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!

How I Write

Since the beginning of my now, relatively successful, writing blog, I’ve been asked one question above all others – how do you write? This might seem vague at first, but I’ve found it’s actually much more specific than it appears. Over time, when I delved deeper into it for the sake of clarity, I realized the question has always been about the process. More specifically, how I can sit down every day at my computer with the confidence that I’m writing something worth all the effort that I put into it. Up until this moment, I haven’t had an answer, but something changed recently: I am now starting my second novel, Cavalcade. I’m toward the end of a fair amount of planning, and I can’t wait to begin writing. I’m seriously ridiculously excited about it. As rigorously as I preach the writing process, I almost want to skip the rest of the planning and just start it already! … And that’s the way it should be. With the excitement taking the place of my life’s crazy amount of stress, I realize now how I write, and I’m going to share it with you. Keep in mind, this entry might be a little unstructured when compared to some of my other posts. That’s because writing doesn’t always have a formula. Separating emotion from writing, as I often do in my blogs, can be extremely helpful, but it only paints half a picture. Good writing isn’t something that can be done without emotion.

So here I am – starting the whole crazy process all over again. Since I finished my first novel Tiny Instruments in February, six whole months ago, I haven’t written anything but a television pilot, two or three short stories, and ten or fifteen poems. So why, after all this time, am I writing again? The short answer is, I can’t not write anymore. My life was so stressful that I was putting off writing for a later date. I actually got the idea for my second novel in December, fleshed it out in March, and sat on it, waiting for things to get less hectic. Toward the end, it was causing me stress NOT to write it! This brings me to my first big piece of insight: When you get an idea that’s worth writing about, you shouldn’t have to convince yourself that it needs to be written. If you have to battle with your mind, constantly reminding yourself that your story will be good if you just sit down and write it, then I recommend you don’t bother. If you aren’t absolutely in love with the idea, chances are you’ll be miserable as you write it. What’s more, that feeling can leak into your writing. It can, in turn, make you skip steps in the perfection of your book, or at worst, incite you to abandon the novel before you finish it.

The above is why I recommend you pick a unique idea. It’s hard to be in love with an idea when, half way through, you watch a movie that is about EXACTLY what you’re trying to write! I personally, have always hated that old adage, “Everything has been done before, but it hasn’t been done by you.” I disagree. Prior to Inception, had you ever seen a movie about planting a thought in someone’s head by going deeper through levels inside their dreaming mind? I hadn’t. People use this adage to justify writing unoriginal material. It’s bad for the literary world, and it’s bad for the writer.

If you’ve read my blog before, it should be obvious that I prefer stories motivated by the characters or the basic story premise, rather than stories motivated by factors like what’s trending or a novel’s possibility to be made into a movie (one of my biggest pet peeves is when authors tell me they have purposefully simplified their prose so the transition to a movie is easier). Even so, it might be too much to tell an author never to write for money as most authors see very little of it. I can however, confidently give one piece of advice: Never EVER write on spec for the money. If you have a book deal lined up, by all means write it, but if you’re a new writer hoping for the breakout novel, trying to appeal to the groups that will buy your books is like trading your soul for the mere possibility of getting a little money… It’s not a fair trade.

Another thing that will make your novel a lot easier to write is the way that you design it. When planning out your book (or screenplay et cetera…), be careful to leave no room for any “in-between” sections. Anytime something doesn’t have a direct connection with the through-line of your book, it has no business being there. Fluffing up a novel with side stories that break the flow of the plot will not only be annoying to you as a writer and to your readers, but it could be detrimental in your pursuit of possible representation. Most people take an occasional day off from writing. When you do, if you look at where you left off, you will likely find that more often than not, your writing has broken off a bit from where it is supposed to be. The more this happens, the harder it will be to sit down every day and write it.

When I wrote Tiny Instruments I wrote almost every single day. There were exceptions – Thanksgiving at my grandma’s house; romantic outings with my sort-of, almost girlfriend – but throughout the seven months I spent writing my novel, there were very few. I often barely left the house, taking odd editing jobs here and there, rolling into my writer’s meetings unshaven and disheveled… but I was happy. If you’re going to write, don’t kid yourself into thinking you won’t be giving anything up – but if it’s meant to be, make sure you’re happy. If you’re not, change your idea, read more exciting novels and be honest with yourself as to whether or not it needs to be written. If that doesn’t work, wait until it does before you write! Remember, sometimes writing will be a struggle, but most of the time, writing it should be a relief.


Writing Prompt

Write about why your project needs to be written and get excited about it all over again!