Revision (part two of three)

Last month I posted about revision, starting with a few macro items. I’m here to talk about that even more.

2. Start building on your foundation.

With the macro, we talked about the foundations of the story. Or of a house, in our analogy. (Which is going to get pretty wonky, since I’ve never built a house. You’ll just have to roll with it.) So we’ve got the character and motivation, the worldbuilding, and the major conflicts, goals, and stakes.

For me, everything is interconnected. Characters and their choices drive the plot, the world affects how they behave—that sort of thing. So while I’m talking about everything separately, it’s important to remember that adjusting one aspect of the story will likely impact several others.

And what kind of things am I looking at on this level?

a) Characters and their motivations.

I know we did this one in the last post, but since the characters are the driving force of my stories, I check this in every step until there’s no question that my characters are behaving as they should. I take a closer look at individual scenes to make sure the character development is natural and progressing at a reasonable pace. Or regression, as the case may be. I also go through to make sure that they’re never the same person they were at the start of the scene or chapter.

What’s that mean? I mean the characters need to be active. They need to make decisions. Their situation need to change, even if it’s subtly. They can learn something that changes the way they view a problem. They can take action and be faced with the consequences—either good or bad. Action can be taken upon them, and they’ll be forced to react. Or it can be as subtle as an interaction with another character, and maybe the way they view that character is a little different now.

And that needs to happen in every scene.

b) Plot and conflict.

Speaking of scenes, let’s make sure they’re all useful. A long time ago, I was on the receiving end of some advice. Every scene needs to do two things: plot, character development, worldbuilding, or theme, and one of those things always needs to be plot. If plot is not happening, it either needs to be shoved into that scene, or that scene needs to be removed from the story. Every scene has to earn its place, after all.

Furthermore, does the plot make sense? If at any time there’s an easy solution that my characters aren’t taking, it needs to be really clear why. Someone’s breaking into their house, but they’re not calling the police—WHY? Maybe the characters are hiding a dead body in the basement and it would be a shame for the police to find it. Or whatever. But it needs to make sense why they don’t take the obvious actions.

In general, people will look for the simplest solution possible. Plots that could be solved within a few pages, if only the characters took the natural action, don’t make for good books. It’s not believable.

That said, simple, natural solutions can cause further problems. Going back to the stranger breaking into the house with the people who call the cops (because they don’t have a body in the basement after all), what if the cops come and make things worse? What if they’re on the robber’s side? Or the intruder leaves and the police don’t believe that someone broke into the house? What do the characters do from there? We have all kinds of opportunities to make things worse for the characters and find a plot that both makes sense and will fill an entire book.

c) Balance and movement.

Sometimes, I find my drafts have too many discovery scenes in a row. Or too many action scenes in a row. Or whatever. Too much of one thing at a time gets boring. (Yes, even if it’s action.) When you ride a roller coaster, it’s the steady drag upward that makes the steep drop even more thrilling. And if all you did was roll down the hill…even that would get boring. Stories need motion. Up and down. Side to side. They need change.

I like to go through my manuscripts to make sure I don’t have too many talky scenes in a row—or if I have several, make sure they all mean different things to the character, or are about different plots. They need to build tension.

Same for action scenes. (Which doesn’t have to mean sword fights, necessarily. They can be sword fights, of course, but they can also be car chases, kissing scenes, or characters putting their plans in motion.) Constant action, without highs and lows and change is pretty boring. A ten-page sword fight is only interesting if the reader cares about the outcome, and the situation changes rapidly. Maybe people are coming to watch. Maybe there’s money riding on the outcome. Then, an airplane is on a collision course with the fighters. And a meteor! And then someone’s delivering a baby! And more things that escalate the tension.

You get the idea. Things change. There’s movement. And there aren’t a lot of back to back talky scenes, or back to back action scenes without some kind of relief.

d) Structure: Beginning, middle, and end.

For this, I can mostly link to other blog posts about beginnings, middles, and ends. But this is another thing I take a look at when I’m revising. Do I have a solid beginning? A solid middle? A solid end? Have I resolved everything that needs to be resolved?

And that’s all I have room for this time. More next month!

4 Responses to Revision (part two of three)

  1. Julie
    Julie Mar 6 2015 at 10:09 am #

    Jodi, his is a really great breakdown! I loved your advice that every scene needs two things, “and one of those things always needs to be plot.” Great advice! Thanks for this post!

  2. Ella Apr 24 2015 at 8:29 pm #

    Great breakdown on ways a character can change in each scene! I’m going to tack that over my desk while I’m re-drafting.

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