takes forever, and you’ll convince yourself that you’re making progress. It’s a little trick our brains use to fool us into thinking we’re working without actually doing the harder and scarier job of making up a story.

And you’ll most likely research the wrong thing. Since you haven’t written any of your story yet, you don’t know what you’ll need. You could do hours and hours of research into the dresses that upper-class women wore in the Regency period, only to decide later that your heroine is a middle-class merchant’s daughter, and therefore needs to dress completely differently.

But the biggest danger is that you’ll end up with a very developed world and no story to tell in it. This is a hard problem to diagnose because all of these facts are fascinating to you, the author. You might be riveted when reading back your own work because you love these details you dug up. But when a reader reads it, she’s bored because you’re talking about places and objects, and she just wants to get on with the story. Remember, story is always about conflict between people.

You need to have a deep understanding of your story and also a deep understanding of how much detail your audience expects. How much detail do you actually need at this moment? Enough to immerse the reader in the story world but not so much that she gets bogged down. It’s a tricky balance.

The best way to find this sweet spot is to write the scene (or the chapter, or the section) first and then go research what you need. When you’re writing, and you get to the part where you have to put in the name of a carriage, or what kind of coffee the barista is making, you put in a placeholder. I like to make mine all caps and in a bright font, like red or orange. That way, I can easily find them later. Like this:

Rebecca carried her violin case into NAME OF ORCHESTRA HALL IN ANN ARBOR and greeted the conductor and the concertmaster. She couldn’t believe she’d be playing in front of an audience of NUMBER tonight, and she was so nervous she thought she might puke.

Later, you’d go back and research what the venue for classical music is in Ann Arbor and how many seats it holds. I just did that. It took about 20 seconds.

Rebecca carried her violin case into Hill Auditorium and greeted the conductor and the concertmaster. She couldn’t believe she’d be playing in front of an audience of 3500 tonight, and she was so nervous she thought she might puke.

If you stop every few sentences to look up this fact or that fact, you’ll constantly be pulling yourself out of the story. However, by using placeholders, you won’t lose your forward momentum. This will also teach your brain that there is a time for writing and there is a time for research, and the writing comes first.

There will be times when you’ll have to set aside the writing to go on a longer research quest, either because the fact you need isn’t readily available or the ideas are too complex for a one-click Google. In that case, you’ll have to set aside some time to find the facts you need. But put boundaries on it so you don’t spend all your time researching. Learn new things, then apply what you’ve learned to your manuscript, using placeholders to stand for any gap in your knowledge. You’ll fill in some of those placeholders in your next draft, and more in the draft after that, until your book is a seamless whole. And you’ll do it by spending more time on your story, and less in rabbit holes.

Keep writing, you’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor and the author of two books of writing instruction: The Big-Picture Revision Checklist and No Hero Wants to Save the World.

Ask the Editor: How Should I Begin Revising My Novel?

Dear Alex,
After months of writing, I’ve completed my first novel. I’m proud of myself and I guess I’m proud of my book, but at this point, I can only see its flaws. I know I have to edit it. I want to make it better! But I don’t know how to start. Do I start with chapter one? Or do I start by fixing the things I know are wrong? Or is there some secret editing technique that professional writers will only share if you knock in a specific sequence and know the secret password?

–Doreen

Hi Doreen!

Congrats on finishing your first novel! You should be proud. You’ve shown that you’ve got what it takes to bring a novel to completion, which is a rare thing. And I bet your novel isn’t as flawed as you think. The problem is that you’re looking at the novel as a whole, so you’re seeing all its flaws at once. However, when you actually do the edits, you’re only going to tackle one problem at a time.

Starting with chapter one and doing your novel’s edits chronologically seems like a good idea. However, there are two problems with this approach.

First, you might end up in a revision loop that’s hard to break out of. Many writers want to get chapter one “perfect” before moving on to chapter two. Then they want to perfect chapters one and two before moving on to three. This cycle repeats and repeats and many writers won’t get past the first few chapters.

Second, if you drill down to individual chapters and scenes and start picking them apart, you’ll always be focused on the small problems. You’ll be fixing things like awkward dialogue or a bit of bland description, and you’ll never see the big picture. Taking it chapter by chapter means you’ll never tackle the big, structural changes that your novel might need.

Instead, I suggest taking a step back and looking at your novel as a whole. Specifically, look at the turning points. A good plot doesn’t go in a straight line from beginning to end. There are turns along the way, plot complications and character changes that shift the course of the narrative. If you tackle those big turning points first, the rest of the edit will be much, much easier.

Does your novel begin with a “hook” that will intrigue readers and draw them into your book? Do you introduce your hero and his world in a dynamic way that starts the story moving? Be sure you don’t drag your opening down with backstory or static description.

Look at your “doorway of no return” scene in the first quarter. This is the scene that truly propels your heroine on the story journey. In The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy takes that first step onto the yellow brick road, she’s on a one-way trip to the Emerald City. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when Charlie Bucket enters the candy factory, his life is going to change forever. Does your novel push the hero forward at this point?

Next, examine your midpoint scene. Do you have a strong scene in the middle of your novel that is filled with action, emotion, and drama? This should be a major turning point where things get dramatically worse.

Then revisit your “all is lost” scene, which should fall around the three-quarter mark. Are things as bad as they can possibly be? Is your heroine feeling utterly defeated at this point? Is she worse off now than when the story began? In the final act, she’ll find the solution to the story problem and once again will be proactive, but at this moment, she should be wallowing in misery.

Finally, look at your climax scene. Is it an epic climax—according to your genre’s definition of epic? For some genres, this will mean chases, shootouts, and explosions. For other genres, this will mean tears and reconciliation. For others, it will mean a grand gesture of love. Whatever your genre is asking for, have you delivered all the action, emotion, and drama that you possibly can?

Of course, there is much more to editing a novel than just looking at the five biggest scenes, but this is where you should begin. Once you’ve edited big turning point scenes, the edits for the rest of the novel are much more straightforward. The big scenes do the heavy lifting, and the surrounding scenes will either be lead-up to the big turning point, or the fallout from it.

A novel is a big thing. It’s too big to hold in your head all at once. But starting with the five biggest scenes in your novel will make all of your edits go more smoothly.

Keep writing, you’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor and the author of two books of writing instruction: The Big-Picture Revision Checklist and No Hero Wants to Save the World.