Unit Testing Stories

One of the aspects that I can consistently differentiate from the professional level stories I read and the amateur ones I edit is focus. In a professional story, each word serves a purpose which can be enriched upon review and analysis. In an amateur story there is often whole paragraphs that are totally pointless. Although this goal of focus is easily described, it is much more difficult to achieve. This was a struggle for me when I started writing. All the writing-advice articles and books I read would either talk at too high of a level (how to write an engaging plot arc) or give too many little tips that ended constraining more than they helped (use adverbs sparingly, don’t use the word “that”, write short sentences for action). Sure, writing is a process, a very personal one, but no one would give me a baseline to build off of. In the following article, I will outline a method for achieving a base level of focus in a story that I’ve used many times to greatly improve the quality of my own stories and the stories I edit. The ideal time to use this process is after you’ve finished your second draft and read over your story a few times, but you need to tear it apart again to make it better.

To start I recommend printing out your story and getting a bunch of different coloured pens and/or highlighters. You could use some fancy software, but this will probably distract and limit you more than it will aid you. Go through your story and write the goal of each paragraph. What are you trying to convey to the reader? Maybe you have multiple goals, but at this point just stick to one goal per paragraph.

Goals for each paragraph. Your version is going to look much messier than this.
Goals for each paragraph. Your version is going to look much messier than this.

Now, read over your paragraph goal notes. They should read like a plot outline or literary analysis of your story. Each paragraph should be driving home a point or moving the action forward. Already after this step you may find some useless paragraphs. Maybe you’ve accidentally found a paragraph that is used to describe a lighthouse, which you thought was cool initially but was never used again. Delete this paragraph. Seriously. If you find a use for it later (which we’ll talk about in the next steps) you can revisit your old draft, but right now we need to expose the core of your story.

Remove that silly paragraph!

Now that we’ve defined the paragraph goals, we can now see how efficiently each paragraph is working towards that goal. Since the scope of this review is now more focused, you may add more than one goal to each paragraph. However, I recommend a hard limit of three and a happy medium of two. Reread the paragraph keeping the goals in mind, which are much easier to focus on than holding an entire plot in your head. Are there words breaking flow? Are there sentences that are lost and confused?

Go deep.
More goals and more detailed edits.

Now that you have multiple goals and you can confidently say your paragraphs are pursuing them diligently, colour code them so that repeating goals are the same colour. Is there a lonely colour that is only used once? Its time to reconsider whether that goal or idea is really integral to your story or of its distracting from the main point. If you story is already too long (it usually is) remove the goal and the paragraph section that pursues it. If you’re trying to write a novel, consider going for a walk (or whatever you do to unfocus on problems) and thinking about where that goal should be exposed elsewhere. Alternatively if there’s too much of one colour, reread to make sure the point or action is being presented in a varied or interesting way. Another advantage of colour coding is it gives you a visual on how your story is linked together. A good story should have links leading backwards and forwards all over the place. It shows the cohesiveness of the goals.

Colour-coded goals.

That’s all there is to this process. Iterate over it as many times as you wish and mould it personally to your liking. It’s not a silver bullet for literary greatness (for example it doesn’t tell you anything about how to get good characters), but it should eliminate the useless fluff in your story so that you and editors can more readily attack the meat.


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