Well, you did it. You took that spark of an idea, fleshed it out into an entire book, edited the last page for the last time, and finished one final read-through.
The book is done. At least it should be. As proud as you were, there was a little voice in your head as you scanned those sentences and absorbed the full story. A little voice that nagged it wasn’t ready yet.
While a book may never be finished for the author, sometimes it’s more than just being a perfectionist.
If you hear a little voice during a read-through, listen to it. Most likely, it’s picking up on the things a reader will, like that cliffhanger line falling flat or that scene feeling rushed.
You’re missing “something” but you’re not sure what. To help, here’s a list of things to check and then fill in to polish your book to the best of your ability.
Editing Tips: What To Check When It Feels Like Something Is Missing
Opening lines make the first impression, and where your story starts impacts the rest of the plot. If something feels off, examine your starts.
- Make sure the story has started in the right place. An exciting incident helps draw readers in. Starting with your character going about their day is boring.
- Check to see if a scene starts where it needs to. This is not always about action, either. Sometimes dropping the reader in amongst things can disorientate and walking your scene back a few steps will help.
- Study the start of every sentence to make sure it’s not a repeat of other opening sentences (it happens).
While you don’t want to overwhelm the reader with boring setting details and descriptions that drone on about the design of the MC’s coffee cup, you want to give your settings and descriptions some attention.
There is a fine balance. Too little attention and the world won’t come across as a living place. Too much and the reader will zone out.
To get the right mix, use clear, consistent details and go for vivid words that will add the description in as few words as possible. You want the readers to picture things, but not take four paragraphs to get there.
Sometimes the missing element is why your characters are doing things. You might have made it clear why your MC needs to find a cursed book, but why does he do everything else he does while hunting it down?
If the reasons for motivation aren’t there, you won’t have well-rounded characters, which can contribute to that missing feeling. Check it’s clear on the page why your characters are acting the way they are and it should make a world of difference to your manuscript.
While you’d think by the final draft, you would’ve nailed the number of characters, it’s possible you’re hanging onto some because of your own fondness for them.
As your drafts progressed, certain characters might not be important anymore, but as the author who created them, it’s hard to see that. What can also be true is too many characters, two characters that could be combined into one, or a character that needs a bigger role.
In these cases, take a good look at each character in your story and decide if they can be cut, changed, or expanded.
As for the main characters of your book, if you think something is missing from them, double-check:
- Their backstory. Do the readers know enough about each character? Are they relatable?
- Perform a character edit for their specific POV, mannerisms, and dialogue. Each one should suit the individual character.
Another suspect in the missing game is internal thoughts—either not enough or none at all.
The internal thoughts of your characters allow readers to get inside their heads. It’s a great Deep POV tool, so if you don’t implement internal thoughts, and it would suit your genre and writing style, try adding them.
Giving the reader a close perspective of things from the eyes of the MC might just be what your story needs to take it to the next level.
If you’re already incorporating internal thoughts, make sure you don’t add too much or not enough.
As with everything writing-related (and listed in this post!) balance is your friend and the key to filling what’s missing.
When you think of stories with great world-building, you know the author got it right. They’re not lacking anything in the universe they’ve created.
If you’re writing your first book, no one expects your world to be as fantastical or as strong as the books that set world-building standards, but if your book world is off, this is a great aspect to check.
Getting around it could be as simple as refining how your story world works. Make sure rules, magic systems, and how the society functions are clear, and that you’ve covered all the world-building basics.
On my list of missing conundrums, the pacing is what sticks out the most during final manuscript reads.
Usually, the red flag is a scene that feels rushed. This can be down to missing internal thoughts, backstory, settings, descriptions, or anything else listed in this post, but sometimes it’s simply down to pacing.
If the scene reads rushed, and you’ve included all the relevant details, study your pacing. Does the scene fly through explanations? Is there too little action? Have you tried to make things faster by writing quick action and clipped dialogue, but it’s made the scene end prematurely?
On the flip side, maybe you’ve dragged things out? There could be too much action and dialogue. Things could slow down when the MC stops to internally muse about something that happened five years ago. It might be relevant somewhere in the story, but not here amongst the action.
Scrutinize the pacing of your scenes. There’s a difference between rushed action and action that is rushing.
Important scenes that build character or reveal info also need balanced pacing so the characters and the readers can absorb what’s happening.
If the pacing is off, you might just have found the missing element that’s stopping your story from flowing.
Pulling off a good reveal isn’t just down to the twist itself, but a combo of it and some plot sleight-of-hand.
Reveals work best when the reader suspects something is happening. They may be wrong or they may be right, but they need to know something is up. As the writer, you make this happen with foreshadowing.
If foreshadowing isn’t part of your book, that might be what’s making you doubt what’s on the page.
Check that your best book moments have been foreshadowed correctly. This can take some practice to get right, but once you do, it’s an awesome writing trick to master.
The final sentence of any book is just as important as the opening.
While the opening should draw the reader in, the end should resolve everything that’s happened. If it’s not, see if you’ve done the following:
- Verify you haven’t rushed the big climax.
- Check that the last sentence of every scene is unique. Again, you might’ve written similar endings during the months of writing and edits and not noticed.
- A final chapter sentence should either lead to the next scene in an exciting, cliffhanger-type way or resolve things in a satisfying way.
You want the last impression you leave on the reader to be as strong as possible. Get that right, and strike the best balance of the other story elements listed here, and your manuscript shouldn’t be missing anything.
— K.M. Allan