as relationships don’t develop depth until after year one, so, too,
stories don’t really develop until draft two.
I’m increasingly convinced of
this. Blame it on my development editor background. Or that article
about literary fiction author Charles Baxter in The Writer’s
Chronicle. Whatever. The best time to edit for story depth is
the second draft. By then you should be familiar with your characters
and story well enough to know what to cut, leave, revise, rewrite,
reconstruct, refine. Here’s how to edit for theme, imagery, wordplay,
and motif during this crucial phase.
First, some quick definitions.
The theme is the story’s main point; for example, “secrets can be
deadly.” Imagery is a collection of images that creates a scene.
Wordplay is the use of words to obscure or reveal aspects of plot.
Motif is a recurring element, like a locked door, that relates to the
theme. These elements are key because they support and enhance the
We’ll start with theme because
it’s the plumb line you’ll use to decide how to edit for imagery,
wordplay, and motif. The best way to edit for theme is to know what
your theme is—in this example it’s “secrets can be deadly”—and to avoid
ever after mentioning it.
These mentions are called
thematic statements. Why are they taboo? Think of it this way: Theme,
to change metaphors, is like a skeleton. Everything else is flesh on
those bones, and nobody wants bones on the outside. Here’s a sample
thematic statement. “Secrets, Lynn knew, could be deadly.” You can tell
it’s a thematic statement because it offers a moral, or maxim. A better
way to depict the same reality is: “Lynn couldn’t tell a soul, not
Editing for imagery takes
surgical skill. It requires reading each word as if someone else wrote
it. That’s why it’s best to wait until draft two to edit images for
precisely the right effect. A good way to begin is to take a sentence,
word by word. Recalling how our thematic statement was recast, here’s a
scene in a two-sentence microcosm: “Lynn closed the door of the
guestroom. It was to have been a nursery, but it would never be that
now.” Here’s the same mini-scene, edited. “She locked the door to the
spare room. Now it would never be a nursery.”
what changed and why. First, for intimacy, we’re using a close-up of
Lynn with the word She. Next we use a stronger,
more definitive verb locked. Then we change the
type of room—more on that under wordplay. Finally, we tighten the
second sentence to indicate Lynn has made sure the room will never
become a nursery.
This is where words come into
play. In our example, the play is on spare room,
which replaced guestroom. The first option could
work, since a child could be considered a guest, even an unwelcome one.
But since a person is more likely to use a guestroom, spare room better
suits the mood, which is somber. Further, the word spare connotes
something extra, over, and above what’s on hand. For our purposes,
that’s what Lynn thinks, that a child would be unnecessary, over and
above what’s already in her life.
we come to motif. It may
seem hard to find a prospective recurring element in a two-sentence
scene, but not necessarily. Here are the words from these two sentences
that could give rise to motifs throughout the story: lock,
door, spare, empty room and nursery. For
variations on these motifs, look beyond the literal. Locks and doors
can be anything sealed off—from a crypt to a safe deposit box. Spares
and empties can be anything from tires to soda cans. Nurseries can be
anything from a place for plants to anywhere something is nurtured.
Your seemingly endless choices will depend on what best suits the
As with the relationship
analogy, the key to story depth is time with the material and time away
from it. You need time in that first draft to know your characters and
subject matter. Then you need time away for the emotional distance to
see what needs to be changed and how to change it.
your story or chapter and highlight thematic phrases in pink, imagery
in yellow, wordplay in pale blue, and motif words in orange. Then
refine the imagery, wordplay, and motifs to support the theme.
Afterward, consider how to delete the thematic statement so that what
remains is a more visual, jump-off-the-page piece.
To pose an editing query,
contact Adele Annesi. To see my online writing workshop.
Press Pause Moments: Essays About Life Transitions by Women Writers
Press Pause Moments: Essays About Life
Transitions by Women Writers .