Quick and Easy Writing Fixes

A monthly column offering easy, effective solutions to writing and revision challenges.

Improve a manuscript’s chances with “come to realize”

Writers often come to me after a manuscript has collected several “passes” from agents/editors/publishers. If indie publishing, the writer might have received lukewarm reviews and wants to improve responses to the next book. 

Let’s assume your manuscript is edited well with clutter words reduced or deleted, excellent punctuation, a solid plot arc, and fine characters. You might even have received compliments from an agent or editor, BUT they passed.

One possible solution:

I look for the “come-to-realize” moments or lack thereof. Without a character “coming to realize” their need to change—and WHY—a novel and character are flat.

And, if the “come-to-realize” moments are trite, that also affects opinions and votes by agents, editors, and reviewers/readers. (“Trite” versus “simple.” Big moments can be simple.)

It’s easy to put off “come-to-realize” material until the ending or resolution area. After all, that’s where plot and emotional change are typically summarized or explained. For a satisfying novel, don’t let that last act or final chapter be the only spot for “come-to-realize” material. Big, important realizations may come right before (or after) many character decisions throughout a novel.

Create or improve “come-to-realize” moments in at least two other places besides the last act:

—Midpoint Crisis decision plot point (true manuscript middle), and

—Act 3 Pre-Climax Bleakest Moment where the character wrestles with the big decision to take on the final “battle.”

And a third place often forgotten is this:

—Early-on decision areas that are monumental, perhaps painful or embarrassing.

Make the moments a time for serious self-reflection or confession. Another character might be involved. There must be “weight” to those “come-to-realize” areas.

If it helps, use the word “realized/realizes.” That wording helps you and readers recognize emotional depth has arrived in the manuscript.

The “come-to-realize” moment may take a big paragraph or two pages or a whole chapter. Feel free to mix internal narrative, dialogue, action, and conflict, depending on plot and scene dynamics. The moment can also be just one sentence, of course; there are no rules but consider that skimpy explanations about this important stuff might be your manuscript’s popularity problem.

Sometimes a simple yet meaningful object can bring a moment of “realization.” What object brings emotional dimension to your character?

This may help, too:  Deepen (or change) the Fatal Flaw for your protagonist and the Flaw’s origin story. What about the character prevents them from being a “whole” and happy person? What in their past gnaws on them? Do you have a true Fatal Flaw or does your character just have a bad habit? 

Regrets can also deepen your character. Are the regrets interesting enough, appropriate to the situation, and painful enough?

The “come-to-realize moment” can happen anywhere, even on your first page and in your first chapter. 

A prime example of a first-page/first-chapter “realization” that acts as a hook is Chapter One of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Demon Copperhead, 2023 Pulitzer-Prize winner. The character “realizes” his troubled status from birth and thus this sets up readers for difficulties and suspense to come. The word choices also give this realization moment terrific “voice.” This is a novel specializing in “realizations” all the way through.

How many “come-to-realize” moments can a novel have? There are no rules. If you’re new to writing novels, strive to develop these moments near or within the three major plot point areas or decision points of any story—Plot Point 1, Midpoint Crisis, Plot Point 2.

In summary: 

Use deeper and/or more “come-to-realize” moments to garner better responses from readers of your material.

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What question can save a scene, chapter, and manuscript?

Writers are taught to ask “Who, What, When, Where, Why & How” to help put together a story, novel, or memoir. What about revising what we write?

Over time I’ve found that scenes can be fixed fast by asking “What?

“What?” applies equally to action, dialogue, characterization, and more. What is going on emotionally and physically? What is being talked about that matters?

“What?” helps you revise and elevate your pages instantly.

An easy illustration of the effect of “What?” is to look at television series in any genre, including situation comedies, cop shows, family dramas, and any favorite of yours. Think about the characters asking these questions of others and HOW those questions get answered:

“What ARE you doing?”

“What’s going on here?”

“What are we going to tell the D.A.?”

“What are we going to do next?”

“What’s this I hear about you leaving me?”

“What your hurry, buddy?”

The question “What?” heralds readers and viewers to a situation that cannot be ignored. It can help you develop an opener or hook that is currently flat.

“What?” can help you stem the tide of “passes” from agents or publishers. Lackluster scenes and dialogue are popular reasons for passes. Check your scenes and revise:

What’s going on that’s interesting enough?

What’s clichéd? Boring?

What questions does my protagonist ask? Would “What?” questions provide more fun or intrigue?

What action is missing or too much?

What in this scene gives readers the scene goal?

“What” is also handy for building a better cliffhanger for a scene or chapter. Here’s a made-up chapter ending: 

Henry rose the next morning, soon peering out his

kitchen window. He flinched. What the heck was

that thing [fill in blank or not] in his driveway?

Stop your scene or chapter there. Let readers turn to the next page to find out WHAT is in the driveway. Or, replace “that thing” with what you have in your plot: Upset lover? A long-lost father returned? An elephant in the driveway? A starship?

“What?” questions tickle a reader’s curiosity and imagination.

“What?” creates reader engagement.

“What?” is one simple technique that helps a writer dig deeper, polish like a pro, and have rewarding fun.

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