Every once in a while I read a story where all the requisite elements for success seem to be in place. Such stories typically contain the following elements:
- A competent hook
- Serviceable characters
- A well-executed plot
And yet sometimes as I’m reading along, I find that my interest wanes (and then dies) after just a few pages. So what exactly has gone wrong?
Here’s one answer: After just a few paragraphs, I cease to give a flying squirrel about the hook, the characters, or the plot. Which means that I don’t care about the story. Which means that the Writer in question is dead as a doornail.
In a past blog post that was circulated by Esquire, writer Darin Strauss said that it helps to apply a “So What?” test to each sentence in a story. To apply such a test, according to Strauss, we can measure each of our sentences against the following criteria: Why should I care about this sentence? How does it reveal character? What difference does it make to the plot? To the story?
When I first heard about Strauss’s sentence test (which he attributed to Lee K. Abbott), it was like an epiphany to me, because when we ask every sentence in our novel “So What?” or “Who cares?”, it helps us to avoid the following writing hazards:
- Boilerplate character description
- Rote, unnecessary movements by all characters, especially the main character
- Go-nowhere dialogue
- Boring scene description
So here’s my question to you: When you’re writing, do you apply such a test to each and every sentence? Do you go back and root out “filler” sentences during rewrite?
And to take on the challenge, if you don’t mind sharing: What’s the last sentence that you wrote today? Is it important to your story? Why will your reader care about that sentence?
Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.