The Writer’s Desk: Adding details to strengthen scenes and sentences

I’ve heard it said when writing a book, you’d better like your story because you’re going to reread it more than a hundred times. That may be an exaggeration, but if you want to get the words right, you’ll need to refine it over and over. In my July column I discussed how it takes a minimum of seven drafts to get the words right. Stories rarely come to the writer in structural sequence and with perfect sentences, so the early draft is supposed to be a bag of unconnected bones. The subsequent drafts, the story becomes clearer; the characters and scenes get fleshed out, extraneous details are cut, and the tale (hopefully) reaches a logical, meaningful conclusion.

My current work in progress is in its sixth or seventh iteration, where I’m now revising at the sentence level. Every writer I know has a writing tic, which become evident when you’ve set the draft aside and reread your work later for clarity. One of my draft mistakes is not providing enough detail to allow the reader to feel the emotional tension. That dramatic scene that was vivid and powerful inside my head at the time of drafting is, on second glance, weak tepid tea.

Here’s a sneak peek at my (embarrassing) draft process. In this scene my protagonist and his father, a man he doesn’t quite trust, are sharing what is supposed to be a critical moment:

[Father] “Any more news from your mother?”

“No. I talked to Paul and he said everyone’s worried about her but she’s stubborn and won’t listen to anybody. Insists she’d fine.”

He taps on the tabletop again. “How about if I gave it a go?”

It takes me a second to process his words. He’s offering to call my mother? THIS IS A BIG MOMENT SLOW IT DOWN. “You’d do that for us?”

“Susan’s not exactly a stranger to me. Maybe I can convince her to get some help.”

I type my passcode in my phone and slide it to him across the table. “It can’t hurt. She’s under ‘Mom.’

Even as I wrote it, I knew something was missing, so I used a placeholder to indicate how and where to fix the emotion. In my expanded version I add more furniture to create a more meaningful connection between father and son to show a thaw in their frigid relationship.

My father taps on the tabletop again, pausing, as if something still eats at him. He bites his bottom lip and stares at the dead night bugs freckling the window screen. “Any more news from your mother?”

“No. I talked to Paul and he said everyone’s worried about her but she’s stubborn and won’t listen to anybody. Insists she’d fine.”

My father spreads his fingers flat on the table. “How about if I gave it a go?”

It takes me a second to process his words. He’s offering to call my mother? “You’d do that for us?”

“Susan’s not exactly a stranger to me. Maybe I can convince her to get some help.”

He once wrote my mother a note in high school saying, I sleep walk through life until you’re near me, and how he imagined the two of them driving off together in his red Mustang. He’d said, you smile at me and the world disappears. One upon a time my father had loved my mother.

I type my passcode in my phone and slide it to him across the table. “It can’t hurt. She’s under ‘Mom.’”

This scene isn’t yet finished, but the second version connects the characters more to the tension I’m trying to portray.

My next step will be to go through and make my loose sentences stronger. I’m counting on the upcoming virtual workshop The Magic of Great Sentences to help me strengthen them.

Exercise: Go back through your own manuscript and mark the scenes, and look for areas where you can slow down the action and reduce the psychic distance between reader and the story.

— By Laura Moe

Laura Moe is the author of three novels and is board president of EPIC Group Writers. She is currently revising her myriad wretched sentences in her novel-in-progress. Finds her on Twitter and Instagram @Lauramoewriter

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