How to Gain That Last 1% in Your Writing

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It’s been said that the difference between a good novel and a great novel is only 1%. When I first read that, it used to drive me nuts. What is that 1%?

If you asked 100 people, you would probably get 100 different answers. What I’m talking about here may not be all of the 1%, but it certainly is a very important part of it.

Someone that I have brought up before is Robert Jordan, author of the Wheel of Time series. One of his many strengths as a writer was to flavor the world through his character’s eyes. A prime example of that is a character called Siuan Sanche, who was raised as a fisherman’s daughter. She would often pepper her dialogue with examples and comparisons to fish and nets. She would notice things, due to her experience, that others wouldn’t.

While many people may not have noticed it on a conscious level, those things dramatically impact the reader. When a reader doesn’t feel attached to a character, it can create an emotional barrier. By the same token, when a reader feels like they see everything in the world through the character’s eyes, everything becomes more interesting.

How the author guides this perspective—as well as how consistent the author is—makes all the difference. In fact, you can tell a lot about the protagonist just by how he/she perceives things. Now, it’s fine and dandy to hear all this said to you, but how about seeing it exampled? I thought it would be much more of a learning experience to try out an exercise and have you all guess things about the protagonist by what he/she notices in a room.

Below, I’m going to rewrite essentially the same paragraph, but each time I will highlight or modify at least one facet. Based off of that, ask yourself things about the protagonist. What is the gender? What are the person’s preferences, or what is he/she hiding? What sort of background or profession does this person have? How does the protagonist’s point-of-view make you feel as a reader?

Not all of the above questions will be answered with each example, but I’d like you to keep them all in mind as you read. I won’t say the “answers” at the end, because that’s not the purpose of this exercise. The purpose is to see what you feel as an individual. When reading fiction, everyone takes away something a little different. There may be more than one “right” answer. If you’d like, put your answers in the comments below and compare them. Here goes!

* * *

The door shut behind me. The room smelled like oregano that was days off from being fresh. Susan sat in a chair, not far from the living room. Her necklace hung from her fingertips. Even with the light dimmed, I could see her frown. I knew this would be a long night. A dirty knife sat on the counter, still with the bits of herbs stuck to it. I had mentioned to her at least a hundred times to wash her utensils. She knew better than to attempt to make dinner without me.

The door shut behind me. My back pressed against it, and my chest heaved. I snapped the deadbolt shut and ordered myself to breathe. The room stunk. Susan surprised me by still being home. I could have sworn she said she was visiting her mother this weekend. She sat in a chair, not far from the living room. Her necklace hung from her fingertips. Even with the light dimmed, I could see her worry. I didn’t blame her. A dirty knife sat on the counter, with bits of green stuck to it. She had clearly started dinner without me.

The door shut behind me. The room smelled pleasantly like dinner. I smiled when I turned the corner and saw white wine on the table. I gave a small shriek when I saw Susan sitting in a chair, not far from the living room. She was so quiet. Her necklace hung from her fingertips. Even with the light dimmed, I could see her frown. She shouldn’t frown like that; even I could see the crease marks developing. I found myself wondering if she was wearing a new blouse. A dirty knife sat on the counter, with bits of green stuck to it. She had started dinner without me.

The door shut behind me. The room smelled like one of those rotting foreclosure houses. The place wasn’t empty after all; a woman sat in a chair, not far from the living room. She gripped her necklace in a shaking fist. Her chest rose and fell rapidly when she saw me. She had only made this easier with the dimmed lights. A dirty knife sat on the counter. Perfect. An hour later, the dinner still sat cold.

The door shut behind me. The room smelled like dinner. A woman sat in a wooden chair, not far from the living room. It had been a long time since I’d seen a Hitchcock. If it was genuine, it was worth too much to simply be sat in. The paint rippled a little along the legs, but the bronzing finishing coat still shone. It struck me how similar the curved back rail looked to a Klismos chair. Her fancy necklace hung from her fingertips, flashing even in the dim light. Some knives and forks sat on the countertop. Why would she make an appointment like this at dinner time?

The door shut behind me for the second to last time. The room smelled like the same dinner we’ve had for the past week. Boxes lined the hallway. Susan sat in the last remaining piece of furniture, not far from the living room. Her necklace swung from her fingertips as she stared out the window. Her lips had bite marks on them. I was sure she dimmed the light just to hide her wet cheeks. Dirty dishes sat where she had left them on the counter. She didn’t even wait to start eating.

 

There you go, everyone! I hope you found this exercise helpful.

Be sure to stop by the Writer’s Toolbox for free, useful tools that no author should go without. If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing via email to have future ones emailed to you. Image courtesy of mind_scratch via Flickr, Creative Commons.

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44 thoughts on “How to Gain That Last 1% in Your Writing”

  1. I enjoyed the first example but would have dropped – or altered – the final sentence to create more space for the reader to interpret the protagonist’s reaction. Also really love the fourth example. (just my humble opinion)

    How to get that 1%!? How to catch and engage your reader and draw them in? I think much depends upon your audience, don’t you?

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    1. Well, the exercise isn’t to change as much as possible. In fact, I tried to keep as much the same as possible, except for the facets that I’m highlighting. Therefore, some of the lines are the same in every paragraph.
      I’m glad you liked one of them, although it’s less about which you like, and more about getting a feel for how each voice is different from each other.
      At any rate, thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. He doesn’t like oregano, dirty knives or Susan staring without him. He comes across as the arrogant, controlling type.

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  2. It’s fascinating how switching a few words can totally change the meaning of a phrase, the way the reader sees the narrator, and even the plot itself. I think you just inspired a flash fiction piece. Great article!

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  3. Since I feel there is a challenge out there that has not been met, here is what the few changes told me.

    1. We are dealing with a gourmand, possibly a gormet chef. Susan cannot and shouldn’t make dinner without him (I’m assuming it was a him since the necklace didn’t lead to any thoughts about Susan’s inappropriate attire for cooking; the focus is just on food.)

    2. An overbearing roommate or husband, who could be paranoid for locking the door so quickly. Ordering people, including Susan and himself, came easily. ( He ordered himself to breathe and told Susan not to make dinner without him.) The implication of the “she should be worried” thought is for having mislead him and for starting dinner.

    3. Definitely a woman. Thinks about a new blouse, and crease marks on Susan’s face, and shrieks. 🙂

    4. We are dealing with someone who doesn’t know Susan, since he or she calls he “a woman.” Makes me think its a guy, since it wasn’t “another woman.” And he knows what foreclosed houses smell like and probably uses the knife to cover his being in the house, removing the witness.

    5. Furniture expert and possibly antiques dealer, come to her house to assess furniture, based on the reference to an appointment and all the comments about chairs and finishes and curves.

    6. Husband (guy due to lack of thought about makeup smudging with tears). He could be leaving her, taking everything but the house with him, or they could be going together and she doesn’t want to move and he is just used to her moodiness, lack of patience, and tears.

    Thanks, Ryan! This was fun, and you did a great job smuggling in clues and personality with very little modifications.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I suppose you won’t tell us the right answer? I know…it isn’t what the exercise is about, but it’d be interesting to hear if we picked up on something you didn’t intend. 🙂

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      2. Perhaps a bit down the line. I wouldn’t want to say what I had in mind and dampen other people putting forward their impressions. There is one of the paragraphs that you took a different route than I had in mind (which is perfectly fine). It was interesting to read.

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  4. I think the difference between a good novel and a great novel is not in any particular detail of the writing. It’s in the quality of the writer’s mind. You can learn to write to a certain extent, but you cannot bring something out of yourself that isn’t there. Paula Fox said this in an interview in The Paris Review’s Art of Fiction series: “It’s primarily a way of seeing. And it’s a consciousness. I don’t know what makes a writer’s voice. It’s dozens of things. There are people who write who don’t have it. They’re tone-deaf, even though they’re very fluent. It’s an ability, like anything else, being a doctor or a veterinarian, or a musician. There’s a kind of poetic mind that sees connections between things. I think that ability to make connections is part of the open secret of what a writer does.” i believe that, 100%.

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    1. I can see a lot of truth in what you say. The hard part is, trying to teach or give tips on that consciousness. It’s so abstract (albeit true). So, I suppose these posts are an attempt to try to give tips on something so ethereal. It’s almost like trying to teach someone how to grab smoke.
      So, in the end, you’re probably right, but I’m attempting to give tips on “physical” mechanics to coax out that consciousness.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hello. I really enjoy your daily inspirations. Do you mind if I ask how you are able to associate a particular image with your post title when it is viewed on Reader? Often, my title is followed by an image I have inserted into my post. But, it is not necessarily the image I want to be associated with my post title. I am new to this whole blogging gig, so I really appreciate any tips or suggestions you have.

    Thank you,
    Michelle

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    1. Michelle,

      I’m willing to answer, but I’m not grasping what you mean. If there is a chat customer service bubble in the bottom right hand corner, you might want to try that, or shoot me a link of a “problem” instance.

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      1. All I do is “add media” with each post. Just by viewing some of your posts, the picture changes with each post, so that part is right. I think it would be best to contact technical help to go further.

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    2. I am just wondering… why should you insert an image that you don’t want to be associated (or not relevant) with your post title? I thought images always have something to do one way or the other with the post, or otherwise why use them at all?

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      1. The image that I wanted to associate with my post’s title was an image that reflected the words in that title. The image that showed up on Reader was an image related to a point I mentioned later in the post. I am new to blogging, so I was looking for some help with how to place images to compliment the title text.

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      2. Did you try using a feature image? In my personal experience it always work in the reader. If your theme support a feature image, you will find it on the right side of your page under the tags and category boxes when you start a new post.

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  6. Very interesting! The exercise is very nice. I have to admit the paragraphs that flared my curiosity are the second, the fourth and the sixth! I think that the plot is very important as well but when a character gets you, it’s heaven!

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  7. This is great! Something I’m exploring in my first novel is how personalities, experiences, and culture affect how characters perceive things. So I better give this a whirl! A simple, obvious whirl.
    1. Obviously this person knows their herbs. He (or she) seems to be much more concerned with the state of the utensils and with himself than Susan.
    2. This person is intense and nervous!
    3. This person seems much more pleasant and not nearly as concerned that Susan started dinner without them. This narrator also is probably a woman, whereas the first two struck me as men. She seems to actually have concern for Susan.
    4. This person doesn’t know Susan. They have their guard up.
    5. This person doesn’t know Susan either, but they do know their furniture and seem to be much more concerned with the furniture and with the cost of things than with the woman.
    6. This person has a close relationship with Susan. I’d say they are growing apart and moving out. Maybe she blames him for making her move. I like this one the best. Not that that matters.

    Thanks! That was fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for sharing such a creative post i couldn’t resist myself to compliment..
    Its really helpful and especially that emotional attachment of a reader when we sometimes start imagining ourselves as the character ..a whole day even 🙂 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The first one sounds like an annoyed partner or husband, like what I would think my husband’s thoughts would be if he was annoyed. He sounds like a chef, perhaps or Susan has some infirmity that she shouldn’t use the knife alone.

    The third one sounded like a woman, maybe even her mother, critical of details.

    The last one sounded like they were moving, either apart or together.

    I liked the first one because it was very straightforward but it doesn’t tell as much. It is how I am writing my thriller but that is meant to be mysterious.

    I pictured her naked wearing only the long necklace. Is that wrong?
    ^_^

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