Line editing, by nature, requires the structure of your story to be solid and complete. Finish developmental edits first. It is not an efficient use of your time to perfect sentences that you may not need later. We’ve just wrapped up our series on developmental edits of short fiction. You can find them here:
We defined line editing in our initial post as working on a sentence level. It is digging into your craft to improve the clarity and reception of your manuscript.
These are some of the many questions line editing will ask:
Do the sentences make sense to a reader?
Did you use the right word for that scene’s mood, or does a different one have more impact? Do you need to make sure that you didn’t use overly long sentences in your fast-paced fight scene?
Everyone has a different writing and editing process. Some elements may cross over, but at the end of the day, use whatever method works for you. Let’s start off with some format elements that can benefit your line editing before we dive deeper into the process.
Change the format:
Some may suggest you even print the story out. However, if you are looking for zero cost to low budget ways to elevate your writing you can work around that.
If you have been looking at your manuscript on the standard 8.5in x 11in page that comes with word documents, and 12pt Times New Roman font, it may become difficult for you to start seeing any mistakes. This is specifically because the writer of the manuscript can go story-blind.
Story blindness is when you miss obvious mistakes, or subtle ones, in your own writing because you are overexposed to the material.
Change it up.
Use a smaller page size. Example: 5 in x 8 in.
Use a different font. Georgia, Courier New, even the oft-dreaded Comic Sans can make the manuscript look new.
It may also help to change the page color and font color.
When I write I use white font on a black page.
When I edit I use black font on a white page.
Read the story aloud:
This age-old advice comes in handy for a reason. When the material is read to you by another person or a device, you can’t add in the tonal changes to help push your meaning to the reader. And while you may miss a double word, the computer will read it it aloud. Notice the previous sentence used it twice.
If you aren’t comfortable reading aloud or listening to the computer speakers blaring your manuscript, there are options–and they come with headphones.
Microsoft Word and Google Docs both have text-to-speech features that can read your MS to you. There are also online programs such as naturalreaders.com, and ttsreader.com
Common Mistakes (and how to fix them):
While the above is a way to see your manuscript differently, let’s look at some line editing examples and how you can apply that to your own work.
Please note: This list will not be comprehensive. You may or may not come across these depending on the strengths and weaknesses of your own manuscript.
Too many words:
For example, this is the process of using entirely too many words than the manuscript calls for at any given time, in a way that can cause run-ons.
Cut the fluff.
How many ways can you find to rewrite the above sentence? There is no one right or best answer. Use the version that best suits your manuscript and *relevant era.
*Relevant era: Some line editors and copy editors will take the setting into account when marking up a manuscript. Certain time periods have slightly different grammar rules for authenticity.
Pronouns for clarity:
You may have come across a sentence like the following either in your own work or in another’s.
He plunged the stake into his chest, and he screamed as black smoke poured from his gaping maw.
Bare with the lack of imagination, but can you see how the reader may not understand that there is both a vampire and a vampire hunter in this sentence?
Bonus! Did you also notice that this sentence needed to be split? There is simply too much happening…
Hunter plunged the stake into the vampire’s chest. The creature screamed, black smoke poured from his gaping maw.
Gerunds and when they hinder plausibility:
While the advice may be met with staunch resistance, let me show you what editors mean when they say gerunds and past participle phrases.
Action scenes, or when speed is necessary, the past participle phrase seems an easy answer to make things happen quickly.
This is, by far, one of the most common errors I see when working with authors.
Jumping up, he ran down the stairs and flipped the breaker.
Our brains are hardwired to see these as chronological events. First this, then that. However, that is not what has been written. In the above example, the character is running down the stairs while jumping up–something that the author clearly intended to be two separate actions.
A quick fix:
He ran down the stairs and flipped the breaker.
Unless the character’s jumping is relevant, it’s not an important word. The reader will know that in order to run down the stairs he stood in some manner. Keeping or cutting the phrase in the sentence is a matter of personal taste.
Make sure that, if you are using a gerund (an -ing word) to start a sentence, it makes sense.
The right emotional word:
The character and their emotions are how a reader experiences a story. It is true that you can show emotions by describing the way a character feels, and how it affects their body and mind, but you also have to make sure that you have utilized your narration properly. This is not to say that you should be using telling words like “angry,” “happy,” or “sad.” The right emotional word means, to ask yourself “Is this the best descriptor word for my character’s, or my scene’s mood?”.
Which of the following examples sounds more like the creature is dangerous?
Snow crunched under the weight of the creature as he trudged through the ice-laden briar patch. Wispy flakes of magic fell from his scaled skin and swirled in the air like campfire embers.
Snow crunched under the weight of the creature as he trudged through the iced-over thicket. Wispy flakes of magic fell from his scaled skin and swirled in the air like little fairy lights.
We covered some common problems and solutions for line editing, however, you may have a more specific manuscript problem to address. Do you have any specific line editing questions that we missed? Drop them in the comments below.
Next Self-Editing Topic:
Next time we’ll continue our dive into prose and cover the big one everyone thinks about when they hear editing. How do you copy edit your own work?
Self-Editing Your Manuscript: Revitalizing Your Setting
The setting should be as essential to the manuscript as the character and plot. Without the setting, your characters would meander around an abyss of nothing with no discernible life, just floating people and an occasional pop of something like a dagger in their hands, or even a staircase. Have you noticed that that happens as you read back over your manuscript?
The setting should be intrinsic to the world. If characters appear in a place, there needs to be a reason for it, and if the characters are in a setting they need to interact with it. Otherwise, they have become floating bodies in an abyss of white with nothing to help ground the readers in their reality. The setting is more than what we see with our eyes. It should involve all the senses: sight, touch, sound, taste, and scent. Word count is precious in short fiction; do not let the eyes have it all.
Note: if your character is missing any of these senses, simply skip over it and think of how you can use the others to better let your reader imagine the world as the characters are experiencing it.
As you work through your manuscript, also ask yourself if you are using the right words to describe your character’s senses. A character’s personality and emotion will heavily impact the words used to describe the setting. Imagine coming upon a pond in the forest. That little bit of water is going to have a different description to a group of friends on a nature hike than it would to stranded travelers who are lost and dehydrated. In the same way, it would be different to someone who is afraid of the water as opposed to someone who loves it. The character(s) should help you define the word choice for setting your scenes.
This is one not often forgotten when working through a manuscript. Many writers find themselves hacking away the words ‘see’, ‘saw’, and ‘seen’ like thorny brambles around a golden treasure chest. You are free to simply describe things that the characters are observing because it is your description that lets us follow the camera pan of their eyes.
Did you have a quick blanket-style description to start the scene before you focused on the more intricate details? This establishing shot is a quick view to place the main elements of your story so that the reader understands what to imagine. This makes it less confusing when your characters start interacting, as you’ve already established certain things were present.
It can be easy to forget to include what things feel like when writing, as most of the feeling goes into the emotions. Rough bark on a tree scratching against someone’s hand, or how hot or cold something is as it touches the skin. That blade may be cold when pressed to your character’s neck by an enemy, or it could still be warm with the previous victim’s blood.
Did you make sure that your character was able to touch/feel things in the physical world of their setting? Patting someone on a shoulder in congratulations will feel different if they’ve freshly bathed, or they’ve just been covered in monster entrails.
This is not always another character, but their surroundings. If they do not interact with where they are, it may be time to consider why they are even in that particular place.
Whether hearing the trilling of monsters closing in, the groaning of another character, a babbling brook, or the scratch of pencils on paper… Sound is just another way to breathe more life and immersion into your character’s world.
A note on filters. Heard and hear, while valid at times, do not always need to be used to describe the sound in one’s fiction. Simply being told that a piano played softly, or nails scratched against wood is more than enough for the reader.
Did you incorporate sound into your manuscript, in more than just dialogue?
This is where food is always fun to play with in a manuscript, but with short fiction, what if you don’t have a scene where the characters eat? You don’t have to add those kinds of scenes just to fulfill this sensory element.
Maybe you have a character just wanting to get through the story so they can have a delectable piece of pie that they may or may not get by the end. If a character has their face pushed into the dirt, dirt has a taste. The grainy texture can make them overly aware of their tongue, and even bring bile–which also has a taste–to their mouth. Blood can leave a metallic flavor, and there’s a powdery substance on gloves.
Have you included taste in your manuscript, either through action or memory?
Much like with taste, it’s not hard to want to toss in every delicious sounding word to describe the way food smells, or even someone–sandalwood is quite popular. However, scent goes beyond food and even people when it comes to setting a scene.
An unused and dusty room can smell musty, or if there is something old and decaying in the cellar, rot and death can choke your character. It is also easy to flip the script, as they say, and include appealing scents, a common one being the cleanliness of lemon, or freshly baked cookies, and have it at war with the scene–more disturbing for your reader.
Bonus Setting Tip: Weather.
One of the easiest ways to set the mood and even speak for a story’s theme is the weather. By nature, humans–readers–take cues from their surroundings. Dark clouds gathering in the distance can be an omen, and a storm with a torrential downpour when you finally enact your vengeance can be a visual theme of washing the old version of the character away. In that same way, your character can have a happy, shining day, with no clouds and blue sky when something tragic happens–the weather helps the irony of the concept of a perfect day hit a bit harder.
How have you used the weather to set the mood in your manuscript? You may notice that you placed everything organically. If you didn’t, consider ways to pull more depth of the world up for the reader. Is there an interesting way to play with the weather of your setting to make the story mood have more impact?
Next Self-Editing Topic: Next time we’ll start diving into your prose. How can you line edit your own work?
Self-Editing Your Manuscript: How to Assess World-building in short fiction
When most writers hear the term world-building, the first thing that generally comes to mind are sprawling epics, i.e., A Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time. However, world-building applies to any type of fiction, even contemporary pieces.
Magic and royalty are just as important as knowing how to ride a subway and how an elevator works in others.
Suspension of disbelief is how well you have suspended, portrayed, and consumed the reader with your story. Do they accept the well-written world and its characters as they are, or have small things snuck into the manuscript that makes them pause within their reading and tilt their heads, questioning “but why?”
This is especially true when writing fantastical fiction with supernatural or paranormal elements where the reader needs to accept the implausible as plausible.
Not everyone believes in ghosts, but in your story they need to be real.
Not everyone believes in magic, but in your story it should be as much the truth as breathing.
For the theme, it is perfectly fine to give the reader a reason to think, a thing to dwell on long after the story has ended. That is valid and intentional. A writer should never want the reader to question if something was necessary to include. Questioning the intention can break the suspension of disbelief or seem outright illogical.
These inconsistencies with world-building can make it look as though the writer didn’t quite have the grasp on their world and their characters.
Real World World-building:
Notice, this was not titled Contemporary World-building, and that’s because our world spans so many things and time periods. It is making sure that you aren’t using a type of car before it was made. It is writing real-world places based on actual maps, or even creating a fictional town and remembering where you put city hall.
For example, your 1920s mafia will not have cell phones. If your character is ever on the phone, you will need to know how early landlines and rotary phones work.
What if you have a character with a snake bite and want to inject them with antivenom? The story should take place from the late 1890s to the present day. There are some exceptions, as present-day may not have access to everything. For example,a dystopian short story may have characters that don’t have access to anti-venom.
If your characters have traveled in your manuscript, to help keep your world-building consistent with your Real World stories, you can use basic tools like Google Maps to physically visit places you may not have access to.
If you are editing a form of a historical piece, it can help to jot down relevant notes on a Google Doc, Word file, or even in a physical notebook so that you can keep to the facts of the time. If you are a plotter, someone who writes things down to varying degrees beforehand, you might do the research before you write. However, a panster, someone who likes the freedom to just write as it comes to them, then jotting down this information can be targeted research after the draft has made it onto paper.
Whatever era you have written in, research is going to be your best friend, and if you aren’t entirely sure how to flesh out this research, reach out to fellow writers. The #writingcommunity on Twitter is fabulously supportive!
Secondary World World-Building:
This is most likely what you think of with world-building. Creating an entire world from scratch, or loosely based on our own, is what many fantasy authors love to do. The religion, the culture, the people… events, days of the week, and maybe a touch of conlanging (creating a new language).
Short fiction, unlike those sprawling epic sagas mentioned above, doesn’t have the time to build up the world to the same degree and dive into all the details. While you can still have a beautifully thought out world, sometimes the little details you can slip into longer pieces don’t have a place in your story.
Any secondary world-building detail needs to be as precise as the other elements, completely owned by the characters and the world without leaving unexplained sections. If the reader has to question the inclusion of any part of the story, particularly with short fiction, then you have not held their suspension of disbelief.
Was (this element) necessary to this particular story?
Fantasy is a particular beast on its own, given that the worlds can be entirely made up, and with short fiction we may only explore the smallest parts of it at a time.
It may help you keep your world consistent and be extra fun for your future readers if you dabble in map-making. However, you do not have to be a cartographer to put together a basic map (especially if it’s just for you). You can find easy-to-use tools here at inkarnate, which will let you work as small as a city/town. As a bonus, they have both a free and paid version based on your needs.
Helpful Tip! Even if you only have one planned story in a particular secondary world, it never hurts to write down the world-building information either before you’ve penned the story, or after, so that you can revisit it without making mistakes on your own creation.
Magical Systems (if applicable):
In fantasy worlds, be it on our earth or a secondary one, you may have a magical system in place. Whether your character actually casts spells or uses more intuitive skills, there are some rules it would benefit your manuscript for you to know. The best part about those rules is that you create them.
Magic aspects come in many forms and are sometimes spiritual or energy-based. To see the vast differences in magical systems, compare the differences and similarities in Naruto and their chakra energy and Dragon Ball Z’s chi. You can also compare the differences and similarities in Elise Kova’s Air Awakens series and the TV show Avatar the Last Airbender.
The rules that you created for your character’s magic system should answer some very basic questions:
What can they do with their abilities?
What supplies/feeds their ability?
What can’t they do with their abilities?
Does this differ from person to person, or is it universal?
When you go through your manuscript to self-edit, make sure that you worked these answers in when applicable. For example, did you have your character using multiple high-energy types of magic and forget to add in the corresponding consequence? Shortness of breath, feeling dizzy or potentially needing to rework a battle so that they had the ability for their climactic hit to the antagonist. Understanding your magic system can help you figure out if you’ve created realistic magic, or if you’ve got Mary Sue/Gary Stu magic running around in a *god-mod mode.
*god-mod mode for anyone unfamiliar with the terminology is when you have essentially removed all consequences and obstacles from your character and they have no true opposition. This is the opposite of what readers want. Readers want someone to cheer for, someone whose journey they are excited to see, because they actually have something to overcome, unlike a god-mod mode character.
Bonus Tip on World-building: Remember, if it hurts your writer’s heart to cut aspects of world-building that you put so much thought into, you are allowed to write another story in that world where that aspect of the world-building is more relevant to the story! You have that freedom. Go forth and create!
Next Week’s Topic:
We’ll dive into the setting and discuss how your self-edits can create a more immersive experience for future readers!
Pacing is an important part of a functioning manuscript.
Good prose, great characters, even a working plot can all be in place, but if the story is rushed or too slow… readers will lose attention.
There are two ways to check the pacing of your story. To simplify the process, we are going to use the terms Macro Pacing for the large scale pacing on the manuscript as a whole unit and Micro Pacing for the smaller scale page level edits.
NOTE: Part of today’s self-editing topic requires familiarity with plotting techniques that are heavily used in the process for outliners. However, checking the pacing of your novel does not require you to have one. It merely requires the manuscript.
For your convenience, we have provided worksheets that will make this process easier. You will find them below the next section.
Do you know where the First Pillar of your story should fall? The Midpoint? And what in the world are pinch points?
It is true that some writers don’t like feeling like their story must fit into a ‘write by numbers’ formula, but this is a guide. It’s meant to help you. It does not exist to stifle your creativity.
For example: If you have Critique Partners or Beta Readers telling you that your story is dragging, or moving so fast they simply couldn’t keep up…etc. the structure is the special key to fix that!
These points mainly apply to writers who are using general narrative formats. While there are many, let’s focus on the most popular style guide for short stories (and western fiction in general): Three-Act Structure. (As a graphic you can save for your referencing ease.)
You can use the above points to check your manuscript’s pacing by applying a few percentages. These percentages are not made up but found from delving into screen-writing and literature to mark the perfect places for the above-mentioned points/moments to fall for impactful stories. There is math involved, but I promise you it’s just plugging stuff into a formula, getting the answer, and then scrolling (if you are on a digital device) through your manuscript.
Act One is the first 25%.
Act Two is 26%-75%.
Act Three is 75%-100%
To check your pacing, simply plug your overall page count (or word count) into the following formula.
If my short story is fifteen pages long, and I need to check that my Act One ends in the proper place, all I have to do is the following:
OverallCount x 0.25 = End of Act One
15 x 0.25 = 3.75
That means my Act One should conclude, meaning that I have everything set up and ready to roll into the next act, on/around page 4 of the manuscript.
If by page 4 everything is set up and my two main points are in place, then I know that Act One’s pacing is good. However, if there is an issue, then I will know what needs my attention.
If the section is too long, I can search back over the elements to see if I have included any superfluous information.
If the section is too short, then I will know that I need to make sure that I have included all necessary information.
Here are the worksheets we have created to make this process easier for you:
In what we are going to call “micro pacing,” we are going to cover a few “small” aspects of a manuscript that can hinder the pacing. Hooks, sentence length, and point-of-view.
Tasty points of intrigue that are intended to have the reader salivating. They are unable to put the story down because they have to know what comes next. These are not things that are contrived or made up; they should already be in the story.
Think of these visually. Have you noticed in TV shows that something intentionally vague or surprising happens before the commercial rolls in? Scriptwriters do this on purpose! You should too. Control your readers’ experiences by planting hooks before your scene breaks. If your scene has ended on a note that feels like a present with a prettily tied bow, the manuscript should be ending.
Dwight Swain, an Oklahoma Writing Hall of Fame inductee, screenwriting documentary pioneer, and author explained the format of a scene as follows: Goal, conflict, disaster.
Goal: The character wants something.
Conflict: Something is pushing back against the character from achieving their goal.
Disaster: Something happens to stop the character from achieving their goal.
Disaster does not mean an apocalypse, or death, per se, but it does mean that if the story hasn’t been resolved the character should still have a need.
Ex: Maybe the protagonists succeeded in getting the silver to stop the werewolves, but all that was available was a silver dagger…and now they’ve got to decide who is going to be the lamb that allows the others a chance at escape.
Without a hook, the pacing, tension, and the story overall can drag because the character wasn’t in a state of ‘need’. If your character is always supplied with everything easily and has no hard choices to make, go back to the lesson on Character to better assess the internal and external conflict.
Bonus Tip: Giving your story a hook does NOT mean that you should be giving the story over-maxed conflict. There are definitely times that a character should be allowed to breathe, or else, your story may come across as angsty and melodramatic.
Beware of purple prose, or excessive detail, where you can wax on a bit too long of the seemingly more poetic aspects of your story. Even if more dramatic language might be serviceable in a particular scene, try to contain it. Use it wisely. The writer can easily, and subconsciously, drag on with consecutive long sentences, and these run-ons can slow the pacing down because they simply take forever to read.
In other words, use varying lengths of sentences, not just long, drug out one. Short sentences are okay; short paragraphs are also a nice way to break up consecutive long ones. By varying your sentence length, you create unique pacing and keep reader interest.
The details may seem pretty, but tightening a story can be one of the hardest parts next to actually writing it. Do you need that adjective, adverb, prepositional phrase? Your pacing of the events themselves may be spot on if you cut unnecessary words, which in turn can create varying lengths of sentences – sometimes, quickening the pace where, otherwise, it was too slow.
Point of view:
How can Point of View hinder your pacing? Easily. It’s actually a concept known as ‘navel gazing’. With this pace-hindering element, the manuscript spends too much time in the narrator’s head and thoughts and feelings.
It is easiest to do this in certain deep POVs such as Third Limited, or First.
If you are using a deep POV, make sure each thought and feeling is necessary and fits with the cause and effect, or the action and reaction of the story. If the internal narration does not advance the plot, cut it.
It is also possible to do the exact opposite of this and forget to include enough detail on the character’s thoughts/feelings to rationalize why they are making certain decisions. This lack of detail can lead to a story that reads as plot-plot-plot with no emotional pull to keep your readers grounded in the story.
Here is a worksheet we have created to help you work through the macro and micro pacing elements in your manuscript.
World-building is not just for long epics. It’s for any story you write – in any genre. Place, which is setting and thus world, should have an impact on your characters. However, putting too much (or too little!) can be detrimental to the success of your story. We’ll be covering how to make sure that you haven’t put too many details in your descriptions while ensuring you’ve included enough. See you next week!
The plot of your story, boiled down to the basics, is what happens.
If you are a plotter, you may have created a general idea or detailed idea of this in your outlining stage. If you are not a plotter, or you were a plotter who deviated from their outline, now would be the time to create an outline. Not because you need it to write your story, but because it’s a helpful tool for self-editing.
NOTE: Today’s self-editing topic revolves around creating an outline. For those authors who do not use outlines, we have created a worksheet to use instead. Feel free to download the worksheet with our compliments:
This is a helpful tool for a more cohesive story edit because it allows you to see your story at a glance. The one you actually put onto paper. That’s why the idea for this type of post-outline method is relies on what happened/happens.
If you haven’t created this yet, make a note to create your post-outline. With short fiction, this should be fairly simple.
Ideally, this method will work the best if you can break your manuscript down into scenes, the small sections of the overall story. By doing so, you can give yourself a comprehensive self-edit that can save you editing frustrations later on.
Can you already see some issues in either version of the outlines?
What is Your Dramatic Question?
The dramatic question is a way to ask your story’s goal. What did you want to happen in your story? What was the conflict presented that the character had to overcome?
Story Goal Example: Character A must defeat Character B.
Dramatic Question: Will Character A defeat Character B?
The dramatic question should be present in every scene of a short fiction piece. The reader should not have to ask what the goal of the story is, or why certain parts are there. This spans from chapters to sentences to word-level cuts.
As you work through the outline you made, do you notice any sections of story that don’t serve your dramatic question? If so, time to cut it from the manuscript.
“But I hate cutting my work to pieces! I worked really hard on that scene/chapter…”
I have a special story for you, completely and utterly from a reader’s perspective. When you cut those sections of the story out… save them. Yes, it’s true, you put a lot of work into those scenes, but sometimes they just don’t have a place in this story. The information may not apply to the overall actions, or there was no real movement forward, or you may write it with the wrong POV Character… so cut them from your story with pride. Then use them as Bonus Scenes that are story-related but separate pieces of the story. These bonus scenes are really fun ways to connect with your readers who adore your universe. You can also revise the scenes to create another part of your world, a continuation or prequel for yet another standalone adventure.
Do you have one too many scenes where the character doesn’t have a setback or a breakthrough?
Short stories, unlike longer fiction forms, are an important artform with specific external conflict needs, one that does not allow for long story lulls. A few lackluster pages/scenes in a short story can easily sink the story. That is why, when you are writing them, you are slowly conquering kingdoms to earn your crown in tight and concise stories.
Check through your outline, be as subjective as you can to the plot itself. Ask yourself if the scene/section serves the overall dramatic question. Also, did you notice any overdone conflict, or trials and challenges that have nothing – or very little to do with – the dramatic question of the story? It’s easy to get so focused on creating conflict, you can accidentally over-create. If your plot flows smoothly and your characters are solid, the conflict will write itself.
This is just one of the infinite options for how you can format an outline. Use whatever works best for you.
Self-Editing Technique: The Backward Plot
You’ve checked it forward – now check it backward. Open a new file on your computer, or get a blank sheet of paper out. We’re going to make sure it functions from end to beginning.
With a backward plot, you start from your last scene. Sometimes, you learn you caught everything in the first check, but other times, you may see added bits of detail missed or things that needed foreshadowing.
Cause and effect are so important to a backward plot, especially since you’ll be reading it as effect and cause. Did everything you wanted to happen have a motivation? Did it have a reason to be there? Or did was an effect/cause desired?
Even if your plot is perfect, this is also an easy and fun way to check your foreshadowing! Break down a ‘big reveal’ in the story like you are an episode of What’s New Scooby-Doo, and the gang is doing a tell-all for the villain they’ve just captured. Did all the subtle, or not-so-subtle, hints make it onto the page?
This only needs to be done in a way that you can read it. Below, I’ve shown a minor example of just a brain-map style that connects the dots in a backward plot. You may do this in your regular plot outline and feel you’ve captured all the points. The backward plot is just another option to see your plot differently.
What’s Next Week’s Topic?
Pacing is huge in short fiction! So huge, in fact, that it will make a story soar high – or burn as it falls from the sky. It’s that important. Next week, we’ll cover the different plotting structures and how knowing those structure can improve your manuscript’s pacing. Don’t miss it!
Characters are a pinnacle of storytelling. The way writers can bring them to life on a page is fascinating! They are also one of the hardest parts of storytelling to get right.
Characters are a deep subject that I could go on for multiple posts about, but for this purpose, I’m going to delve into Characters for shorter fiction. When you are writing a novel, you have much more space and time to break down different aspects of characterization to slowly breathe life into your characters. Shorter fiction does not have that luxury or the writer has risked dull characters and with that a dull story.
Our focus will be the protagonist (the main character) of your story. However, feel free to have your extra files with the backstories of your side characters fleshed out in more detail. The more you know your character, the better you can write them!
For teaching purposes, I’m going to be using this short story snippet to help illustrate ways to apply the six elements. Below is the original copy. We’ll take another look at the end to see how all of the changes look on the page.
Please note: There are plenty of other aspects of editing that could be adjusted, but I am only going to be looking at this snippet for elements of Character.
6 Elements of Character:
A character without a goal has nothing for the story to grab onto. They simply have no stakes in the story or a purpose if they do not have a want that means something to them. Some may even suggest that, without a goal, you simply have no story.
For self-editing, this comes into play when you look back through each scene.
Did your character have a goal?
If not, the scene may need to be revised or rewritten. All scenes should involve a character trying to achieve a goal on some level.
Does the goal come across strongly?
Short stories have ONE major goal, and the entire story is about reaching it. Every small scene level goal will be a step closer to the major one. If a scene or two seems out of place with the major goal, revise or cut it for a stronger manuscript.
Opening scenes may be an exception depending on the manuscript. Many characters start out with their ‘normal’ world for a reason, with the story catalyst not having happened yet that gives them the story goal.
To see this in action, we’ll take the original first draft at the top of the post and we’ll add notes to help make it stronger.
Below, you may notice the story snippet has gotten a bit longer. Adding in a motivation involved reworking the first chunk of the story to include the ‘why’ and gave the character a definable goal.
2) Strengths and Skills
A character should know how to do things and have a way of handling their environment. There are always exceptions to this, but more often than not, your character will have some type of strength or skill that helps define them. It could be the reason they work in a certain field, or why they are needed for the story.
Does your character have a strength?
Strength is internal. Example characteristics: confident, intelligent, determined or charming.
Did they use it?
They should always use their strength. It is integral to the way a character acts and reacts. A confident character will not approach a situation the same way as an intelligent one.
If your character has more than one strength, the key is in how you write them. A purely confident character may just trust themselves to barge into a situation. However, an intelligent and confident character could break down their adversaries before having a proper plan and then barge into the situation confident that they have the upper hand.
It helps to write out character strengths because it goes hand-in-hand with their flaw.
Does your character have a skill?
They could be good thieves, liars, mages. Or perhaps they have a degree in archeology or mortuary science.
Did they use it?
Sometimes a skill is just to get the character into a certain setting for tone/mood. Maybe you needed someone who could logically get trapped in a zoo at night, or perhaps you needed someone who could fight that monster plaguing the village on the other side of town.
When writing short stories, it’s important that skills apply to the story. We don’t need to know that the protagonist is good at baseball unless those particular skills are going to come into play in the story, or explain why they are in a particular setting.
If you notice you piled on strengths, or gave your character two-too-many talents, cut them down in revisions to only the necessary ones. Relevancy is key!
As you can see in my mark-up below, the character skills weren’t particularly strong, so I’ve made notes to add more in the skills category.
Below is the edited version with a punch given to the protagonist’s skills.
If the goal is the starting issue with developing characters, I think flaws come in a close second. Most authors don’t have an issue at all with giving their character strengths and skills that can help them. Flaws, however, are more complex and are an important part of creating a relatable character. They are the key to not writing a Mary Sue/Gary Stu typology (aka: bland character).
Readers want to cheer for your characters, but when characters are too perfect (no flaws), there’s isn’t much to cheer about. The character will succeed, and readers won’t have the ‘but what if…’ feeling they get with a successful page turner. Therefore, it’s important to build in natural character flaws for the story.
Does your character have the right flaw?
Do not simply google flaws because you can’t think of where your character falls short and toss them into the story devil-may-care. Their flaw may also be the result of a wound-causing event that happened earlier in their life; though, the full exploration of that is normally found within longer fiction like novellas and novels. If you are writing a short story, it may not be imperative for the reader to know why the character has the flaw that they do, just that it exists.
A proper flaw will compliment your character’s strength. It is a mirror of their strength. Some examples of this tension and conflict in a character are:
Confident → Arrogant or Presumptuous
Intelligent → Lacking Empathy or Patience
Determined → Stubborn or Aggressive
Charming → Manipulative or Non-committal
When reading back over your manuscript, did you stay consistent with your character’s flaw? Humans on the whole have to be pushed to change, and even then, it does not come easy.
An introverted, low confident character does not have to become extroverted and filled with confidence. You can have confident introverts and low-confidence extroverts.
If your character’s flaw properly compliments their strength, that’s great! If not, reassess the strengths you’ve given to your character and find their flaw. Writing it down will help as you go through revisions to be sure you are sticking to your established characterization.
Let’s take another look at our developing snippet for character flaws:
As you can see in the mark up, the character actually had a conflict with her flaw description that needed to be addressed. Let’s see how that looks when her flaw is smoothed out:
4) Internal Conflict
Hand-in-hand with strengths and flaws, the internal conflict your character goes through is how they are going to handle their flaw — and their coming struggles. Character’s handle flaws through one of three ways: Positive, Negative, and Flat.
Positive Arc: The character will overcome their flaw within the story time-frame and become a better version of themselves.
Negative Arc: The character will not overcome their flaw within the story time-frame and will become a worse version of themselves.
Flat Arc: The character will not change within the story time-frame.
Does your character have internal conflict?
Did you capture their struggle on the page? Change is difficult. It requires a lot of self-realization. Sometimes people do not change for the better, and sometimes they don’t change at all. Characters are no different.
Consequences are key here. Your character should have to make hard choices. If a choice is too easy or too simple, you may be missing conflict, or have chosen the wrong one for the story. Therefore, choosing the right flaw that creates conflict is important. The character has to have something to rise against, or succumb to.
If you have written a flat character arc, the conflict will take place outside of the character, with them struggling to understanding their world.
Dig a little deeper into a character’s internal conflict by asking what the character is afraid of. A fear can help drive their internal conflict as much as a flaw can, particularly if they are in a position where they have to overcome it. The reader then gets to see the character fight through that fear on the page and not only will relate to them but will also continue to cheer for them.
Does your character have a fear?
Fears can be negative or positive in nature. For example: fear of the dark and death, or fear of success at work (because they don’t feel deserving of it).
Go back through your manuscript and make sure that you’ve given them chances to both show it overcome it.
Remember: Fears should not be sprinkled on like bad flaws (just for the sake of it). Fears in fiction should be relevant. If your character is afraid of spiders, readers will expect that that fear comes into play in the story; otherwise, there was no reason for it. Whether they are a child who has to pass through empty spider webs, or a burly man about to take on a kaiju-sized arachnid, the fear must be relevant to both the external conflict within the story.
In the example below, after reading through the snippet, there was a huge issue found with characterization. The internal conflict never made it onto the page!
Below you’ll notice that the word count went up again as the character was given some internal struggle to make their journey harder, and drive their character arc forward.
5) External Conflict:
Yes, external conflict is a part of your character and your story. The external conflict needs to challenge your character’s specific strengths and flaws. It needs to dig deep and make the inner conflict come to life.
Do you have external conflict in your manuscript?
Most writers can answer yes to this one. There is almost always something going on around the protagonist. An outside force that acts as a catalyst for change, or a challenge. This may be an event or character. Either way, it is the thing outside your character that they will overcome, or succumb to.
Tip: This may be an actual person, a tornado, or a monster.
Ideally, the external conflict wants the opposite goal of the character, or at least a darker path to achieve the same goal.
To the earlier tip: A tornado doesn’t exactly ‘want’ anything, but its path of destruction could still stand in the protagonist’s way.
Does the external conflict challenge your character’s internal conflict?
For the internal conflict to work, the external conflict needs to challenge and push the character to make hard decisions. Simple choices are just that, easy and lacking in tension.
Tension and conflict, like flaws, should not be randomly selected and sprinkled on. There should be a reason for each external conflict to exist because it’s going to push back against the character in a way that keeps the reader enraptured by the character and their story.
Technically, our snippet had external conflict set up from the start, but let’s look closer to see if there are ways to make that conflict stronger.
After reevaluating, a bird in a tree wasn’t a particularly strong connection to the outside conflict, nor did it set up what could or was going to happen next. Instead, we need to make things harder for the protagonist.
In the sample below, you can see how we knocked her out of the tree.
This joyous little factor is about as abstract as they come on the surface level. Chemistry is not just romance. Many times people see the word ‘chemistry’ and automatically think two people must be falling in love, but it’s not. It is the special ‘it’ factor that connects the reader to your characters and the main character to other characters, while also driving the reader to keep reading.
Chemistry is when you are excited for two characters to face off on the page because their interactions are so entertaining or downright horrifying. Maybe they are protagonists/villains, maybe they are best friends. They demand attention when they are in a scene.
It is relatability — not likability — that makes the reader come back to your character.
Special Tip: You can help amp up the chemistry between your character and the reader by not giving the reader a filter or veil they have to dig through to get to the raw emotion of your story. Your character is the catalyst to why the reader stays with them, so be sure you are following the adage of Showing vs Telling (when it applies).
At this point, I’ve already edited out most of the filter words and have the elements a bit stronger than they were at the beginning. Of course, those may change a bit more through the editing process. Editing is what gives you a ‘living’ draft, in that, anything is subject to change while you are bringing it closer to what you want it to be.
Let’s look at the original snippet one more time, just to refresh what we started with. This sample sits at 296 words.
By looking at Elements of character alone (not even addressing deep grammar and line editing) the newest draft of this scene sits at 717 words, and the characterization comes through more clearly than our original.
You’ll note above that I did not mention some elements of character creation, such as appearance or the debate over whether or not to answer questionnaires. If you are in the self-editing stage, creation would have been done already. So it’s not an appropriate editing step.
What’s next week’s topic?
Plot, and thus story, is extremely important to creating a page turner. Plot holes, then, are the ruin of an otherwise interesting story. So how do you find and edit out those sneaky plot holes and story inconsistencies? Find out next week when we dive into Plot. Don’t miss it!
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