Improving a Story

Wednesday, January 09, 2008
By Sharon Mortz

I never finish a story. I may metaphorically type “The End” and even submit it to contests and magazines but it’s never really finished. I am always looking for ways to improve whatever I write. Every story is candidate for review and rewrite. I let the words simmer and go back to them days or weeks later. Time doesn’t usually improve my writing but a fresh look often reveals ways to improve a story. I can beef up the language/dialogue, add analogies (I love rich writing though all my teachers say tone down the vocabulary – that’s another blog) or cut some of the mindless drivel. Or I can change the entire course of the story.

I recently entered a story in a contest and opted for the critique they offered. The judges specified ten areas that they reviewed in judging the entries. Now I use these ten points as guideline for each story as I look to improve. The ten points are From Seven Hills Writing Contest.

1. Mechanics: Do word count and format conform to contest rules? A story can be automatically disqualified if the rules are not followed.

2. Hook: Is the reader drawn into the story from the beginning?

3. Narrator: Does the narrator (first person) come across as interesting and complex?

4. Other people/animals: Are they revealed in significant detail?

5. Technique: Is there a balance between showing and telling?

6. Language Use: Is the writing fresh and free of clichés? Does the choice of words keep the reader embedded in the story? Does the writer rely on adjectives and adverbs instead of strong nouns and verbs?

7. Dialogue and Narrative: Does the dialogue sound natural to the people and situation. (I’ve found this a challenge in play writing. I have a tendency to make everyone sound the same. Someone from the ghetto speaks differently that a Harvard graduate.) Is there a proper balance between dialogue and narrative?

8. Settling: Does the reader know where and when the story takes place? Can you see, fell, hear and smell the setting. (I have at times ignored setting.)

9. Mood/atmosphere: Does the writing capture the memory in enough detail to evoke a specific emotion in the reader?

10. Outcome: Is the significance of the memory in enough detail to evoke a specific emotion in readers?

One of my favorite outcomes is a surprise ending. I sometimes plan the surprise but an even better strategy for me is to add a surprise after the story is complete. Then it’s a surprise to me too. I brainstorm for days to come up with the most unlikely but believable surprise.

Another of my favorite ways to improve a story is to add suspense. Some suggestions: 1) Describe the character making the character’s happy go lucky and then introduce his/her worst fears. One has to be subtle about introducing their worst fears or the reader will figure out what’s coming. 2) Use the setting to incite terror. Add a cold stone staircase or cobwebs. 3) If things are going well, throw in a dead body or frightening impediment to their goal.

Now for my surprise ending. My blog appears on January 9 – my birthday.


Marcia Peterson said...

Great tips, Sharon! Let me be the first to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY! :)

J.Alpha said...

Happy Birthday, Sharon!

I share your "never finished" mania. Maybe we should start a support group :-)

Anonymous said...

Happy birthday! :-)

I agree, stories can always be improved. It makes it hard to know when they're really and truly "finished."

Angela Mackintosh said...


Super post -- this is great because it's actually something that we're thinking of offering as well for our contest. A lot of ladies ask, and I was thinking if any of the judges wanted to give a critique like this, it may be a good deal. I'd have to add an additional PayPal button and come up with a fair price for the critique, but it could be very helpful to the contestant. Do you mind me asking how much they charged for the critique?

Thanks in advance! And hope you had a wonderful day!

Annette said...

Hey, Birthday Girl! Happy 39th-again Birthday!

I hope you had a wonderful day and that all your candle wishes came true!

Great post, btw! I love checklists that I can use to fine-tune my work. =)

I think I'm pretty good at dialogue, language, and creating the hook (from my background in screenwriting), but I know I'm reeeally weak in coming up with surprise endings. I'm just too predictable. LOL

But, like you, I'm a fiddler when it comes to my work. I will probably want to change significant parts of my book once it finally hits the shelves! I don't track my changes when I rewrite, but I bet if I did, I would see that over the course of several rewrites, I'd discover that I change the same things back and forth repeatedly!

Pathetic, huh? LOL

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