Writers in the Storm

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March 19, 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.

40 comments on “From the Editor's Desk: Mining Your Manuscript”

  1. Ms, Martin, thank you so much for sharing this. I have multiple books on how to plot, how to develop characters and character arc, deconstruct a novel, etc. This post simplifies so much for me. With your examples and concise, easy to understand explanations, I now feel that I have concrete instruction for improving my writing. Wish I could reblog, but will definitely be following.

  2. Thanks for this - I just hit 'the end' of the draft and now it's time to go back and tighten (as always, my first draft runs way long). I especially like this advice (caps mine): "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."

  3. Thanks for the reminder, Tiffany. Love the scene where she feels out of place...that's the kind of thing that hits readers in the gut, because we all have lived that at one time or another in our lives.

    Off to edit!

  4. I love those small moments that tell volumes about a character! Now you've got me thinking about some of my favorite scenes and breaking them down. Thanks for the push to do this, since I know it will help my writing.

    1. Hi, Julie! Thanks for the comment. I think you'll be astonished how much these little details can add to your story--and it really is fun to weave in the depth and color (to me, anyway...!).

        1. It is like a puzzle, and it's hard. Sometimes I get lazy and just do the outside frame of the puzzle first. Then one of my awesome writer pals like you comes by and says, "No, you have to fill in the middle too." 🙂

  5. Many thanks, Tiffany, for this eye-opener post! As lovessiamese said: This post simplifies it for me. I have Crazy Stupid Love and will watch it again for that scene. Scene/Sequel has been my evil nemesis forever!

  6. This is really a brilliant post. I own the movie and I had no idea it was by the same writer. A movie that doesn't get enough credit is No Reservations with Catherine-Zeta Jones. Perhaps because it was publicized as a comedy. It's not a comedy it's a dance. An emotional dance and I just watched it again. Time to pull out a notebook and deconstruct for the nuances you mentioned. Thanks for an enlightening Monday.

  7. Now I have to see CRAZY, STUPID LOVE! Thanks for the analysis and the call-to-action to look deeper. Fae Rowen says the best stuff about you, and I can see the difference in her writing. You are full of the awesome!

    1. Fae is the best! One of the hardest-working writers in the biz, and with a great positive approach. 🙂 You will love the movie, I think--it's one of my favorites. Ryan Gosling and Steve Carrell should make tons of bromances and buddy movies together. Great chemistry--the whole cast, actually.

  8. Wonderful tips, Tiffany! Thank you so much for the specific explanations with clear examples. It's truly appreciated. All best to you!

  9. I can tell what a good post this is because I stopped midway through and started thinking about my current WIP and a particular scene. I did finish your essay, of course.
    Thanks, Tiffany

  10. I am so lucky to have you as my editor, Tiffany. Laura says working with you on P.R.I.S.M. and Keeping Athena was like getting an MFA. I learned a lot, that's for sure! I love science-fictioning-up my descriptions. Well, and yes, warrioring them up with weapon-like words. Thank you!

  11. Awesome post!! Thank you so much. And like jamesr, I kept thinking about applying this to my current ms as I read the article.

  12. Thanks for a post filled with ideas I can use. What do you suggest when your critique group nixes these pieces of "décor" because they think saying that particular item slowed down the story momentum?

    1. Glad to hear that! As for crit groups...I'm actually working on a piece about that very topic. It's a tough thing--all critique (including an editor's) is opinion, ultimately...just based on varying degrees of experience and varying viewpoints. And the balancing act between the right amount of "decor" and overgilding the lily can be a delicate one.

      I think it's Neil Gaiman's quote that if someone tells you something's not working in your ms, they're almost always right, but if they tell you how to fix it, they're almost always wrong. As with most feedback you get from beta readers and crit partners, the best thing is probably to see whether you hear the same thing over and over--if so, it might be worth another look. If not, it might be one person's subjective view, but perhaps not most readers'. And trust your gut, to a degree.

      (And FWIW, I think you meant this figuratively, but if you're in a crit group that actually makes changes instead of suggestions, it might not be the most constructive group. Even in a professional edit, I make suggestions rather than cuts/changes, and I explain my reasoning for each one, and offer alternatives.)

      1. Thanks for the insights. I prefer to slow things down a bit rather than ripping along at breakneck speed. Some breathing space is welcome.

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