How to Save Your Story with One Single Thing

How to Save Your Story with One Single Thing



Okay, so we’ve all heard it about story writing a billion times: your character has to want something and there should be something at stake or the reader won’t care one bit.


That’s fine. And true. But what if you do that, and your story still falls flat on the page? There’s something missing. A tension, maybe. But how to fix this, and easily?


With some help from the ideas of Charles Baxter, I’m going to show you an overlooked approach that may save your story. It involves one simple step:


Add a request moment. 

This instalment of Margin Notes will use a scene from Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral” to demonstrate how simple and powerful a request moment can be in your narrative.

Here is the unmarked passage for you to read first:


Save Your Story with One Simple Thing


Margin Notes on Carver’s Use of a Request


Unlike my previous Margin Notes, you might notice that I’ve marked very little in the margins this time. This is because this approach is SO simple and straightforward.
The request moment, as Charles Baxter claims, reveals social obligations between characters. That’s what makes the request moment so incredibly powerful as a simple dramatic tool.
So let’s think of three kinds of exchanges between characters, the kinds of exchanges which might require a decision.


Advice is the weakest kind of exchange. It’s just advice. There’s no obligation implied—you take it or leave it and you don’t even have to let the advice giver know if you’re going to do anything with the advice. As Baxter acknowledges, advice has no urgency.


And our stories need some sense of urgency.


At the other end of the spectrum, there are commands. But commands actually hold little dramatic weight because they carry the notion that the person doesn’t have much of a choice. There is a power relationship when a command is given that can create a feeling of pressure on the character, but to get really good tension, you’re better off create a split within your character—a pull between things. And a pull is created when we agonize over a choice.


Enter the request. The request implies that there is some obligation between the characters. In the Carver example below, you can see that a request can include the setting of a condition. For example, “if you don’t do this, then…” Maybe “If you don’t do this, then you’re a terrible school teacher.” Carver uses the common condition, “If you love me…” Although the remainder of this scene does not address the request directly, it’s been planted and suddenly the suspense doubles because we want to see how he responds to the request. Will he fulfill it? Can he fulfill it?


One thing that is often overlooked in character development is the question of morality or ethics, which, when inserted into our stories deepens and intensifies the narrative and our characters. A request automatically inserts an ethical question: is he ethically obligated to fulfill her request? Or think of the ethics in terms of the Amy Hempel example I mention below.


Once I learned about the request moment from listening to Charles Baxter, I started to look for it everywhere. Actually, as a quick aside, Baxter points out that pretty much every Shakespeare play hinges on a request. Hamlet, for instance, starts off with a request from his ghost of a father that he avenge his death. Anyhow, in looking for it everywhere, I started to find it in some of my favourite stories. For example, I have always loved Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” and boom, first sentence holds the request moment (and sends the entire story on its trajectory) when the narrator’s dying friend requests, “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting… make it useless stuff or skip it.”
Even better than the suspense and the friction a request creates, is the inherent tension it builds in the character. Because requests presume the character has a choice. And choice is the heart of good drama. In fact, Baxter points out that Hamlet is perhaps the most passive protagonist ever (and we’re told not to create passive protagonists, am I right?), but that it’s because of the request from his dead father and the resulting dilemma of choice over whether to commit regicide that we become nonetheless riveted by his tension.



Margin Notes on Cathedral (Click here if you want a larger PDF version):


The Power of the Request Moment in Story

I’m super excited for you to try this out because it will truly ramp up your tension instantly. That’s why I think it’s a fantastic tool for reviving stories that were maybe not going anywhere for whatever reason. In fact, after I learned this, I rummaged madly through my drawers to see how I could resuscitate some old stories that I felt particularly attached to, but couldn’t quite get right.


I also plan to spend some time revisiting Shakespeare because Baxter points out that often one request leads to another, and I want to see how you might build requests cumulatively. And, I love his observation that the Bible, as a narrative, is a series of requests from God that people failed to fulfill, starting with the request to not eat the forbidden fruit. Just makes me realize how ubiquitous in powerful narratives the request moment is!


Click here if you want a larger, printable PDF of the Recipe Card.


Save Your Story with a Request Moment


What do you think of the request moment? Are you excited to look for opportunities in your manuscript? If you think of any other famous request moments in stories you love, please let me know! Leave me a comment below!


Also, I asked all of you to share my posts, and you went above and beyond. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You guys are AMAZING. 


But as always, some suggestions:

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How to Revise Your Scenes with This Simple Blueprint

How to Revise Your Scenes with This Simple Blueprint


I absolutely love to revise using other writers’ work as a template or blueprint. For one, I learn different ways to structure parts of my narrative. But more importantly:


A blueprint imposes constraints that free my creativity.


This month’s Margin Notes is a super-mini masterclass on scene structure, thanks to a passage from John Cheever’s story, “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow.” It includes an exact blueprint for you to revise your story scenes.  


Here is the unmarked passage for you to read first:


Scene Structure for Short Stories and Novels

Margin Notes on Cheever’s Scene Structure 


Margin Notes on The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (Click here if you want a larger PDF version):


How to Structure a Story Scene





The first thing Cheever did in building his scene was to set the stage, so to speak. He did this in three simple ways:


  1. He gives us concrete details like the fire in the living room to ignite our senses and our imaginations.
  2. He gives us the emotional starting point of the scene, which is that being there with her makes him feel free of his burdens.
  3. He positions the characters in a physical proximity to one another, including their movements. This kind of physical positioning, or staging, is a brilliantly easy way to show a great deal about two characters–about their relationship, their power distribution, etc. It is underused by many writers, I think.




Once the stage is set, Cheever launches straight into the dialogue. In the next Margin Notes, I’ll examine how to construct dialogue as negotiation, including the use of a particular type of moment for generating instant tension, but for now I want you to merely note that the characters in this passage demonstrate the interesting notion that dialogue is ALWAYS one of three modes: negotiation, seduction, or conflict. Or, a combination of these three (obviously seduction is also a part of this dialogue).


I’ve read a lot of early drafts in which a scene is filled with wonderful activity, but that’s all it’s filled with: activity. By the end of a scene with only activity in it (e.g. two lovers arguing intensely), a reader consciously or subconsciously wonders, What was the point of that scene? What did it mean?


Activity must eventually rise to action. The moment Cheever’s dialogue starts to make a shift from activity to action is when she presents the ultimatum: if you’re not going to do this for me, then you must go away and never, never, come back. And the readers naturally wonder: Ooh, how is he going to respond to that?


Well, Cheever knows this is the perfect chance to halt for a moment.


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(See how I did that? Paused just before talking about dramatic pauses.)





This section serves double duty:


  1. It holds us suspense as we are left waiting for his response to her ultimatum.
  2. It gives Cheever the opportunity to shift the narrative distance* from the mid-range camera shots we see when “watching” the dialogue to a close-up camera shot of his mind. Zoomed inside his mind, we experience the character’s inner world as considers his options. These options reveal what’s at stake for him. Additionally, his perspective on the situation at this point plants the seed for the promise he very soon makes to her.


This is precisely what pauses do: they infect the scene with a germ. Even when the pause is shorter than the one here. Even when it is a brief moment of silence or speechlessness.




After keeping us in suspense for a moment, Cheever returns to the dialogue. Note the brevity of this section. If it were much longer, the tension would have fizzled out. Plus, during the dramatic pause we came to understand his motivation for the promise he makes in this section. Cheever doesn’t want us to forget this motivation. And he doesn’t want too much else to happen in the scene or we might have reason to wonder whether his motivation has changed.


This short section of dialogue contains the turning point: the moment when she reveals what it is she wants from him. According to Robert McKee, turning points in scenes have four effects on the reader:


  1. Surprise
  2. Insight
  3. Heightened curiousity
  4. A new direction


But here is the even simpler, more brilliant thing I want you to take from this mini masterclass to try in your own revisions: this section of dialogue contains a DISCOVERY. (The discovery that she wants his bomb shelter key.)


Some while back, when I was trying to gain a better understanding of how to build a story scene, I was getting really frustrated by hearing the same advice over and over, which was that:


  1. Something should happen in a scene.
  2. Something should change in a scene.


Change? What should change? I’d revise my scenes without knowing if the “change” in my scene was the kind of change they meant, and if it was a big enough change. “Change” is too vague, I thought, as my forehead thumped onto my desk.


After studying probably close to a hundred scenes from novels and short stories, I was folding laundry when it finally struck me: every good scene I’d read resulted in at least one of two things: a DISCOVERY or a DECISION.


That’s it. One of those two things. Or both. The discovery (some new important piece of information, something new learned) can be small yet significant, or wildly life-altering. Same with the decision.


Simplifying my perception of my story scenes in this way uplifted me and my craft. It made me feel a new sense of control and capability over creating and re-creating my scenes. Discovery or decision. That was easy to remember. Easy to focus on, achievable, yet so powerfully transformative to my stories.




Now that the discovery has been made, Cheever zooms into the character’s inner world once more. The character assesses his situation, feels certain reactions, takes inventory of things. We watch him decide what this scene has meant for him. This is like the “retreat” step of the Approach-Retreat-Return model we tried out in the mini masterclass on Character Perceptions. Take note, too, of how much narrative space* (compared to the other sections in the scene) Cheever takes to depict the character’s thoughts in this section.




After taking inventory of his situation, the character makes the decision to give her the key. This is optional because Cheever could have chosen to have this decision arise later in another scene. Conversely, you could have your character make a decision in place of the earlier moment of discovery.


Additional Tidbit: Remember how Cheever started this scene with the character feeling that he was burden-free with her? Well, that has completely shifted to the opposite by the end of the scene. He feels an enormous weight. Plus, we feel the weight of terrible possibility: what will his wife say if she discovers this?




Really, the decision ends the scene. However, I wanted to include the start of the next scene because it’s a common technique Cheever uses: start with a wider view of things before funnelling down into the next scene.




This passage about the bomb shelter and the neighbourhood shifts the narrative distance to a panoramic view.* With this view, the story depicts the background or context of the narrative. The foreground of the narrative holds more meaning for us as a result.


*(For an introduction to Narrative Distance and Narrative Space download my free Story Revision Starter Kit below. For an in-depth understanding of how to revise your narrative distance, check out the Reimagine the Page Course.)


Before I give you the Recipe Card to try this out for yourself, I want to add an important, if not obvious, caveat: this blueprint is not intended to be used in every single scene you create. The rhythm of your story would start to feel predictable. Practice this a few times, revising a few scenes from your draft using the blueprint. Then you’ll be able to tweak other scenes in your own way to create new blueprints.


Click here if you want a larger, printable PDF of the Recipe Card.


How to Revise Your Scene Margin Notes Recipe Card



In the opening paragraphs, I claimed that constraints, like using templates, actually frees my creativity. What do you think? Are you using constraints intentionally in some way? Leave me a comment below!


Also, if you liked this post, please share it?

I think the writing community is one of the most generous I’ve known for sharing and helping one another. It would me sure help out a lot and I’d appreciate it truly.


Some great suggestions:


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How to Write Your Best Story Ever with One Epic Exercise

How To Write Your Best Story Ever With One Epic Exercise


You want to be a true original. All writers do. But what if you could write like somebody else? Who would you choose?


Imagine a writing exercise that could make you write like that person. Well, maybe not exactly like them. But what if this exercise could refine your style, develop your voice, and deepen your grasp of narrative structure?


Would you do it?


I did. Every morning for one year.


Now I want to tell you exactly what happened to my writing as a result. And why you’re going to want to try it. (Spoiler: I ended up writing my best story ever.)

Read More
Writing Mini Masterclass on Controlling Ideas

Dionne Brand and Controlling Ideas


This Margin Notes mini-masterclass is all about CONTROLLING IDEAS. This passage (longer than my usual excerpts) from Dionne Brand’s novel, At the Full and Change of the Moon, shows us one way to structure our writing when our story has two “controlling ideas” that are equally important to the narrative. This structure Brand uses may very well come from her poetry background. 

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How to Riff Sentences for Stunning Stories

Anakana Schofield and Riffing Sentences


This Margin Notes mini-masterclass is all about RIFFING SENTENCES. The passage is from Anakana Schofield’s dark, stunning novel, Martin John. It shows us how powerful and nuanced a paragraph can become when a writer builds each sentence by riffing off the one that’s come before it. Although it is a technique that takes incredible skill, the concept is one we can all practice to stretch our craft. 

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3 Ways to Use Scrap Paper During Story Revisions

3 Powerful Ways to Use Scrap Paper During Story Revisions


How can you excavate the incredibly original thoughts and images that hide in the corners of your mind? Or keep track of the endless details that make the internal logic of your story consistent? Or truly grasp your story’s “about-ness”—that red-hot centre of your story that brings it to life?


Here are three ways I use scrap paper as a central tool in my revision process. Scrap paper (yes, specifically scrap paper) has become an indispensable part of my routine. In fact, I can’t even remember how I worked before discovering how scrap paper opened up my writing. 

Read More
How to Structure Character Perceptions

Alice Munro and Perceptions


This Margin Notes is all about PERCEPTIONS. A passage from Alice Munro’s “Thanks for the Ride” shows us how to do two things with a character’s perceptions: one, structure a character’s perceptions so they mirror the cyclical process of perception we tend to use in life; and two, pattern a character’s perceptions so there is a strong surge of energy at the sentence level. 

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