One of the things I most often run into when helping writers with their stories is that the writer thinks that he or she has finished a manuscript when what they have in front of them is more like a wardrobe of clothes, or a net from which most of the fish have escaped.
This will probably take some explanation, as, while it’s a simple concept, it’s something that some writers have real trouble grasping. Perhaps we can begin with a quote from C. S. Lewis, who, as the author of many best-selling books and one of the twentieth century’s most widely read men, probably knew what he was talking about:
To be stories at all they must be a series of events: but it must be understood that this series - the plot, as we call it - is only really a net whereby to catch something else. (On Stories)
Many writers tend to write down what pops up in their imaginations, chapter after chapter, and hope that it leads them somewhere. They also hope that, by the time they get to whatever they consider the end of the story, the thing will have some kind of cohesive shape. It’s interesting to note that, at first glance, events in themselves, in ‘real life’, tend not to produce this shape: they just go on and on, apparently at random, cutting across each other and interfering with the flows that each creates, while not particularly leading anywhere. That’s ‘Life’ as we know it. Only afterwards, and only occasionally, do we look back at our lives and see some kind of pattern, or follow a strand of meaning or purpose through what seemed completely random at the time to where we are now. The job we have as writers is to produce a series of events which has the apparency of randomity, so as to appear ‘life-like’ and convincing to the reader, while actually moulding the whole thing into something which will have shaped some kind of meaning for the reader by the end.
In reading many manuscripts by many writers, I see a lot of the 'series of events mimicking the random sequences that we see in life', but not that many which manage to pull off the ‘shaping’ thing. Many stories head for a climax, have their final confrontation, and then some kind of denouement afterwards, which is a general shape common to most tales, but otherwise they hang loosely together like a collection of ill-fitting clothes around an awkward mannequin.
There are a couple of things which can be done about this. Not all writers will find these approaches comfortable, and so I can’t recommend them for everyone - but for many, they will give the writer the power to tighten up those clothes, to fashion them adroitly, and to perhaps capture that ‘something else’ while doing so.
1. Know what you’re trying to communicate.
This is the Idea, or Theme of the story. Nail that down before you type a single word. What is this story going to be ‘about’? Doomed love? Racism? Ironic victory? The sanctity of marriage? The imperturbable joy at the heart of the human spirit? Name it. Really think about it. And when you think you have it named, try and distill it further until you have the exact thing that the whole story will be trying to transmit to readers. Write that out and hang it above your computer screen. It should only be a few words long at best, perhaps only one word. Etch it onto the nearest mirror. Put it as a header in your document, temporarily, so that each new page you begin will flash it at you. This is the hub, the core, the galactic centre of your story. Around this everything else will go into orbit - characters, actions, plots, even style and language.
By the way, this writers who hate to plan and just ‘go with the flow’, writing without having a clear direction, can often pull it off because they feel this core idea so deeply that it infects what they write anyway, and can guide them on an unconscious level.
2. Write the story backwards.
This is closely connected to point 1. Work out what is going to happen exactly at the end of your story: who is going to vanquish whom? Who is going to get married? Who is going to die, and how? Write it all out, in note form if need be, but, if you’re feeling brave, as actual chapters. Then aim the rest of your story at it. You can always change some details in those last chapters later.
If you want to go deeper, ask why the end is the way it is. That should get you close to the theme of the thing.
There’s a third tip. This one leaves the mechanics and the ideas behind, takes the whole thing onto a different level, and maybe isn’t to everyone’s taste. But if you can do it, you will experience more joys and wonders from your own writing and your readers will probably experience them too:
3. Look for the beauty behind your writing.
Take a chapter you’ve written, whether you wrote it using the first two tips or not. Read it over and look for the beauty in it. It doesn’t have to be about anything beautiful - you might be writing a grisly murder mystery or a grim tale of urban deprivation. That doesn’t matter. Look for the beauty. There may be turns of phrase, or a mood you capture; there may be a truth or two that you’ve touched on, perhaps without meaning to consciously. You’re looking for images - pictures that are not necessarily purely visual, but are maybe partly auditory or even intellectual: connections, links, openings which you might not have realised were there at all, but now, reading it over and looking for them, you find them.
Build on them. A tweak here, a slight clarification there, a word altered, a sentence partly restructured, an image inserted. What are you doing? You’re either polishing the window so that the reader can see more clearly the beautiful thing you’ve made, or you’re sewing up the net, so that the ‘something else’ that Lewis talks about is caught.
Try these things. Don’t be satisfied with wordage or the events of a story as a finished item: look for the beauty behind the words, and the meaning in the events.
You’ll be surprised.