You may think your manuscript is ready for publication, but are there holes in your story? A beta reader can help determine if there’s still work to do.
How do you know you are done with a draft? One comprehensive test is to do the “why do I need this?” check. Once you make sure everything you’ve included is needed, you still need to determine if anything is missing or if there are holes in your story you are unaware of.
What kinds of holes might exist in a draft that appears finished to you? The best way to find out is to give your manuscript to a beta reader and ask him to identify sections where key pieces of information might be missing or to highlight elements of your story that were difficult to understand.
Perhaps you haven’t explained something well enough or you had something happen to a character and your reader felt her reaction was unbelievable or underdeveloped. Pinpointing and filling such holes is necessary to round out the reading experience.
There are two kinds of holes with respect to the creation of a story: The first is a situation where the author has included information, but hasn’t conveyed enough to satisfy the reader; the second is something missing that the author is unaware of.
A beta reader or developmental editor can help you find both types of holes in your story.
A good reader will ask a lot of questions to make sure he’s getting all you meant and making sure there isn’t more under the surface. Often authors think they have given sufficient evidence for a particular fact but it is still nebulous to the reader. Worse, the reader has the wrong idea.
Check for holes in your story
Checking for holes in your story includes making sure the fabula, the truth of your story, matches your syuzhet, or narrative. Your narrative is the way your story unfolds, and it can be tricky to get it right. You only have one chance to convey your narrative through the words you choose and the way you deliver information to the reader. Your words accumulate to build a big picture that informs your reader of what may lie ahead. Facts are presented to your reader in a set order of your choosing. Do you have yours in the right order to achieve the effect you want?
Authors can check for holes by matching their “vision” to the number of times evidence is given to support that vision — and in what ways. This could mean making a list of things you want to convey to your reader and a second list of specific “shows” that support this “tell.”
“Show, don’t tell” is probably the most widely known adage about writing. Most authors know that it is more convincing to show something through action, behavior, or dialogue than it is just to tell it. The weight of the show and the number of shows will determine how important the reader thinks the tell to be.
For instance, if you want your reader to know that Sarah is a waitress, what proof is there in the text? Can you point to it? You should be able to take a red pen and mark up the evidence you have planted in the text. You’ve nailed it if you write a scene where she approaches a table in a restaurant and says, “Hi, my name is Sarah and I’ll be your waitress tonight. What can I get you?”
This is so straightforward it’s almost laughable, but when it comes to more complex tells, it’s easy to forget to state the blindingly obvious.
If you want your heroine to be strong and confident, what evidence have you presented to prove that she is? If you want your hero to start out as the insecure underdog, where’s the list of “shows” to support that?
Planting good evidence is key to making a character arc come to life. Maybe in your story your strong and confident heroine is framed and starts to believe she is going mad. What evidence do you give? When your hero finds his geeky computer-genius knowledge is exactly what’s needed to save the world, how do you show his growing confidence and bravery? By the end of their arcs, characters are vastly different people. Documenting the trajectories in an authentic way requires cleverly crafted “shows” all along the journey.
What if you aim to do far harder expressions of ideas, like a spy who is secretly a double agent, or a woman faking being in love with a man, or the sweet granny who turns out to be the jewel thief? The more unexpected, unusual, nuanced, conflicted, or extraordinary, the better the selected evidence needs to be. Done well, anything can be achieved, but it all comes down to well-crafted evidence delivered at the right time and place to form correct impressions in the minds of readers. It is these beliefs they carry forward as they interpret the rest of the story.
In the end, the question is, “How is a reader supposed to know unless you show him?” When you write a book, you are directing readers through a mass of words that need to paint the picture you want — and the picture needs to be complete. How much of a show you need depends on how important the tell is and how well you execute it. It needs to be memorable enough to worm its way into the reader’s mental calculus.
Since books are long, the best way to check for holes is to break down the task. Ideally, go scene by scene. Each scene needs to be load-bearing. Each scene needs to carry the reader on to the next, which means it needs to convey all the information necessary for the reader to follow your story — it can’t have holes.
For each scene, answer the following two questions:
- “What should the reader know at this point?”
- “Have I given enough evidence so my reader can carry this information forward?”
Breaking up a story in this way catches mismatches in progress. The reason a reader needs to know any particular fact at any one point is to “use” it later in the story. Perhaps you need readers to know Sarah is a waitress because later in the story the killer is a waitress and they should reason that she is now included in the list of suspects.
The only way to truly check if all your “shows” are working is to have someone give it a critical read. If, at each step, your reader has absorbed what you purposely planted, you are on the right track. You score 100. If you score less, you need to shore up the evidence and make it point in the right direction. You will have filled the holes in your story, and that’s one step toward producing some great writing.
The “Why Do I Need This?” Check
Truth and Narrative: The Two Timelines Of Your Story
Getting good feedback from beta readers
How To Solicit And Act On Feedback From Beta Readers
How to be a good beta reader