The Means to an End

The writing of a first draft is an unfolding journey filled with wonderful uncertainty. Even if you have an outline, the characters often don’t go where you thought they would. Their needs in turn can influence how the book develops. Once you have completed the first draft, however, the process is different. Now you know how the book turns out. Not only does each plot thread have an end point, each character arc has an end point. As you start a revised draft, you can combine these two results to accentuate the progress of both.

While rewriting involves a great deal of sentence-by-sentence checking for sentence rhythm, fresh vocabulary, and the like, you can be a craftsperson on a higher plane as well. You can use the concept of end points to strengthen the novel’s overall architecture.  Here I will focus on minor characters, since this technique can be tailored for them so easily.

First, ask yourself: what is the point of a minor character? To support a major character. You can make sure your minor characters are doing their jobs in a deliberate fashion. The key to this technique is starting at a character’s end point first. How does he end up? Then work your way back from there to determine what you want him to contribute in all of the scenes leading up to that end point. This backward-looking technique allows you to pinpoint how he is supporting a major character.

You need to identify in which scenes the minor character makes an impact (as opposed to just being in the background). Let’s say the total is eight scenes. Using the alphabet, that means you work back from Scene H through G, F, E, etc. Draw up a chart in which you start at the bottom. Write a sentence or two that summarizes what the minor character does in that scene. Is she really helping the major character go to where she’s going in that scene? Could you, knowing the end point, make the minor character more forceful? Sly? Distracting?

By the end of this process, you can set up status quo ante factors (i.e., before the book starts) in such a way that dovetail with your new plot aims for the minor character. What was he doing with the major characters in the week before the book opens? The month? All the way back to childhood? Now tell us a few background stories that provide a foundation for your eight scenes in the book.

Exercise: Being an editor, I love plot charts, but how exactly do you draw one up? The key is creating meaningful column headings. Start at the left and make a skinny column titled “Ch” (for Chapter). Next to that create a column wide enough to encompass how many “Pages” (e.g., 342-47) a scene takes. The third column in this chart is a very wide one called “Synopsis.” Write down in a sentence or so what the character does in the scene. Now you have a brief outline of what you need to improve.

“Half my life is an act of revision.”
—John Irving

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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