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 unfolds.

Once you have completed the first draft, 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.

The key to this technique is to start at the end point. How does a character end up? Then work your way back from there to determine how you want him to build in all of the scenes leading up to that end point. This backward-looking technique allows you to check his progress at each step along the way.

You need to identify in which scenes the character makes an impact (as opposed to just being in the background or being talked about). Let’s say the total is 15 scenes. Using the alphabet, that means you work back from Scene O through N, M, L, etc., until you reach Scene A. Draw up a chart in which you start at the bottom. Then write a sentence or two that summarizes what the character does in that scene.

Could you, knowing the end point, make the character more forceful? Sly? Distracting? By the end of this process, you can extend beyond even the start of the novel. You can set up status quo ante factors (i.e., before the book begins) in such a way that dovetail with your new plot aims for the character. You can handle that. You’ve broken down your sprawling character arc into 15 manageable pieces. What is that character doing step by step? Can you make her steps more effective?

Exercise: Being an editor, I love 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., 342-50) 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, in a brief, easy-to-review form, an outline of how the character develops.

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

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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