Welcome to The Writer’s Desk: a new monthly column providing tips for fiction and memoir writers. This month I’ll feature part 1 on revision because many of our readers participated in National Novel Writing Month and are anxious to revise their 50,000-plus-word masterpieces.
Revision is a lengthy endeavor and every writer has their own process. My goal here is to share my perspective on improving one’s work. In this post I’ll focus on macro-level revision: otherwise known as the big picture. This post will feature revising scenes. In future installments I’ll delve into more macro concerns and the nitty gritty micro level, such as grammar, punctuation, style and syntax.
I recently attended a workshop presented by a literary agent who said while 91% of people claim they want to write a book, only 8% do, and only 1% of those who finish a draft are willing to revise a manuscript to where an editor or agent will read it. A draft is just a blueprint. Revision is where the real writing begins; it allows the writer to ask questions of the draft in order to understand the deeper layers of the manuscript. It answers the ultimate question: What is my tale about?
A story is born when something changes and interrupts the status quo. In your opening scene, something blows up, either literally or figuratively. Essentially, for the protagonist (or narrator in a memoir) something crucial in their world has changed. (Example: In The Wizard of Oz, a tornado blows Dorothy into a strange land where she faces many dangers.)
Like film, written stories are told in scenes. The most effective scenes allow the reader to not only see the action and characters, but also hear, smell and feel. At the outset, we’re along for the ride when Dorothy can’t find her family and is transported to a new world.
Asking the right questions of each scene will improve the overall work. One way I revise is to chapter by chapter, dissect each scene in that chapter with a series of questions. This is where I find I either need to cut this scene or move to another point in the story
Does this scene relate to the inciting incident? The inciting incident is when the main character’s world turned upside down. Every scene should remind the reader of what the hero is struggling to overcome either directly or tangentially. In The Wizard of Oz, the viewer is constantly reminded of Dorothy’s quest to return home.
Does this scene build upon the previous one and create new conflict and consequences that lead into the next? In each scene of Oz, Dorothy encounters new characters who either help or hinder her quest. A scene works best when one problem is solved, only to discover a new one.
Does the scene inform, involve, or affect the protagonist? Even if you’re writing a memoir, you and the other people involved in your piece are “characters” in that story. You will be affected by every action.
How does the scene make the reader feel? Feelings are the magic bullet of a story. Emotional feelings are why this story matters. Every story is driven by the protagonist’s internal struggle. Dorothy’s desire to return home is a universal emotion that other will identify with. Placing her dog Toto in peril adds to the emotional stakes. Save The Cat Writes a Novel offers perspective on this.
Does the scene move the story in a forward trajectory? Backstory is useful in providing information (especially in a series) but use it sparingly in order to maintain forward projection in the narrative, particularly in the early chapters.
Another reason to cut is if a scene is pleasant window dressing but nothing essential happens. Check out Murder Your Darlings by Roy Peter Clark.
What new plot information does the scene introduce? Stories are like layer cakes and each scene should add another layer of frosting or cake to deepen the flavor.
Ultimately, does my concept/theme pass the “so what” test? Is the premise worthy of filling an entire book? Does it pair compelling action with strong character development? What are the stakes, and are they strong enough?
In my next installment on revision, we’ll analyze how to tighten and improve character.
— By Laura Moe
Laura Moe is the author of three novels and is currently Board of Directors President at Edmonds-based EPIC Group Writers. Her next novel, The Blue Whale of Summer, is due for release in January 2021.