When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
Your readers came back from reading your novel with ambivalence, or maybe you’ve received a few passes from agents who reviewed your first 50. You’re given little feedback and know only that something isn’t working.
Or perhaps you’ve tried to fix a problem and encountered the domino effect. Feedback indicated that your story’s climax is confusing. Once you started tinkering with it, you discovered you needed to better develop your characters. After tending to your characters, you found the action moved too slowly. The dominoes have fallen, and balance is lost. Your novel will need a narrative restructuring.
How do you start your rewrite? How do you put things back together? The list below breaks down the elements of story and provides qualities essential to each, as well as to their integration. Work through your novel step by step, examining each element to ensure it’s properly and fully developed.
FIRST FIVE PAGES
From your lead, readers should be able to sense what experience will follow. Besides creating mood, providing setting, and fanning curiosity, you need to plant expectations through point of view, verb tense, style, and voice.
Writers have the best chance of hooking their readers if the first pages deliver:
- Story questions
- Hero with a goal
- Tension (in readers, as well as characters)
- Professional writing (clean and original)
Will readers reaching page five care enough to continue to page six?
- Does your opening contain unnecessary explanation that could be deleted or replaced by action, dialogue, concrete imagery?
- Does your opening plant expectations? Are they compelling expectations? Are they the expectations you hoped to plant?
- Are these expectations addressed in your story?
- Do you have too much background info? If you have more than two or three paragraphs, alarms should ring. Delay background material as late as possible.
- How about your hero? Have you made us care? What about this character will we find admirable and attractive?
Does the first quarter of your book…
- Introduce the setting, immediate context, and core conflict of the story. (In doing so, this also should establish the genre.)
- Introduce the major characters.
- Introduce the protagonist’s psychological plot information (that ties into theme, his inner goal, and the lesson he will learn). (Have you demonstrated your hero’s wound and hinted at how the resulting false belief/ false identity conflicts with his true self?)
- Introduce the opposition. Who or what wants to stop the protagonist?
- Express the theme through showing details.
- End on a cliffhanger that propels the protagonist into Act II.
Remember, to transition from beginning to middle, you must create a need (plot point scene) where your protagonist is thrust from the ordinary into the extraordinary, something that shoves him through the door.
Your characters have crossed into the heart of the story with the door slamming behind them. The middle world is the great unknown, a foreboding channel that requires your protagonist to summon his courage, learn new things, make new allies, etc. The main action of the story takes place here, constituting one half of the project as the stakes tied to the characters’ emotional development plot line and the dramatic action plot line climb.
- Does Act II begin with an overarching tension, conflict, or suspenseful plot point? The threat should hold the reader’s attention while it allows you to slow the story and incorporate scenes of place and time, of humanness.
- Do you show the character’s goals in each scene? Does each goal have an antagonist? Through this chain of dilemmas, are readers made to care about your protagonist and what’s at stake?
- Do you sustain the tension? Is your protagonist encountering the worst possible things he can be forced to face? Or can you heighten the drama?
- Is each successive problem, opponent, hurdle, weakness, or fear worse than what preceded it?
- Does each scene in the middle peel away layers of masks from the characters, increasingly exposing their emotional development through dramatic action permeated with thematic significance?
- Are scenes link through cause and effect?
- Do you “tell all”, rather than teasing questions and leaving a trail of clues? Foreshadowed events will build suspense and draw readers deeper into your story.
- Do you deliver on Act II’s opening plot point? In other words, do you keep readers enthralled with the events that followed?
- Every scene should have a goal, and every goal should have antagonists, both internal and external. Through the chain of dilemmas, the reader is made to care for the protagonist and whether or not he achieves his goal.
THE END OF THE MIDDLE
As in the end of Act I, a cliffhanger (turning point or plot point) propels the protagonist into Act II. This is usually the hero’s bleakest moment, which ultimately leads to a self reckoning.
- Does each scene in the middle march your hero one step closer to the crisis—the highest point of the story thus far?
- Does your protagonist believe he is encroaching on his long-term goal?
- When the crisis hits, is your protagonist caught unaware?
- Does this crisis summon the last of his courage, strength, wit, etc.?
By overcoming his bleakest moment, your protagonist learns a valuable lesson. He understands something he didn’t understand at the outset. The revelation or moment of clarity is when the hero realizes what the journey has been about.
If you’ve had trouble integrating the moment of clarity into your story, consider the following solutions:
- Early in the book, make a thematic statement (either a scene that demonstrates your theme in action or a line of dialogue that paraphrases it) that foreshadows the event and helps launch your hero on his course.
- Reflect the thematic statement in the subplot, which will give your protagonist a medium to internally figure out the meaning of the external story (the main action of the plot).
As the protagonist emerges from the heart of the story world, the emotional development and dramatic action begin again in a succession of scenes that hinge on his choices. Tension, conflict, and suspense rise until the emotional development and dramatic action plot line collide.
- Do your scenes put the protagonist in situations that force him to make choices? Are these choices clear to readers?
- Do your scenes build in significance through rising tension, conflict, and stakes?
Do the dramatic action, emotional development, and thematic significance plot lines merge in a collision with opposing forces? If they occur in different scenes, do the three plot lines rise to their biggest hurdle and greatest challenge?
Just before the climax or in the midst of the climax, the hero is confronted with a life- or ego-threatening situation. Finally seeing himself for who he is presents him with a decision. Will he rationalize his way out of change? Or will he accept the challenge and risk the unknown to live differently?
- Have you shown readers whether or not the protagonist has changed?
- Have you shown his internal state through his external choice?
- Does the hero’s decision challenge his initial wound, false belief, fatal flaw, hole, etc.?
When offered the prize, the hero must decide whether or not to take it.
- Does the hero’s decision result in loss, as well as gain?
- Have you demonstrated the loss involved with the hero’s decision?
Regardless of what form it takes—a battle to the death or a battle for someone’s affection—the climax must be the culmination of the main story problem.
Your hero must overcome by his own resources. It is, after all, his story. He cannot be rescued, nor can a fortuitous event give him the advantage. You’d feel cheated, for example, if you bought tickets to a sporting event where a team won because the other defaulted after their bus broke down on the side of the road. By the same token, you’d scratch your head if you’d been following your favorite team to the play offs only to learn that the victory would be determined on a quiz show. It sounds ridiculous, but stranger leaps have found their way into novice fiction. A story about navigating a dysfunctional relationship becomes, in the last quarter of the story, about losing one’s possessions because the writer thought burning the house down would make a neat crisis.
- Is your climax a result of the story that leads to it? If not, changing it to one that is the culmination of all that precedes it.
Endings are about change. Contrary to how we met the protagonist, we now are given a snapshot that shows him free of his false beliefs and the facade he erected to protect himself.
- Is your ending unforgettable? Will it jolt readers with its fitness? Will the story haunt them? Remember, ending make fans.
- Are your characters unique, engaging, and lifelike? Are they human, (trying to make it in the world, a little fearful at times, not perfect)?
- How many sides of your protagonist do you expose?
- Do you show the process of inner conflict or only its outcome?
- How does your protagonist regard himself? What’s the state of his mind, his heart? Does he allow us to glimpse his humanity? When someone is self-revealing we’re drawn to him. Give your character the humility and courage to look inside and you’ll give readers a character whose strength they can see and whose inner life is dynamic and accessible.
- Do your characters occasionally think, say, or act in ways that we would never think, say, or act? Why not? Raise the volume. We’re intrigued by people that breach their boundaries (and ours). This is an opportunity to make us laugh, cringe, win our admiration, or give us a vicarious thrill.
- Do your characters speak the same? If you dropped identifying tags, could readers identify them through dialogue?
- Have you demonstrated change in your characters? What does your hero say, do, or think that contradicts who he was when we met him?
- Do you have more than one character filling the same role? If so, consider removing one of them.
- Look for redundancy on all levels, from chapter to word. Ask yourself: Is this necessary to your purpose? If yes, then keep it. Otherwise, you know what to do.
- Are your antagonists antagonistic in different ways? Have you distinguished them from each other and developed them with as much care as you gave your hero?
- Write down things that your antagonist would never say, think, or do. Find places where this character can and must say, think, or do those things.
- What is the antagonist’s main problem, conflict, goal, need, desire, yearning, motive driving him through the story?
- What is the antagonist’s second plot layer?
- What are the five most important steps toward the antagonist’s goal—or, in other words, what are the events, actions, or high points with respect to your antagonist that you could not possibly leave out?
- What are the three most important steps toward, or away from, your antagonist’s greatest need?
- Outline the novel from your antagonist’s point of view.
- Write five new ways that your antagonist can advance his interests. Let these actions be independent of the protagonist… things the antagonist would do anyway.
- Choose a character who supports your antagonist and make the antagonist’s case from his point of view.
- When you overdo some aspect of your novel, the effect will probably oppose the one you intended. This a common error in the creation of villains. Far too often, fictional antagonists are so thoroughly evil, so rapacious or sadistic or egomaniacal that they cease to be frightening. The most frightening heavies are those that readers can understand.
- Have you created the hero’s dramatic situation? Does it emphasize his or her dramatic story choice?
- Trace your hero’s dramatic choice as it evolves from story point to story point and ask yourself:
- Is the hero’s moral choice woven throughout so that a trail leads readers to the climax when the hero ultimate confronts this choice?
- Is there evidence of the hero’s internal conflict (his hole)? Is this conflict demonstrated as the hero’s driving force?
- Are the roots of poetic justice established within the story?
- How is poetic justice revealed?
- Does my story convey a universal truth?
Drama is as much about the repercussions of action as it is about the action. Readers need to see the consequences of action to understand its dramatic weight. The emotional reaction to action, the blowback of desire, is where drama is hottest.
- Character Emotional Development: Plot forces the protagonist to choose and to act. By making choices and reaping consequences, he transforms from a hostage of his past to a liberated hero (or in the case of tragedy, to a man defeated).
- Dramatic Action: Action is driven by what the characters want and the conflict that stands in their way.
- Thematic Significance: When you link the character’s private passion to a universal issue, the thematic plot line is launched.
Balance Between Emotional Development, Dramatic Action, and Thematic Significance
- Have you concentrated on action, forgetting that people—characters—provide and hold readers’ interest?
- Have you organized your story around the characters and overlooked the dramatic action that makes readers care and identify with them?
- Did you develop the story’s thematic significance? When the dramatic action changes the character, the story becomes thematically significance.
The writer redrafts and refines inspiration to make plot appear as if it unfolded spontaneously—that one event causes the next, and so on.