Unlock your story’s true potential with these expert tips on plot, character development, narrative structure and, crucially, the unforgiving world of editing.

Not all stories are created equal.

You have your good, your bad and your ugly.

And, there’s nothing worse than a bad story.

No, correction. There’s nothing worse than a good story, told badly.

What a waste of a great idea.

In there somewhere, there’s a diamond and yet the author insists on keeping the muck and debris that dulls the shine.

How to make your story reach its potential

So how can you ensure that you’ve let your story live and breathe? How do you make sure you haven’t killed your characters with dull dialogue or bored your readers with endless exposition?

To truly unlock your story’s potential and make it stand out from the crowd, you need to approach it with intention and purpose.

In order to create a compelling story, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what you want to convey to your readers, beyond just providing entertainment. You should consider the emotional and intellectual impact you want your story to have on your audience and the buzz they will feel as they accompany you on the journey through your narrative.

Because it’s not all about the destination.

So, let’s explore some practical tips for unlocking your story’s potential and crafting a compelling narrative that resonates with your audience.

1 Understand your story’s unique qualities

Every story is unique, with its own set of characters, themes, and plot elements. To unlock your story’s potential, it’s important to identify what makes it stand out from others in your genre or niche.

What personal experiences or motivations inspired you to tell this story? What themes or messages do you want to convey to your audience? What sets your story apart from others in your genre or niche?

Take some time to reflect on these questions and identify the unique qualities that make your story worth telling.

Crucially, be inspired by other authors but don’t attempt to slavishly copy their styles or their themes or emulate their passions. That way only lies inauthenticity. Here’s a blog post I wrote on “finding your voice” which might help. This will help you craft a narrative that is authentic, original, and engaging.

2 Identify your target audience

Once you’ve identified the unique qualities of your story, it’s important to consider your target audience. Who are you writing for? What are their interests and needs? How will your story resonate with them?

They say your first audience is yourself – after all, you’re going to spend a long time with this creative challenge. So are you looking for people like you as your audience?

Do you write to impress your partner, or entertain your kids? If so, what are the qualities you’re appealing too? Their sense of fun, adventure, romance? Are you hoping to thrill and frighten them?

Researching your target audience can help you tailor your story to their preferences and ensure that it connects with them on a deeper level. Consider the context in which they will encounter your story.

3 Craft your story with intention

Crafting a compelling story requires planning and intention. What does that mean? It means, setting out with an objective, a roadmap, a destination and a point.

Start by outlining the plot and characters and consider how they will interact and evolve throughout the story.

Develop complex characters with unique personalities, motivations, and flaws, and use sensory details to bring the story to life.

Use the classic plot structures (think three acts) to help you identify your turning points and climaxes and pace them accordingly.

It’s also important to consider the pacing and structure of your story. What moments are the most important? Where should the tension and conflict be highest? What is the resolution of the story?

These elements will keep your readers engaged and ensure that your story flows smoothly from start to finish. Too many stories involve people who don’t change – but that’s the essence of story – loss, conflict, redemption, change.

Does your story have these? If not, that’s not a disaster. First drafts are exploratory.

4 Focus on character

This is a massive subject in itself – people remember characters long after they have forgotten the story in which they spring to life.

That’s why it’s vital your characters don’t simply go around spouting cliches or plot points. Make them memorable.

Start with a backstory, which often provides psychological depth and motivation. Give them a flaw, which makes them quirky.

Give them a concrete goal. Explore w happens if they don’t achieve this goal? What’s at stake?

If you’re reading a character and everything is lifeless, rewrite. Rewrite dialogue. Rewrite entrances and exits. Give them something to do with their hands that is wholly opposed to the personality. Do something. Bring them to life.

5 Edit and refine your story

Ah, the killer one. Where all the good work is done – but it hurts. You have to bleed.

The first draft is often the splurge, the unloading of ideas and, no matter how much planning you’ve done, it never comes out as expected.

You need to give it some space, some time to breathe. Read it again and it might be an entirely different story. Polish off the muck to find the hidden diamond.

There are three kinds of edits (probably more, but let’s stick to three.) One is the line-by-line copyediting, checking for grammar and spelling mistakes.

Another is the overview, reviewing your work for clarity, coherence, consistency, and pacing. Read it with a fresh pair of eyes, not with the intimate knowledge of the author.

And, thirdly, there’s the chuck it out and start again. This should come first of course, but I didn’t want to frighten you. Yes. Sometimes you just have to rethink the entire thing, taking the kernel of the idea and rebuild from the ground up.

Hang on, editing is such an important aspect, I’m going to dig deeper.

How to edit a book

  1. Take a break: After completing your manuscript, it’s essential to take a break to gain a fresh perspective. Give yourself some time away from your work before you begin editing.
  2. Review the manuscript: Read your manuscript from start to finish, without making any edits. This step will give you an overview of the story and help you identify any significant issues with the plot, characters, or pacing.
  3. Make a plan: Once you have identified the major issues, make a plan for addressing them. It’s helpful to break down the manuscript into smaller sections and work on them one at a time.
  4. Edit for content: Focus on the content and structure of the manuscript. Check for consistency in character development, pacing, and plot. Ensure that the storyline flows smoothly and that the dialogue is natural and engaging.
  5. Edit for style: Once you have addressed any content issues, focus on the style and language of the manuscript. Look for any inconsistencies in tone or voice and check for grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors.
  6. Get feedback: After you have completed your edits, consider seeking feedback from beta readers or a professional editor. Feedback can help identify any remaining issues and give you a better sense of how readers will respond to your work.
  7. Final review: Once you have incorporated any feedback, do a final review to ensure that all changes have been made correctly.

Read the story out loud

Pro-tip: Use a “read-aloud” function (to be found on Word and other apps) to have the computer read the book back to you. The very lack of nuance allows you to hear the words free from baggage and lets you spot typos you have missed because you’re over familiar with the text.

Editing can be a time-consuming process, but it’s essential for creating a polished and professional manuscript. Taking a systematic approach can help you manage the process and produce the best possible final product.