After you’ve finished the first draft of your popular fiction novel or short story – or even if you’re only a third or halfway into it but have some nagging doubts about the viability of various aspects of the story – take a short break. Put your manuscript aside for a week or two and concentrate on other things. Then come back to it with a bit of distance, as a reader.
Here's a step-by-step guide to looking for any possible weaknesses in your premise, plot, characterization, or writing style. This is a pretty detailed list, so just approach it one step at a time, over days and weeks, maybe even months. Click on the links after each point for more in-depth suggestions on that topic.
STEP 1: LOOK FOR ANY BIG-PICTURE ISSUES.
~ PREMISE: Is it intriguing and solid? Will the foundation of your story stand up to scrutiny? Does your main character face significant challenges that he/she must overcome?
~ CHARACTERIZATION: Is your protagonist charismatic, multi-dimensional, conflicted, and at least somewhat sympathetic and likeable? Does he/she change as a result of what he/she goes through in the course of the story? (character arc)
Click to read: Create a Complex, Charismatic Main Character.
Does your protagonist have significant, meaningful goals and motivations? What is driving him or her?
Do your characters’ decisions and actions seem realistic and authentic?
Click on this link: Make Sure Your Characters Act in Character.
Also, are your supporting characters different from each other and the protagonist, for interesting contrast and tension?
~ POINT OF VIEW: Are you staying firmly in the head of the viewpoint character for each scene, or are there places where you’re hovering above or inadvertently slipping into the thoughts of other characters (head-hopping)? Click on the links below.
POV 101: Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There
POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping
POV 103 – Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View
~ PLOT: Does your protagonist have a significant challenge or dilemma that’s difficult to solve? Are you piling on the problems as the story goes on? Make sure every plot point directly affects the character and his journey. See Writing a Killer Thriller for essential tips that apply to all popular fiction.
~ STRUCTURE: Should you start your story or any of your scenes later? Or earlier? Would it be more effective to change the order of some chapters or scenes? Shorten some or expand others? Or even delete a few?
~ SCENES: Does every scene have some tension and conflict? Does every scene end with a question or dilemma that drives the story forward? See
Every Scene Needs Tension and a Change.
Make brief scene outlines, using this template:
Scene: Chapter: Place:
- Date/Month/Season: Year (approx.):
- POV character for this scene:
- Other main characters here:
- POV character’s goal here:
- Motivation for their goal (why do they want that?):
- Main problem/conflict – Who/What is preventing POV character from reaching his/her goal:
- Outcome – Usually a setback / new problem:
Revise any scenes that don’t have conflict and a change and don’t advance the story.
~ CONFLICT, TENSION and INTRIGUE: Every novel, no matter the genre, needs conflict, tension, and intrigue -- and a certain amount of suspense. For practical advice on how to keep readers turning the pages, see my writer's guide, WRITING A KILLER THIRLLER and this article:
Add Tension, Suspense, and Intrigue.
~ POTENTIAL PLOT HOLES, inconsistencies, or discrepancies: Ask others to watch out for any accidental bloopers in your story that will erode reader confidence.
~ OPENING: Will your opening paragraphs and first pages hook the readers and entice them to keep reading? Don’t warm up your engines with backstory or start with lengthy description – get right into the story from the first line, in the head of your protagonist.
12 Dos and Don’ts for a Riveting Opening.
~ LENGTH: Is your story too long or too short? If it’s more than 90,000 words (okay, unless it’s a fantasy or epic), check out:
How to Slash Your Word Cut by 20-40% - Without losing any of the good stuff!
This would be a good time to send your story off to some trusted beta readers, volunteers who read critically in your genre. They don’t need to be writers.
Here’s list of 15 Questions for Your Beta Readers – And to Focus Your Own Revisions
STEP 2: WRITING STYLE, VOICE, TONE, AND PACING
~ SHOW, DON'T TELL. Be sure to show, rather than tell, all critical scenes in real time, with action and dialogue, and quickly summarize or skip over humdrum scenes. See my article, Show, Don't Tell.
~ SHOW CHARACTER REACTIONS. Bring characters to life on the page by showing their emotions, physical reactions, thought reactions, and sensory perceptions.
See: Bring Your Characters to Life by Showing Their Reactions and
Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details.
~ RELAX YOUR WRITING. Is your writing style too correct and formal for fiction? If so, loosen up the language. Read it aloud to see where you can make it more casual by streamlining sentences and using contractions and everyday words.
See Tips for Loosening up Your Writing.
~ VOICE: Does each of your main characters have a unique voice? Or do they all sound like each other and the author? Beware of writing in a too-correct, nonfiction style. Remember that men usually speak differently than women, and a blue-collar guy shouldn't sound like a businessman or teacher. Use free-form journaling in the character's secret diary, especially when they're upset, to capture their true inner and outer voice, with plenty of attitude.
See: Concrete Tips for Developing a Unique Voice in Your Fiction
Developing a Strong Third-Person Voice, and also my book, Captivate Your Readers
~ SPARK UP YOUR PROSE. Use strong, specific nouns and verbs instead of tired, overused ones. For more ideas on this, check out my book, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION and the following article:
Nail it with Just the Right Word.
~ PICK UP THE PACE. Does your story drag in places? Are your descriptions too lengthy and neutral-sounding?
See: Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner
~ WRITE TIGHT. Read your story aloud to see where you can cut down on wordiness and repetitions. Take out any “little word pile-ups” and all unnecessary detail to improve flow and pacing. Make every word count. See many chapters of Fire up Your Fiction for more specifics on this, and my post,
Don’t Muddle Your Message.
~ WRITE AUTHENTIC DIALOGUE. Read the dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds natural, like that character would actually speak. See my blog post,
Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue.
Avoid these Style Blunders in Fiction.
STEP 3: FINAL PROOFREADING
Dialogue Nuts and Bolts.
Some techniques that work for effective proofreading:
~ Change the font and print out your story on paper or download it to your e-reader or tablet; or get a sample book printed. Then read it in a different location from where you wrote it (preferably away from your home) and make notes.
For more tips on effective final proofreading, see my article,
Tricks and Tips for Catching All Those Little Typos in Your Own Work.
Also, see How to save a bundle on editing costs – without sacrificing quality and
Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)