In working with hobby writers, I find myself frequently asking for more. “More?” I’ve been asked. “More what?”

Well, that’s always been different depending on the person and their work. Rarely, however, has it been as simple as more dialogue, figurative language, back-story, or any one device. The “more” I ask out of drafts has turned out to be terribly hard to explain.

Being specific about what I want (as a test reader, and as the content editor) often leads to a silent suffocation of the writer’s story under my own interests. Yes, I may want to hear more about their dwarf character, or I might want more color in their description of a symbolic tree, and I might be tempted to suggest the addition of a scene that caught my interest while they were summarizing a passage of time. While any of these ideas might improve the work, these choices aren’t mine to make (not even as the editor)! Yet, how can I respond when they ask, “More what?”

I’ve recently lost myself in Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories and Memoirs, Ideas into Essays and Life Into Literature by Bill Roorbach. He uses a term that perfectly describes what I mean by “more”. In one early chapter of the book, which is written as though he were teaching a writing course, he offers a writing exercise he calls “cracking open”. This exercise is intended to help develop depth, find essential detail, and discover new stories to be developed through investigation.

To summarize his exercise, to “crack open” a portion of the writing is to find a sentence (scene, phrase, aside, image, any single element within a project) which has much more to say. Since Roorbach is working with writers on their personal stories, the smallest phrases can actually be charged with meaning.

This is an example from a journal entry. The underlined portions are places which could easily be “cracked open”.

“At this point, I’m so terrified my father is disappointed in me that every comment he makes (even a constructive one) is marked “criticism” in my mind. I’m 25, still living at home, and unmarried without prospects. I can only assume that’s terrifying to him as a parent. This is leaving out the points that I am healthy, productive, employed full-time, and faithful in church. Still, it’s those earlier three points I focus on, and so I assume they’re the things he focuses on too.”

Obviously this project is personal for the author, and only they can know and craft the effect they’re going for. Therefore, it would be wrong to say they absolutely have to change anything. However, if this were fiction (or if they asked advice with intent to edit), there are several wonderful, deepening questions that would lead to writing more, equally meaningful, content with depth.

The point of a “cracking open” exercise isn’t just to generate pages. It’s to get at the important things. This is how we get to important questions, themes, and meaning more directly. Only open up what will give you a reward.

My favorite “cracking open” questions for this passage are:

Why would the person think the father is disappointed?

How is being “unmarried without prospects” related to the father’s approval?

Why does this person focus on the weaknesses?

Has this ever been talked about, between the author and the father? If so, what happened? If not, why not?

Just answering these types of questions is one thing, but writing illustrative experiences or scenes to answer them is a whole other exercise. Roorbach’s target audience, since they’re writing memoirs and personal essays, have memory and emotion as fuel for these scenes. Writers of fiction, when encouraged to add “more”, often create the back-story in answer to the questions. This develops depth, context, and texture to the characters and the world of the story.

“Cracking open” is a lovely term. A gem, I think. Good functional phrase, Roorbach. Much, much better (and more clear) than, “give me more”. This puts the content of the work back in the writer’s hands, where it belongs.

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