9.01.2020

Puzzle Assortment

I’ll pick up from the previous post to address another aspect of making large-scale changes during the revision of a novel. That concerns the practice of chopping up portions of the previous draft and realigning them in the new. The approach does have merits. If a piece is freed from being a link in a continuous narrative, you can shorten it until only the essential core of it is left, lopping off unneeded pages. Also, jumping back and forth in time is a well-established technique in fiction.

The art of mixing and matching is more difficult, though, than it seems. A primary reason, ironically, is continuity. When you first slotted the scene in the narrative, part of its power borrowed from what had happened before, at the very least in the scene that preceded it. You could build on what was fresh in the reader’s mind.

What happens when the piece appears out of nowhere—say, a flash from the past? Now readers have to reorient themselves. When is this scene taking place? Why am I switching away from the main story line to read it? The essence you pared it down to had better pack a punch, because it is standing on its lonesome. Consider too: the reader should feel that the scene fits in the proceedings, even if obliquely. So placement, and probably tailoring the scene to fit in that place, becomes a crucial consideration.

To explain why a past scene is being sprung on the reader, one solution is a cue provided in the present-day story. Henry stubs his toe on the edge of his bedroom door, and he remembers the last time he stubbed his toe: on that dark and rainy night when Natalie set her suitcase on the bed, etc. This device does work, but only to a very limited extent. When used more than a couple of times, the reader starts sighing. Here we go again, off down the author’s memory lane. Even worse is using the cue and following with several background scenes in a row. By the time you return, will readers remember where they were in the present-day plot line?

Finally, any odd assemblage of scenes will hamper a novel’s forward progress merely by their random nature. See, you know the context in which the scenes were originally written, but the reader doesn’t. All they see is one unexpected jump after another. You are obliged to make the disparate scenes fit a building pattern of their own. This can be done by lining up the past scenes in chronological order. You can also provide a thematic thread, such as a mother-daughter relationship. In this case, you can regard the past pieces as a subplot, whose scenes also appear occasionally.

Exercise: One solution is to gang up like scenes into discrete story units, or chapters. Rather than inserting nine puzzle pieces, why not create three chapters that are set entirely in the past? If you provide a strong clue at the end of a present-day chapter, you could start the first of these past chapters on the next page. Since readers understand patterns, you could drop in the other two without any preface at all.

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

—George Orwell

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.