My writing students from NYU and Writer’s Digest often ask for advice on how they can improve their work. I often answer with the word “elevate.” It’s one of my favorites because it implies gracefulness and forward momentum, much like a good piece of writing.
It’s one of the reasons I wrote Writing That Gets Noticed: Find Your Voice, Become a Better Storyteller, Get Published, which distills my thirty years in publishing on both sides of the publishing wall, and why I created the Freelance Writing Direct podcast (with craft and writing tips from New York Times bestsellers like Cheryl Strayed, Ann Hood, and Harris Faulkner and assigning editors like HuffPost Personal’s Noah Michelson, and WIRED’s Alan Henry. It’s also why I started a Substack with pitch calls and editor interviews (my most recent from my NYU Editor-on-Call series with a New York Times editor).
To sum up what Vivian Gornick wrote in her fantastic book The Situation and the Story, every story has a situation (the external), but the underlying story and its emotional implications are what elevate a story and take it to another level.
Get Into the Action
The best way to get into the underlying emotions of a story is to start with action, aka the inciting incident. Have a compelling intro where something happens. Nobody has time for a catalog of this happened, then that happened, like a diary entry. Your opening scene should be one of the most exciting moments in the story, told in a way that immediately elicits attention.
Conflict is Key
It’s important to find the conflict at the heart of the story (whether it is emotional, psychological, or situation-focused). It makes the reader care and feel.
For each sentence you write, ask yourself: what is the emotional implication? For example, you might write: “I woke up and went to the yard, the birds were chirping.” You are getting a lot of information, but where are you going with it? Does the chirping bird make you remember the pet bird your abusive ex had that used to yell at you? Now we are going somewhere. Or does the chirping feel like the constant nagging you are getting from your daughter to get her a new computer? Again, there is conflict there to move the story forward.
Share Sensory Details and Vivid Description
Details are important to a story to help paint a picture so the reader can connect with you. Sensory details (how something smells, tastes, feels, looks) are even better. Studies show when the senses are used in writing, the brain gets far more connected to the story. For example, you can write: He picked me up in the car and we went to the movies. It’s so much better to write: He picked me up in his silver Porsche with leather seats, smothered in dog hair, and we went to the movies. Those details (silver Porsche, and smothered in dog hair) tell you something about the guy. And you want to know more. Extra bits of information help. You can write “my mother wore a green apron as she cooked breakfast.” Or you can write “seeing my mother making pancakes in her new green apron, I remembered my last visit with grandma when she was in hospice. As I fed her puke-green jello, she cried and begged me to take her home. I couldn’t help her. Nobody could.” Now we are getting into the emotion of the story.
Ask yourself after every sentence: So What? Take that answer and imbue it in your writing to pull the reader into your story.
Opening scenes can make an impact.
In her New York Times Modern Love piece, Making a Marriage Magically Tidy, Hellen Ellis opens with this scene:
“I have the reputation of living what Marie Kondo called a magically tidy life. My tights are rolled like sushi, my tabletops are bare and my kitchen is so clean I can perform surgery in it.
I wasn’t always this way. When I was 23, I left my New York City apartment with a panty liner stuck to my back. Yes, it was used. Yes, earlier that day, I had taken it off and tossed it onto my bed like a bear throws salmon bones onto a rock. Once it was there, I guess I forgot about it. It was probably camouflaged. I promise you there was other stuff on the bed. My bed used to look like a landfill.”
This works because she uses lots of details and description to paint a picture to draw in the reader. The contrast between then and now also operates as a form of conflict.
Leave the reader with a takeaway they can relate to. You can do this by showing a transformation in thought, attitude, or learning.
Ellis’ Modern Love piece ends with these words that show the transformation she went through for the sake of her marriage. I love the last sentence, which takes the piece full circle.
“Me, I’m a recovering slob. Every day I have to remind myself to put the moisturizer back in the medicine cabinet, the cereal back in the cupboard and the trash out before the can overflows. I have to remind myself to hang my coat in the closet. And when I accomplish all of this, I really do feel like a magician. Because now, when my husband comes home, the first thing he sees is me.”