1.28.2020

Here Is a Step Toward There

A first draft tends to emerge in chunks rather than as a seamlessly unfolding whole. That corresponds to the uncertainty an author experiences about what is supposed to come next in the story line. A lead character (or several) can pull the plot in the direction that feels most satisfying by that point in the novel, and the author obeys.

When reviewing the manuscript as part of the editing process, you need to keep above the sentence-by-sentence fray and ask yourself: is what I’ve written here leading toward the end point of this plot line? Take an example of a fragmented line, with chunks supporting the several directions. A young man is looking for love, but in his disappointment ends up at his older sister’s house, where a book-ending tragedy occurs. Two plot lines—looking for love and ties to a sibling.

Let’s further stipulate that at the beginning, the older sister already resides in the location where her brother will be going. Most of the way through the first draft, you realized that you would need to create a link, and so you devised a handful of letters written between them. Yet think about the weakness of the sister’s position. She exists only offstage, as someone penning letters. When her brother shows up, the reader doesn’t know what she looks like, how she interacts with him over a kitchen table, etc. The link is long-distance, like a voice on the phone.

If you want him to end up at his sister’s place, you might want to construct the early section of the plot so that the sister hasn’t moved out of the parental home yet. Brother and sister could talk to each other directly, with the sister possibly offering advice about his love interest. In her second live scene, she is driven out by a cruel father, say, after raising his hand one too many times.

Now you have established a basis for what then would become a long-distance relationship. Readers follow the letters with interest, because they have “met” the sister. She could continue to comment on the young man’s lover. You could join the plot lines further by the boy realizing that his abusive father’s legacy is influencing how he acts toward his lover. By being conscious of the higher plane that plot development occupies (as opposed to sentence-by-sentence stitching), you have set up the sister so that when she finally shows up in person again, she is a vital force.

Exercise: You achieve the higher plane of plotting by a deliberate plan. After you read each scene, write down in a sentence or two what the scene was about. When you’re finished, consult the list of summary notes. Use the list as you are connecting the chunks. That way you will be able to see the forest for the trees.

“You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
—Steve Jobs

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


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