The Über Skill for Writers | Jane Friedman

The Über Skill for Writers | Jane Friedman

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Today’s post is by editor Tiffany Yates Martin (@FoxPrintEd). Join her on Wednesday, January 24 for the online class Analyze Story Like an Editor.

One of the most important abilities a writer can hone doesn’t involve writing—at least not their own.

Learning to objectively assess other people’s stories, and pinpoint what makes them effective or not, will do more for your own writing craft than even psychologist K. Anders Ericsson’s much vaunted (and misinterpreted) 10,000 hours of practice popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. 

That’s not to denigrate the importance of actually doing the work of writing. But no amount of putting words on the page will teach you as much as analyzing what makes story work and training your own editor brain.

Analyzing story like an editor informs every element of writing and every skill a writer must develop—not just editing, but also drafting and revision, and storytelling skill as well as craft skills.

The ability to see our own work clearly is one of the greatest challenges of writing. Authors fill in the blanks of their characters and world and stories in their heads without realizing whether it’s coming across effectively on the page to readers. It’s almost impossible to assess our own work as objectively as we can with other people’s.

That’s why practicing the skill with stories we did not create is one of the best ways of learning to see the component parts of effective story and internalizing those skills in the ones you do.

and no matter where you are in your writing career, whether multi-published or at the beginning, you already have the main tool you need to master this skill: yourself.

Analyzing starts with you

Outside of the intrinsic rewards of creating story, story’s effect and its purpose is the reaction it elicits in the recipient. Much of the reason we work to understand and master essential story components like character development, well-structured plots, meaningful stakes, strong momentum, suspense, etc., is because these are the tools by which story compels its audience.

So in learning to understand these core craft elements, we start with observing our own reactions to the stories we take in, and trace our subjective reaction to the objective techniques that elicited them.

I called this objective analysis because you aren’t colored by your own intentions for the story; you’re simply taking it in as an observer, the way editors approach a manuscript when working on it.

and yet where humans are concerned, there’s really no such thing as pure objectivity. We are all subjective creatures, bringing our own biases, experiences, judgments, and perspectives to everything we experience. But it’s those subjective reactions that will lead you to discover the techniques of story that are effective for you, that lead to the types of stories that affect you and move you and elicit a reaction.

By learning to pay attention to how you are impacted by story, both good and bad, you learn to trace back those ultimate effects to the techniques that elicited them. You use your subjective reactions to determine the objective craft techniques the storyteller used to create them.

Analyzing in the wild

In analyzing what you read (or watch or hear or see), first start with your overall general impressions: Was the story effective? Did it engage you? Elicit any reactions in you? What were they—and where in the story did you feel them?

“Reaction” may mean you loved it, were moved, affected, excited—or it may mean it angered you, galvanized you, engaged your attention and thoughts. Indifference results from those forgettable stories that make no ripple at all.

Then you’ll trace those reactions back to specific story elements they relate to, and dissect why those elements worked (or didn’t, which can be equally instructive). and finally you examine the text line by line, identifying granularly how the author created the effect you perceived.

Let’s walk through an example. I just finished Ann Patchett’s most recent novel, Tom Lake. She has long been a favorite writer of mine, and knowing why is the beginning of understanding how she wields storytelling devices to create an effect and a reaction in readers: Patchett is a character writer, and character to me is the soul of compelling story.

Her stories don’t involve objectively massive stakes like saving the world from nuclear threat. They’re often simply slices of characters’ lives in particularly tumultuous or meaningful moments. But they’re deep. Deceptively deep, like the surface of a caldera that extends countless fathoms into the Earth.

Tom Lake is no exception. From the beginning I felt invested in characters who felt real to me, and relatable. Every night I found myself eager to open the book back up and find out what happened to them next. I was surprised by several twists and reveals I hadn’t seen coming. The end felt satisfying—inevitable yet unexpected—and I found the story continues to linger in my mind even weeks later.

If I scratch deeper into these initial overview reactions, I can identify the specific storytelling elements each relates to:

  • Character: Obviously. Patchett paints not just her protagonist but every character with nuance and verisimilitude, giving each specific driving motivations and clear, tangible goals that give readers something concrete to root for. 
  • Point of view and voice: Part of the reason the story engaged me so deeply is Patchett’s intimate first-person narration. Readers are directly privy to the protagonist’s inner life, experiencing the story in her head, behind her eyes, through her immediate perception—which is also the lens through which the author brings the other characters fully to life.
  • Stakes: I cared about what the characters had to gain or to lose—because I cared about them, and they cared profoundly about what was at stake, even though it was objectively small: winning a part in a play, performing at a regional theater, winning (and keeping) a love interest, completing a cherry harvest before the fruit rots. You don’t have to ever have done or cared about those particular things to understand wanting something coveted and striving for it, or craving the attention of an objet d’amour, or attaining a crucial goal by a pressing deadline. The highly personal becomes universal in a skilled author’s hands, and gives a story its impact on readers.
  • Suspense and tension: Patchett creates questions throughout—not always major ones, but threaded through on every page is some uncertainty, conflict, an unresolved tension that made me constantly wonder, “What will happen next?” Her reveals are so seamless and smooth that I never even realized she was concealing something intrinsic to the story until she pulled the curtain away. and when she did, it added even more layers of meaning—increasing my investment in the characters and what they wanted (storytelling is a web where every element impacts every other).
  • Momentum: Tom Lake relentlessly moves the story forward, even as it revolves around events from the past, a masterful feat instructive to any author who has ever struggled to fluidly incorporate backstory without stalling momentum.
  • Plot and structure: Patchett weaves together the story of the protagonist’s past—her single-summer relationship with a man who became a megastar—with her present, quarantined on her family’s cherry orchard with her husband and three grown daughters, a dual-timeline device that heightens the impact and stakes of each storyline, creates much of its suspense and momentum, and instills depth and nuance in each that neither would have alone. My satisfaction with the ending suggests Patchett resolved the plot and various storylines in an effective, cohesive way.

Finally I can go back and dissect, line by line, how she weaves this tapestry. Let’s take just the opening paragraph—I’ll insert my analysis in red:

That Veronica and I were given keys and told to come early on a frozen Saturday in April to open the school for the Our Town auditions was proof of our dull reliability. [Patchett plunges readers into the story in medias res, right in the middle of the action. From the first line she begins to paint a picture of the situation and the characters—both that they are responsible but that they see themselves as dull.] The play’s director, Mr. Martin, was my grandmother’s friend and State Farm agent. [The first brushstroke in creating a sense of place—a small, interrelated town.] That’s how I was wrangled in, through my grandmother, and Veronica was wrangled because we did pretty much everything together. [Relationship details—both with her grandmother, who clearly has influence over the protagonist, and Veronica, clearly her best friend, which also sets up stakes on these relationships that are both germane to the story.] Citizens of New Hampshire could not get enough of Our Town. We felt about the play the way other Americans felt about the Constitution or the “Star-Spangled Banner.” It spoke to us, made us feel special and seen. Mr. Martin predicted a large turnout for the auditions, which explained why he needed use of the school gym for the day. The community theater production had nothing to do with our high school, but seeing as how Mr. Martin was also the principal’s insurance agent and very likely his friend, the request was granted. Ours was that kind of town. [All small, telling details about the world of the story, the character’s background, and setting up the central role Our Town plays throughout the story as well as its themes.]

Another reader might have different reactions to a story like this. Maybe it seems too quiet or small. Maybe they think nothing really happens. Those are as valid as my own interpretation. Analyzing story isn’t about whether it’s good or bad or you like it or not. It’s about how authors use concrete storytelling devices to create an effect. How you are impacted by that varies from reader to reader—and it’s part of learning your own style and voice as a writer.

Analyze everything

The beauty of this powerful technique to improve your own writing and storytelling craft is that you can do it anywhere, with any story you take in—and everything is story: books, both fiction and nonfiction; movies and TV shows; podcasts and feature articles and interviews; commercials, songs, poems; company slogans and taglines; even your own life. I do this so automatically now it’s like a patellar reflex: I’ve analyzed magazine articles, family dinners, home owners’ association dramas, and why Will Smith’s infamous slap of Chris Rock so captured the world’s attention.

Far from taking away the joy of story, dissecting it as a writer lets you appreciate it on even deeper levels—or articulate why some stories are DNFs for you, or simply leave you cold even if critics are raving (I’m looking at you, The Lobster).

It doesn’t matter if you love or hate a story, or who agrees with you about its merit. No matter your reaction, it’s the barometer by which you can gauge how effective that story is to you, which is the only metric that matters in creating the kinds of stories you want to tell.

Analyze Story Like an Editor with Tiffany Yates Martin. $25 webinar. Wednesday, January 24, 2024. 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Eastern.

Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, please join us on Wednesday, January 24 for the online class Analyze Story Like an Editor.

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers. She is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. She is a regular contributor to writers’ outlets like writer’s Digest, Jane Friedman, and writer Unboxed, and a frequent presenter and keynote speaker for writers’ organizations around the country. Under her pen name, Phoebe Fox, she is the author of six novels. Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com.

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