Honing Your Skills

Here is a paper I put together for my Writers’ Group on Honing Your Skills. To download a pdf copy, click here: Honing Your Skills.

Honing Your Skills

‘Honing Your Skills’ looks at Big and, primarily, Middle picture editing in fiction writing

-Big picture editing looks at the story as a whole

-problems here are easily avoided with simple planning

-Middle picture editing looks at scene-by-scene editing

-a lot of the exercises in this handout will be specifically targeted to this

An important note on scenes:

A scene is one place, at one time, from one point of view.

Any time one of these changes, you need to use a scene break.

Coloured pens/pencils (aside from a thesaurus and dictionary) are a writer’s best tool!

Things you need to be able to do in your writing:

-You need to be able to analyse your work and be reasonably objective to see what works and what doesn’t work

-You need to be able to understand your analysis

-You need to be able to work out what’s wrong with your work AND know how to fix it

-knowing how to fix it – theory

-being able to fix it – practise

About Fixing

#1 sometimes it doesn’t work the first time

#2 often, there are several ways to fix something

-but, usually there is one best way to fix it

-your job is to find that one way and then apply it

-something you’ll need to try each way out for a couple of pages to see if they work

Biggest problems

-For fiction

-foundation stones

-character/s, structure, plot, etc

-For non-fiction

-voice, pace, etc


1.      Purpose

Good scenes do more than one thing

What is the purpose/s of your scene from the perspective of:

-the story (what purpose does this scene serve? How does it connect to the plot/sub-plot)

text box 1 -the writer (writer’s intention

-the reader (what does this scene tell the reader?)

-the POV character text box 2(why are they in the scene?)

-every other character (why are they in the scene?)

2.      So What?

What’s happening in the scene?

Make a list of the ‘happenings’ in the scene. A ‘happening’ is an action, a dialogue or an internalisation. Likewise, it can be thought of as a moment of intensity within the story. It is something that forwards the story, an epiphany, a decision, etc.

There should be enough ‘happenings’ to keep the reader interested.

-1 page scene : 3-5 ‘happenings’

-2 or more pages long : 5-10 ‘happenings’

3.      Hot Spot/Core Happening

This is the biggest/most important ‘happening’ in the scene. This is THE ‘oomph’/bang for the scene. It is usually at the end (or close to the end) of the scene and is the HOOK that keeps readers reading.

This exercise relates to exercises 1 and 2.

-Look at your answers to exercise 1 and look for the dominant thread of your purposes – this will give you an idea of what your Hot Spot is.

-Look at your list of happenings’, the Hot Spot will occur towards the end.

Does the Hot Spot carry the weight of the scene?

-if you have a long scene, the Hot Spot will be bigger than if you have a short scene.

4.      Development

Having good development is making sure that the ‘happenings’ build towards a Hot Spot. Go back to your list from exercise 2 and see where your Hot Spot is. Do your ‘happenings’ lead up to your Hot Spot? There can be no coincidences in your story! The ‘happenings’ do not have to be action-related, they could be emotional or internal.

Go through your second and third exercise and mark the Hot Spot and developmental ‘happenings’ on your manuscript (not in red). Follow the spacing of the ‘happenings’, are they too close together or too far apart? Remember, regular spacing of ‘happenings’ leads to being too predictable.

-There is no hard and fast rule, however;

-2-3 developmental happenings per page = good

-4-5 on a page = too much

-only 1 = nowhere near enough

-6 or more = way too many

You want a certain amount of irregularity, but irregularity with rhythm, irregularity that works.

Think about:

-length of scene

-timing (in time, slow motion, etc)

‘Happenings’ will build (get closer together) as the scene builds in intensity.

BASICALLY: position ‘happenings’ with care!

Keep in mind the scene’s pace, intensity and heartbeat/rhythm.

5.      Padding/Backstory/Information/Explanation

For this, you will need a red pen/pencil!

Underline anything that can be considered padding, backstory, information or explanation.

If there is 20% or more of this on a page, it will kill the story. Likewise, there should not be more than 20% in a scene. Fantasy can try 25-30%, but it will still need to be interspersed well and not just dumped AND be only where it needs to be and when.

Line up only what needs to be said AND everything that needs to be said (ie foreshadowing)

It will not be the case that ‘all the red stuff’s got to go’

-do we need it? How do we need it?

All that is kept should feed into/be relevant to the purpose/s discovered in exercise 1 and the ‘happenings’ of exercise 2.

6.      Change

Change is part of the development of the story.

What has changed from the beginning of the scene to the end? Think of a chessboard, each scene and chapter is a move in a game of chess, ultimately leading to the end.

Plot                -level of action and suspense

-position in story

Conflict          -level of opposition

-position in story

Character       -level of knowledge/skill/equipment



-position in story

POSITION:    -is character stronger or weaker?

-could be simply moving to a different level of the story

-end with a hook (small ‘oomph’ signalling part of the sub-plot) or a cliff-hanger (big ‘oomph’ signalling part of the main plot)

7.      Character

What is the personality of the major players in the scene? There are two aspects to look at here. The first aspect has two sections:

1.      list 1-4 major traits (and nuances within those traits – ie is generous, but only to certain people)

2.      How the scene either activates or challenges those traits.

Make a list of the major character/s in the scene and come up with any answers to 1 and 2 that you can for each of them.

The second aspect has three sections:

1.      What is the character’s goal? (this relates to what they want through the course of the story)

2.      What is the character’s motivation? (this relates to what they want/do in the scene)

3.      What are the relationships/interactions between the characters in the scene?

Now, for each character come up with the answers to the next 1,2 and 3. The answers to 1 and 2 can and will often be the same.

8.      Point Of View (POV)

a.       What is your POV for this scene? And, why?

b.      Mark in red pen/pencil any

i.      Headswaps (go to a non-POV character’s head)

ii.      POV slips (author intrusion or exposition)

c.       Mark modes (show and tell)

i.      Mark in red any ‘tell’ modes – look for exposition or POV slips


Exposition/author intrusion/POV slip is NOT any action, dialogue, internalisation or description that comes from a character’s head. Only that which does not come from the character.

Allow only up to 20% per page maximum. Sometimes that sort of stuff just needs to be there – especially with fantasy writing.

Types of POV:

-First      -limited


-Third     -limited



-a neutral POV

-no emotions or thoughts, only observations.

-no values or judgments

-ie ‘a sunset’ not ‘a beautiful sunset’ (a camera wouldn’t know it was beautiful)

Exposition/author intrusion

-stops pace, rhythm of prose

-do not have blocks or ‘dumps’ of it – intersperse it

-use exquisite prose to help the reader over it

Remember: readers will connect better with a confined POV

A note: whose head/POV is it best to show the Hot Spot from? This is the character to choose for the scene’s POV

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