March 19th, 2018

From the Editor’s Desk: Mining Your Manuscript

How to Dig Deeper for the Buried Treasure in Your Story

There is a scene in the movie Crazy, Stupid, Love that wrings my heart out every time I see it. Childhood sweethearts and longtime spouses, played by Steve Carrell and Julianne Moore, are separated after the wife’s infidelity. Carrell’s character can’t stop sneaking back over to his house, though, to take care of his lawn under cover of the night, and one evening he’s startled when his cell phone rings and it’s his wife, whom he can see through a dining room window. Unaware that he’s watching her, she pretends to have called for help relighting their pilot light, and although he can clearly see she is nowhere near the furnace, he proceeds to talk her through it.

It’s a simple, beautiful scene that lasts no more than a few minutes, but says a great deal: that Carrell’s character is still in love with his wife in the way he watches her, the tenderness in his voice. That she misses him but is afraid to say so. That there is hope for the two of them to reconcile. Even the ostensible reason for the call carries metaphorical weight—she needs his help relighting the pilot light.

This kind of writing is almost like poetry in the way it packs a lot into a small package. It’s sophisticated storytelling, using a single scene and every beat in it to not only further the plot, but to advance each character’s arc, to raise the stakes, and to create wonderful tension. (The screenplay is written by Dan Fogelman, also the creator of the television show This Is Us, so his ability to squeeze a lot of emotional juice from his stories should come as no surprise.)
Adding dimension and depth in this way isn’t necessarily something you have to worry about in your first drafts (though as you get more adept at it, you may find it weaves itself into your storytelling naturally). Think of it as home décor—you wouldn’t hang the curtains while you’re building the house. But as you revise your work, you can look for places to enrich a scene, mine deeper and create nuance and layers.
For instance, say you have a scene where a stay-at-home mom is invited to a party of “corporate wives” when her husband is being considered for a huge promotion, and she winds up making a huge gaffe and costing her spouse the job.
You can look for ways to add layers from the moment she walks in. Perhaps she stammers her thanks for inviting her to the woman who answers the door, only to have the hostess come up behind and greet her, as the housekeeper who answered the door takes her coat. “There’s coffee in the kitchen-help yourself,” the hostess instructs, and when the woman finally finds the huge kitchen she freezes at the sight of a fancy espresso machine on a counter, all chrome and gleaming and industrial. She gamely walks over and tries to use it…blushing furiously when she can’t figure it out. Then one of the other wives walks over to point her toward the silver urn of brewed coffee on the island, and the woman glances around to see whether anyone noticed before fleeing to the powder room to splash water on her flaming face.
These are just a few seemingly minor moments, but notice how much they accomplish. The intimidation the character feels tells us that she’s uncomfortable/unfamiliar with these upscale surroundings (which are in turn implied by the housekeeper, the high-end appliance, the huge kitchen)- suggesting to the reader that she has a humbler background. Her trying to fit in anyway shows pluck and courage, traits that strengthen her an reveal character. Her blush and looking around when another guest has to help her with the espresso machine shows her embarrassment or shame-and additionally suggests that her flash of courage was fragile-thus showing us an Achilles’ heel for her character and giving her arc somewhere to go. That’s a lot of meaning and facets in a few simple beats of blocking.

You can dissect how skilled writers do this by analyzing scenes in books or movies that are particularly affecting or impactful to you. List out everything you know about the characters and plot in the scene based on what you saw—and see if you can pinpoint exactly what let you know it, as with the Crazy, Stupid, Love scene I describe above. (Try the final scene in that same film, or the opening montage in Up. Or the first chapter—or page—in Elizabeth Berg’s Say When, or Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First, or Laurie Frankel’s Goodbye for Now.) Even the smallest moments and details can reveal fathoms about a plot, a scene, and all the characters in it (watch how much screenwriter Martin McDonagh does with a glass of orange juice in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri).

As you’re creating or revising your own scenes, look for the places where you can “bring in the décor” and add this kind of visceral impact and depth. Without overstating, you can examine every scene, every page, and nearly every single sentence to see whether it’s working as hard as it can for your story, and make it do double (or triple, or more) duty. You can make your prose multitask for you at the overarching macro level and all the way down to the most granular of choices.

With blocking and stage direction, for instance, see if you can turn action into story by layering in color: a character stalks or lumbers or glides—all say something very different about him and his state of mind. One who orders a scotch, neat, and tosses it back is very distinct from the character who asks for a frozen margarita with a straw.

You can also weave in more depth through your characters’ inner lives. Vivify and flesh out character with specific POV references—perhaps a pilot feels that trouble follows him like sparrows in the slipstream, or a Vietnam vet thinks of distance in klicks instead of miles. The sinking stomach and uncomfortable drop of a gaze from one half of a couple in therapy can convey volumes about both characters’ feelings—and their chances.

Look at the words you use and consider shades of meaning, connotation, even sound. If you think “sparkle” and “glitter” are interchangeable, for instance, compare the warmth and joy of the sparkle in a new lover’s eye to the sharp, tawdry glitter of a peep show. Even the phonetics create distinct impressions, the sibilant, breathy fricatives of the former and the sharp, hard plosives of the latter.

Richly textured, multifaceted writing isn’t something reserved only to literary savants—it’s a skill any writer can work on and master. And it’s not a technique applicable only to certain scenes or stories—the most effective storytellers make their words work for them, packing layers and dimensions into every single moment and creating a tapestry with rich strata of depth and color.

Have you ever nuanced your words to do double duty? Have any other examples for us?

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Tiffany Yates Martin has worked in the publishing industry for more than twenty-five years. As a developmental editor she works both with major publishing houses and directly with authors through her editorial consulting service, FoxPrint Editorial.

She has worked on titles by New York TimesUSA Today, and Wall Street Journal best-selling authors as well as manuscripts for unpublished writers, single titles as well as entire series. She’s presented editing and writing workshops for many writers’ groups, organizations, and conferences, including RWA National, Pikes Peak Writers, and the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and has written for numerous writers’ sites and publications.

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