On Story Focus

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader - not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

-E.L. Doctorow


Consider the following segment:

Jack shot an angry look at Jessica. Suddenly, he blamed her for ruining his life. Seeing her looking so smug after saying something so hurtful made him want to slap her… but he wasn’t that type of man. Instead, he took his anger out on the vase - her grandmother’s vase, something that he knew was valuable to her. She could see him moving for it, but he was too quick. Before either of them knew it, it was shattered, and there was no going back.

What’s wrong here? The scene I’ve written doesn’t lack for emotional drama. The events are interesting, and they connect in a way that makes sense… Most people, when asked what is wrong with this scene will say essentially the same thing: “I just wasn’t able to connect to it.” A lot of readers will cite the situation, saying that a man capable of such cruelty is not a character that they can easily relate to… perhaps, but the root cause of this feeling of disconnection is something more subtle.

It’s about story focus. I realized while working with a client recently that there is one piece of advice I give above all others. Chances are, if you’ve worked with me at some point in the past, you’ve probably heard me say it at least once. Avoid having your story become a collection of events.

There are several ways you can accomplish this. One way is to shift how you confer information to the reader. Simply describing something is great when it comes to informing the reader, but it lacks emotional depth. Jack felt blood rush to his clenched fists is far stronger than Jack was angry.

Another way to make a scene more exciting is to bring out our other senses. Most writers never get beyond what a character feels and what he or she sees, but those are only two of our senses. You should make it a common practice in your writing to look for ways to add in the others.

An even more important thing to remember is that the goal of a story is to communicate something (or many things). In The Great Gatsby, for example, it is to show the corrupt, consumerist nature of America, and to show that modern people live their lives in a way that tramples on the best souls among us.

So, if the goal of a story is to show something, why should it be any different in a scene? What am I trying to communicate in the earlier scene? Is the point that Jack felt hurt and wanted to lash out at Jessica? Absolutely not. That is simply what happened. The point of a scene shouldn’t be to show the events themselves. If it is, it lacks the story focus that we as readers constantly need to put our trust in the author. We have a need, at all times, to know that the author is going somewhere.

Here is the same scene written again. This time, the point is to make us get a sense of Jack’s inner struggle between his desire to treat women respectfully, and his seething hatred of his wife--

Jack tried to calm himself. He wanted so badly to love his wife again the way he once did… but something in Jessica’s eyes - her complete lack of remorse - pushed him over the edge. Every curve that he once loved, every crevice that he once kissed, disgusted him now. Standing there with that sickening smirk on her face, he saw the cause of every bit of pain he’d felt those last seventeen years.

“You bitch!” he shouted, stepping forward.

She wasn’t smirking then… he felt powerful. For once, he felt like he was in control. He raised his hand in the air, ready to strike… But as he did, he felt sick. It wasn’t because he thought she didn’t deserve it. Christ almighty, she deserved much worse! But he couldn’t let himself become that type of man. After spotting her grandmother’s vase, he switched his target. She read his intentions in a moment, but it was too late. Before she had time to say a word, the shards of that once beautiful piece of pottery lined the hardwood floor. The pieces mimicked the remnants of their relationship. There was nothing left for either of them anymore but pain.


You can’t accomplish something if you don’t know what you’re supposed to accomplish. View your scenes like building a house. You may know what you want your house (your story) to look like - and that’s fantastic - but you have to use solid bricks to get there.


Writing Prompt

Write 50-100 words on exactly what you want to show in your piece, and then write it out in 500 words. Remember the advice of E.L. Doctorow, and be sure to incorporate multiple senses!