In an earlier post titled Thanos Editing, I showed you how to cut your manuscript in half, much like the ruthless and slightly-insane supervillain Thanos erases half of all life in the universe in Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War. I felt really good about that article until someone commented with a simple question.
“What about those of us who need to add to our story?”
I’d forgotten there was an entire group of people who have the opposite problem of many writers. Instead of explaining every conceivable facet of their world, necessary or not, down to the most excruciating detail, and later having to attack their work with a chainsaw whilst fighting the urge to smash their computer and/or cry themselves to sleep, these fabled “underwriters” have the opposite problem. When they look at their first draft, it isn’t cluttered with origins of the world, family lineages, ancient bits of context and history that don’t matter to the story, and long-winded explanations and observances.
Instead, when these folks look at their first draft, they see that it’s rather… thin. The scenes feel lacking, or perhaps disconnected from each other, like separate entities instead of sequential occurrences that are linked together as part of an overarching plot. It may feel like there isn’t enough meat on the bones of the story to offer the reader a full, satisfying experience. Maybe the characters and events are well-written, but there’s no context, no true environment, so the main content falls flat. There are a million reason why a story could lack depth, richness, or flow.
For these writers, the act of filling in those gaps, editing to add, can be pure torture. After all, if they had more to say, they probably would have done so already, right? It doesn’t help that most of the editing advice out there is focused on reducing your word count, chiseling away at your work until it’s a tightly-written fraction of the original draft.
Let’s change that.
Adding during your initial edits can be extremely helpful, even for the classic overwriter. It’ll give you more material to choose from once you begin whittling away at your content, smooth over any minor gaps in the storytelling (we all overlook things), and add some color & flavor to the page. You might end up cutting much of this out again, but the process will be worth it for those few moments where an extra detail or two brings a new level of authenticity and vividness to the scene.
I’m in the midst of my sixth or seventh editing wave (they all tend to blur together at some point), but I distinctly remember spending my first wave or two adding content, whether it was a bit of scene-setting or an entire chapter that served as a bridge between two other important events. While there are some things I struggle with, such as interior environments, scene-setting, and general description, I still find I’m able to add content rather easily. I may find it tough to come up with the proper description, but I can intuitively grasp that I need more description in the relevant section.
However, not all of us are so lucky.
If you don’t recognize what’s lacking in your story, you’re dead in the water. So let’s come up with a checklist to help you find the gaps in your story. You may not personally find all of these elements important, and, of course, you won’t find every single one of these in every chapter, but these should help you pinpoint what needs fleshing out.
For example, I generally dislike reading what characters are wearing. Descriptions of “long, flowing dresses the color of lilacs, laced with gold trim,” bore me into a coma. However, after my first draft, I realized I literally never said, not once, what anyone wore. So I included a few references to plain homespun dresses, purple robes, and black jerkins. Nothing fancy, but it filled an obvious gap in my writing and helped to dispel the troublesome notion that everyone runs around Corbryn totally naked.
Thoughts, feelings, fears, hopes & dreams: This is a big one. If the reader isn’t in your character’s head, privy to their innermost desires, thoughts, and reflections, you’re wasting a big opportunity to allow the reader to see the world as your character sees it.
Core value systems, motivations, reasons for acting: What drives your character to make their decisions? Emotion? A code of honor? What do they believe in? Why do they do what they do? Make the reader understand.
Quirks, habits, body language, speech patterns: Does your character smack their lips when they eat? Touch their ear when they’re nervous? Pick their nose, scratch their head, crack their knuckles? Do they have an accent or a lisp? Do they play with their food or spit a lot? Give them something unique that fits their personality.
Appearance & clothing: Don’t go overboard here, but the reader should generally know what people look like. Even minor characters deserve a cursory description. “Tall with a hooked nose,” or “young, cheerful face” say plenty. Little details can paint a strong picture of an otherwise forgettable character.
Backstory: Everyone has a history, and that extends to your characters. While a detailed account of their life after age ten isn’t necessary, a few lines here and there, a well-placed paragraph or two, or some sneaky dialogue can say a lot about a character and bond the reader to them that much more.
Mechanics: How do the wheels of your story turn? Is everything linear, logical, and coherent? Does the plot make sense, progressing from choice to consequence to another choice with another consequence? Is it well-paced, with ample build up and investment before big payoff moments? Are character arcs and relationships given enough time to play out? If things feel choppy here, add a scene or two.
Emotional significance: What do those consequences mean? How do they affect your characters? How do the consequences of their actions change them, and how do those characters interpret and deal with those consequences and changes? Think of mechanics as the battle, and emotional significance as the mourning period afterwards. What happens versus what it means for your characters and the story.
Stakes: What do your characters stand to gain if they succeed, or more importantly, what do they stand to lose if they fail? It doesn’t always have to be the fate of the world. If your character stands to lose something dear to them, this will add weight to the story. Conflict must always have stakes to be interesting, and the more the stakes matter to your character, the more they will matter to the reader. Take the time to flesh out what exactly your character wants, why they want it, and what will happen if they fail.
Future possibilities: Understand that for every choice your characters make, there are several potential outcomes branching out from that choice. The more of these possibilities the reader is aware of, the more tension they feel, because they can’t predict the plot as easily. Use uncertainty to your advantage by illuminating the various directions the story could go. This ties into the first category, but I differentiate them in this manner. Mechanics is what does happen, whereas this is what could happen. Your characters (and readers) should think about both quite a bit. Dangle the threads.
Context: Sometimes, major plot events need additional information to be fully appreciated. Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame ahead: Think about when Captain America is able to wield Mjolnir. That’s a “holy shit!” moment that gets the whole theater cheering. But if someone has no idea how special that hammer is, and how it can only be wielded by the purest, most worthy souls, then it goes from a mind-blowing, epic moment to “Oh cool, he has a weapon.” End spoilers: Weaving background information, lore, and detail into the story will give your big moments more impact.
Geography & immediate environment: This is more important in some genres than others, but basically, where is everything happening? In sci-fi & fantasy, a vivid world with a sense of scale is absolutely crucial. Maybe your story takes place in a castle owned by a duke in service to a king who rules one of two rival kingdoms on one of three major continents in your fictional world. Understand and convey the scope and scale of your story and world. If you’re writing a romance novel set in a sleepy southern town, don’t worry. You can still create a rich atmosphere by detailing the town, the ranch, and so on. Weather, seasons, landmarks, and of course, the places where your characters live and spend their time are all important.
Government & law: What sort of government is present in your story? Does it play a central role in the plot? Who holds power, and do they wield it responsibly? How does the government affect everyday life for your main character and others around them? For SFF, this is absolutely critical, but less so for other genres. Also consider the rules and laws of the society your characters are a part of, what behaviors are legal, illegal, frowned upon, expected, accepted, etc.
Religion: Again, this won’t be necessary for every story, but it’s worth discussing. Even non SFF stories may want to consider the following. Are your characters spiritual or religious? Does it play a role in their everyday life? Religion can be a strong social bond in small communities and can affect peoples’ behavior on many levels. It can serve as the backbone of a given culture (think how powerful the church was in medieval Europe) and factor into a character’s core belief system.
Economy: Does your character work? What do they do? How does it affect them, shape them? Is their job respected, stigmatized, or overlooked? What role do they play in the community, society? How do the wheels turn in the world around them? There’s no need to get into digressions about the country’s (real of fictional) GDP and chief exports, but a few lines about the livelihood of that east-coast fishing town or the bustling tech hub that anchors a metropolitan complex may fill in some gaps.
General culture & attitude: This is a gigantic section that encompasses everything from the types of food people eat to their attitudes towards sex, relationships and marriage, the way they dress, views on family and relatives (some cultures, for example, venerate their elders while others shun them), how they spend their leisure time, and so much more. Dropping in little bits of culture will bring your setting to life and give your character walls to bounce off of in their journey through your story.
So there you have it- fifteen things that you might have overlooked in your first draft. Hopefully, when it comes time to add meat to the bones of your story, this list gets you going down the right track. Don’t throw everything in with reckless abandon, though. Stitch in the details carefully and invisibly over the course of the story, never hammering too specifically on one piece (the dreaded infodump), but always adding something to enrich your work. Rinse and repeat with various aspects of your story until you have a manuscript that feels complete.
When you’re done with that, you can give yourself a pat on the back and scrub the tears from your eyes to make way for new ones, because now you’re ready to edit everything back down. And we all know how brutal that is on our psyche. Isn’t being a writer fun?