Feedback from literary agents is a precious thing and new writers would do well to take it seriously and follow it. Sometimes, the feedback is crystal clear: ‘the stakes are not high enough,’ ‘a third-person narrator might work better’, ‘I would lose the prologue, it doesn’t seem to add anything to the story.’ When you get this type of feedback, as a new writer, you know exactly what you need to do (or at least you know exactly what to experiment with and see how you like the result).
But you can also receive a much vaguer type of advice, such as: ‘your voice is not strong enough’, ‘the narrative lacks drive’, ‘your characters fail to convince’, ‘your scenes are not immersive enough’, ‘your story needs tightening.’ Yes, in other words, ‘you haven’t quite pulled this one off’, but what exactly can you do to pull it off?
What does all this mean? It sounds like ambiguous, generic advice hundreds of thousands of writers may receive every day from agents around the world. Where do you start to revise your manuscript in order to add more drive to your narrative?
Clients often come to us with a briefing note from their agent, ‘the story needs some tightening’. Personally, I love receiving a manuscript with a briefing from an agent because there is a lot more scope for me to work with the author and improve those specific areas the agent has isolated.
Loose stories are a common encounter in new fiction writing. The good news is that tightening your story is easy to do once you know how. So when I receive such a briefing, I usually look at two things:
1) is there enough action in the story?
2) if there is enough action in the story, is it structured so it follows a logical and necessary path?
It’s easy to deal with number one: just add more action to your story. If you have long fragments where nothing happens – such as a sagging middle – adding more action will increase anticipation and suspense, and so it will improve the reading experience.
Number two is a little trickier because the overall effect can still fail if the action is random, i.e. it doesn’t follow a logical and necessary path.
To give your action structure, you can use two very effective techniques:
1) the action-consequence technique, in which every single bit of action in your story is either a cause of a future action or a consequence of a previous action, thus making sure that everything serves a purpose and moves the story forward in a logical and necessary way. For more on this technique, you can watch this video.
2) the foreshadowing technique, in which strategically place details of seemingly no importance earlier in the story so they can gain a major importance later on. Example: Jim’s plans of getting to the crucial meeting on time can’t be ruined by the fact that his car fails to start in the morning. The detail of a broken down car is random and unconvincing in the context of its importance. To improve its plausibility, you can show Jim’s car failing to start at least once before this needs to happen in order to move the story forward. As always, I’m using over-simplified examples for the purposes of illustrating the principle. In literary criticism, this technique is called Chekhov’s Rifle, after Chekhov’s saying that, in drama, if a rifle is casually hanging on a background wall in a scene, it needs to be fired sooner rather than later.
By using these two techniques, you are likely to achieve a much tighter structure and delivery of your story. If an agent tells you your story needs tightening, make sure you employ these two techniques and, once you’re done, get back to them and let them know how you achieved it.
Find out more about plot and story in my guide, Self-Editing Fiction That Sells.