How to Amp Up Your Story

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Do you ever write something and immediately find yourself wanting to edit it (or worse—delete it)? Or are you struggling to really develop an idea? It's tough not to immediately begin the rewriting process or automatically start second guessing yourself. Sometimes, as writers, we can get lost in continually improving a piece, trying to give it that little extra bit of pizzazz.

In the following excerpt of Elizabeth Sims' "How to Develop Any Idea Into a Great Story," originally in the November/December 2012 issue of Writer's Digest, you'll learn four solid techniques for heightening the tension in your story and taking it to the next step. Whether it's increasing the drama through detailed and well-developed secondary and tertiary characters or adding extra emotion, you're sure to find a tip that will add a new layer to your story.

Are you writing or putting the finishing touches on a short story? Consider entering it into Writer's Digest's Short Short Story Competition, where the winner will receive $3,000 in cash and a trip to the Writer's Digest Conference! This year, all entrants will also receive a special pass to attend a live webinar conducted by award-winning author Jacob Appel. Hurry, though: The deadline is December 15!

Brief Encounter is a British film adapted from Nöel Coward's play Still Life. It's the story of two quiet people who meet and fall in love in spite of being married to others, but then, conscience-stricken, break off the relationship before it really gets going. The small, exquisite tragedy resonated with the genteel, romantic codes of conduct valued in prewar England.

But then along comes Tennessee Williams with his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a love story that has similar themes at its core but rips us away from any semblance of civilization. Williams sure could amp drama! For one thing, he knew that a story about noble ideas wouldn't cut it anymore. Setting his play in the emotionally brutal mélange of the postwar American South, he slashed into the secret marrow of his protagonists and antagonists alike, exposing the weaknesses and delusions that bind people together on the surface while tearing them apart below decks.

Take the essence of your story, and amp it:

  • Add characters and pile on the emotion. Playwrights used to limit the number of characters in their stories, not wanting to overcrowd the stage. But when Williams crams six or eight people into the scene at once and sets them all at one another's throats, we get a chance to feel their emotional claustrophobia and unwanted interdependence. Amp up your action by adding cunning, vindictiveness, jealousy, fear of exposure, stupidity, even death.
  • Make even minor characters fierce and elemental. Consider Mae and Gooper's five children in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, who lesser authors would describe (boringly) as "brats" and leave offstage. Before you even see them, you witness their havoc (ruining Maggie's dress) and listen to Maggie call them "no-neck monsters." You don't even have to meet them to fear them. Then Williams gives them stage time, every second of which makes you squirm with discomfort.
  • Expose internal bleeding. The deepest, most painful wounds are the invisible ones humans inflict on one another and ourselves in a hundred ways: betrayal, selfishness, abandoment. Strive to write characters who feel vulnerable to pain, whose secrets are so close to the surface that they can't afford to be polite. Put in a truth teller and watch the inner flesh rip and sizzle.
  • Create blood ties. Kinship is story gold. Take your pick of, and take your time with, its darker aspects: scapegoating, favoritism, jealousy. A blood link can instantly heighten any conflict. Why? Because kinship is the one thing in life you can't change or walk away from. Make your characters learn this the hard way.

Interested in learning more about short stories, or where to submit them to? Check out the 2015 Novel & Short Story Writer's Market, which offers hundreds of listings for book publishers, literary agents, fiction publications, contests, and more. Plus, you'll find dozens of informative articles on how award-winning authors published their first work, how to market your work, build a loyal fan base, and more. Take the guessing work out of the business side of writing and find out exactly where you need to send your manuscript!

Novel & Short Story Writer's Market

Cris Freese is the associate editor of Writer's Digest Books.

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