I read and re-read the passage my client had written and wished I could engage more with it. I was well-rested and excited about this editing project, and I was completely dedicated to supporting my client to publication. So, why was I not connecting with this manuscript? There are usually a number of answers to that question, but a big one in this case lay in the fact that I could not picture anything the writer was talking about. He had created a chronology of events, when what was needed was a story.
There’s a big difference between the two.
A chronology of events sets out the things that happened to you (or your character) and it might go something like this:
“Sarah took her lunch and sat down. She felt discouraged about her job. A co-worker walked by and she talked to him for a few minutes. She wondered why he was so happy all the time. After she finished eating she went back to her desk and worked on some reports. It was a long day.”
That’s all well and good, but I can’t “see” what’s happening here. Contrast that with this:
“Sarah dragged herself into the empty lunchroom, pulled a brown paper bag out of the fridge and peeked at the contents. A hard-boiled egg, some carrot sticks and seven gluten-free crackers winked at her from the bottom of the bag. She sighed and sank into a chair at the weathered lunch table. A crummy lunch and a crummy job. Why didn’t anything good ever happen to her? John from Shipping wandered into the lunchroom, whistling, as usual. It was so irritating! Why was he so happy all the time? Putting her envy aside as much as she could, she listened as John told her about his wonderful weekend. After he sauntered back to his cubicle, Sarah smashed a couple of crackers with her fist and went back to work.”
Hopefully the writer has given us a physical description of Sarah prior to this juncture, so we know that she is a tall 40-year-old woman with shoulder-length blond hair and green eyes. She dresses conservatively and she drives a beat-up old Mazda sedan. So, when Sarah slinks into that lunchroom, we can see her in our mind’s eye.
There are some key details about the passage I’ve written above that you might want to duplicate in your own writing. For example, people don’t have to just “walk” into or out of a room: in my example above, they drag themselves in, wander in whistling, and saunter out. Sarah “peeked” into her lunch bag and “sank into” a chair. She smashed some crackers for a little action that shows us how she’s feeling. I’ve also let my readers look at Sarah’s lunch – which, by the way, lets you know more about her personality.
Some people are more naturally inclined to provide the kind of details that make a story a story, and too much detail will make your readers run for the exit. As in most things in life, there’s a balance. But once you’re aware of the distinction, it becomes easier to work consciously with details, so you can make your writing livelier and engage your readers with more panache.