Tuesday, March 6, 2012

FOCUS A WRITER MUST HAVE IT' by Julie Eberhart Painter

Of all the skills I've learned in this last quarter of century’s worth of concentrated writing, it's that three elements are key to a successful piece of writing: Point Of View, story and focus.

POV is a learned skill. There are many articles around to guide writers through that tunnel. And story tells itself providing we stay true to it and the POV characters living it.

Today I'd like to talk about focus.

Focus is a slippery issue, easily lost when we are distracted by a cute joke or a sidebar kind of addendum. The “let's include this,” mind will not get a story past the first editor. I find flash fiction, which for me is similar to a shaggy dog story, a good place to put those little distracting asides.

But focusing, “Now there’s the rub.” With focus the writer must stay on point. Each character should speak as himself or herself, act in their own style and have a clear voice—so clear that very few dialogue tags are needed. The characters must dress and look like the person the writer is portraying. (No tart clothes on a nun.)

Some bit players will not be thoroughly described. The days of a person entering the room, followed by a full bio and inventory of their appearance are gone. Minimalism is in. Get to the point. Elmore Leonard says he leaves out the parts people skip over out. That might be extreme, but it's a good measuring stick to apply when you get verbiage in your wordage.

The focus is how is this character acting? What part of the back story must be included, IE: he just got out of jail, she's not wearing a wedding ring and is obviously expecting, or something as subtle as a physical disability that can only be caused by the back story itself.

Applying the disciplined pen to the focus of your piece will get your readers laughing in the right places and crying as you might have when you first wrote the scene. Weed out the extraneous details that clutter the point of the story. Especially, remember Tim O’Brien’s advice? “When you come to the end (of the story) stop!”

If all else fails, take that little gem you're just dying to use and make it the focus of a short-short or flash fiction story.

Julie Eberhart Painter is the Champagne Books author of Mortal Coil, Tangled Web, and CTRR award-winning Kill Fee. Web site at Check out to read Julie's latest, focused flash fiction.


  1. Hate to say this, but focus is why I HAVE to plot. If I get started without a written plot, I end up rambling for 250 pages. Not Good! No plot, no story, just a bunch of pretty words and descriptions. Plotting is the only way I can stay on point. And Elmore Leonard writes nearly perfect dialogue. You never doubt who's talking. So you don't need the tags you'd skip over with another author.

    1. You're right about Elmore Leonard's dialogue without tags. He gets the voices right.

      Thanks for stopping by.