Friday, November 9, 2018

Editing – The Next Step


The previous post was about editing in the big-picture sense – story flow, making sure the messages are delivered, and so forth. When that is finished, we have a great story structure – this places us ahead of the game compared to a lot of other writers. Now we need to tighten our focus into the individual sections – chapters, scenes, etc. – and make sure they serve their purposes.

We will call this the deeper edit. We still do not care about grammar and punctuation at this point – there will be too much rewriting to wonder about using the Oxford comma. The deeper edit takes the idea from the broad edit examining story arc and messages, and scales it down to chapters, sections, or whatever you prefer to call them.

At this point, it pays off to think about what each section means. No matter what we write, the following elements should exist – establishing element, purpose, progression, and continuation. In other words, the reader needs come away from this knowing where the narrative is taking place, what happens, how this moves the plot forward, and where it’s going. These should all be clearly stated in any outline, and when we edit these sections, we need to make sure these are addressed. Also, if anything else fills that section, we need to either make sure it serves a purpose, is followed up, or is edited out.

Let’s take a simple idea for a chapter: Our hero goes to a party with his friends in the suburbs so he can clear his head and forget about the problems from the last chapter. Simple, to the point. When we do the deeper edit, our first responsibility is making sure all those points are addressed. We put the character at the party – easy enough. Which friends join him? Which ones have dialogue? Do their words contribute to the plot? Do they create a problem for our hero, perhaps reminding him of what he’s trying to forget? Does the hero’s actions match the behavior of someone trying to forget about his problems?

These areas can be very tricky to edit, particularly if we really enjoy writing about the characters. We can spend too much time writing about a conversation and forgetting to show how it contributes to the character and plot. It might be completely in character for the hero to get into a passionate hour-long debate about Astroturf, and the dialogue could be very engaging and entertaining. However, will that ten-page discussion move the plot along, or feel like a commercial break from the story? Are the actual points of debate important? Maybe it would be just as satisfying to write, “Tom sipped his gin and tonic, and relaxed by falling deep into a debate with Matt and John about the pros and cons of Astroturf, no longer thinking about his problems.”

This is where the deeper edit is important – it distills the words into the most important parts of the story, and burns off the excess. The author clears away a lot of things that are likely still very thoughtful elements but offer no development, and the story is that much stronger. The reader finds themselves taking in a lot of information but never getting bogged down in a discussion that the author loved to write but didn’t move things along.

There are exceptions to this part of editing, of course. Obviously, if a major plot twist in Chapter 25 hinges on Astroturf, then that conversation needs to be in there to set the stage. But more importantly, sometimes we include at least some of that conversation if it serves a secondary role, such as mood or character development. If Tom debates with Matt and John, this provides an opportunity to develop those characters, and show some aspect of them that might help explain their actions later in the story. Perhaps Matt and John provide comic relief, helping show how Tom escapes his problems by talking with two very entertaining people.

Lastly, we need to address continuation. In short, this stage of the deeper edit makes sure the reader wants to head to the next section with an interest in what happens next. It examines what the reader is being taken and whether it seems like a natural transition. If Tom felt successful in forgetting about his problems, then this should be communicated in a way where the reader at least thinks they know where it’s going. If Tom failed, the reader should be asking themselves what the hero is going to do to complete this task. Whatever part of the hero’s journey is taking place, the reader should somehow be prompted to keep on reading.

If you do outline your writing, this part of the editing process should be fairly simple. However, do not be afraid to change the outline based on something you see in the writing. If you see the seeds of a subplot, consider whether it can fit in the outline and could benefit the story. If a character really livens up the scene, think about their role in the story and whether they could have a greater stake in it. And most importantly, if a character or element does not quite fit right, feel free to write them out. Nothing personal, just let them know this wasn’t a good fit, and maybe you’ll put them in another story.

Once this is done, it’s ready for the last step – the intensive, grammar- punctuation-structure edit we’ve been putting off for so long. And my advice on that might surprise you.

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