Check Your “Underwriting”—10 Key Questions to Ask of Your Story

We’ve been looking at the many ways writers tend to underwrite in their fiction. Choppy narrative that “magically” moves characters around. Dialog that seems to be missing something. Action that has characters behaving in confusing ways. Characters lacking the natural process of emotional response to things that happen to them.

These issues are especially endemic to first novels, and when pointed out to authors, they then seem so obvious. Writers will say, “Why didn’t I notice these problems?” I’ll tell you what I think is the main reason most writers can’t see the obvious flaws in their scenes.

Because of lack of adequate writing experience, helpful critical feedback, and sufficient skill development and training, writers don’t realize they aren’t showing enough—and especially in a scene’s opening paragraphs—to help readers picture where a character is and when the scene is taking place in the story.  Writers can imagine all the action taking place, the details of the setting, the sounds and smells their characters are experiencing. But they forget that readers aren’t mind readers.

Yes, we want to leave much to a reader’s imagination as she immerses herself in our story, but our job as authors is to create enough of our “world” for her to enjoy. Immerse means more than dipping a toe into a half-inch of water. It means to be fully, wholly submerged.

The challenge is in determining how and how much to convey to readers what the writer is seeing in her own mind.

Here are ten questions to ask of your scenes—questions that cover the most common violations of underwriting. Keep your eye out for these flaws in your writing so your readers will be able to immerse themselves fully in your story.

1) Where is this scene taking place? I shouldn’t have to ask this, right? The writer is thinking, Isn’t it obvious? I know where this scene is taking place.

2) What does this place look and feel like? And what’s usually missing is not just the locale but the smells and sounds, a sense of the time of day and year, the weather, and exactly where in the world it is.

3) How much time has passed? So many scenes dive into dialog or action without clueing the reader in on how much time has passed from the last scene. Scenes needs to flow and string together in cohesive time. It’s important to know if five minutes or five months has passed, and it only takes a few words to make that clear. Don’t leave your reader in confusion—that’s a bad thing.

4) What is your character feeling right now? This is a biggie. It’s probably the most important element needed to show at the start of a scene, but it’s often left out.

5) What is your character’s reaction? So many times I read bits of action or dialog that should produce a reaction from the POV character, but the scene just zooms ahead with without an indication of what the character is feeling or thinking.

6) What is the natural, believable way your character should be reacting? For every important moment, your character needs to react—but in a believable order. First viscerally, then emotionally, then physically, and finally intellectually. Oftentimes a writer will show a character reacting with deep thought about a situation, when their first natural reactions are missing.

If you get hit by a car, you aren’t going to first think logically about what happened and what you need to do next. First, you scream or your body slams against the sidewalk and pain streaks through your back. Keep this adage in mind: for every action, there should be an appropriate, immediate reaction. That’s how you reveal character.

7) What is the point of this scene? This is a scary question. Not for me—for the author. Because if there’s no point to a scene, it shouldn’t be in your novel. Really. Every scene has to have a point—to reveal character or plot. And it should have a “high moment” that the scene builds to.

8) What is your protagonist’s goal for the book? If she doesn’t have a goal, you don’t really have a story. The reader wants to know your premise as soon as possible, and that involves your main character having a need to get something or somewhere, do something or find something. Or some variation of that.

That goal should drive the story and be the underlayment for all your scenes. That goal is the glue that holds a novel together. It may not be huge, and in the end your character may fail to reach that goal—you’re the writer; you decide. But have a goal.

9) Where’s the conflict? Every scene should be bulging with either inner or outer conflict or both. Conflict creates tension, which is a good thing. Conflict is story.

10) Where’s your opening hook and strong ending sentence? Treat each scene as if it’s a mini novel. Every scene should hook the reader with a strong opening line or two, and should end with a satisfying wrap-up or hanging ending that makes the reader want to dive right into the next scene.

If you can get in the habit of continually asking these types of questions as you work on your scenes, you’ll avoid the quagmire of underwriting and instead provide enough depth and clarity for your readers to fully immerse themselves into your story.

Your turn: Which of these questions hits home for you? Which do you struggle with the most? Any other questions you find help you conquer “underwriting” in your fiction?

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  1. Excellent post! Several of these are in my mind as I write, but it’s nice to have them all in one place. A checklist of sorts. The only one I question is your #6 and the MC having an immediate reaction for an action. Many times, I like leaving the reaction to the next or subsequent scene. So the scene ends in a “kicker” (“hanging ending” in your terms), and the “Sequel” scene has the reaction. Thoughts?

    1. I found this post useful. As to Harald’s taking issue with #6, I kinda see what he’s getting at. I think a character’s reaction (main, major, or minor character)largely depends on the seriousness of the situation and the character’s personality. Also might depend on the character’s character or mood. I wouldn’t expect a passive-aggressive person (or character) to react the same as one who is direct, forthright, and outspoken. Of course, every personality type is going to react pretty much the same to being shot or getting hit by a car, assuming she or he survives. And if your character doesn’t survive, that’s also pretty much the same. Nitpicking aside, very good article.

  2. Great article! As a pro editor, I can second so many of these points. I notice a lot of underwriting nowadays too, and I would propose yet one more cause: too many people are told to trim, not to overwrite, etc. I think that mantra has gone too far. Inexperienced writers hear that instruction as “Take out words.” They err so far toward excessive trimming – or worse, using the advice as an excuse to be lazy about description! – that they end up with bland, empty, incomplete scenes.

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