10.22.2020

Evening Out

The process of revision is local just the way writing the first draft is. By that I mean an author tends to write one section at a time. That makes sense, if you think about the steps required in editing. First, while reading over the manuscript, the writer perceives a problem. A solution is devised, and then the writer searches for places in the manuscript to insert the solution. Said place is found and a new patch of a few pages appears. This identification and insertion process can occur in several other places. If you leave track changes (which shows where text has been changed) running, you can see these discrete spots. Is that really enough, however, to fully bend a story arc in a new direction? 

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say a terrorist wants to blow up the New York Stock Exchange with an ammonium nitrate bomb in the climax. While reviewing the first draft, an author might like the excitement—will Sergeant Fitzgerald thwart the dastardly villain?—but realize that the bomb is sprung on the reader all at once. How do you make an ammonium nitrate bomb in the first place? So a few new scenes are written in the villain’s basement, using its rusty square sink, and voilĂ ! The villain is not only ambitious, he’s handy too.

Yet a further review of the revised manuscript shows an additional problem. The new patches are fine, but they seem to come full-blown out of nowhere. How did the villain go from grumbling at the government to handling bags of fertilizer? Why was that method chosen and what research into bomb making is done? What role does reading about past bombings play? Does the villain boast about the method to friends or as a manifesto online? 

All of the tendrils attached to a large block of text need to be considered, and more than that, further insertions that include them will help build story tension. They don’t need to be as lengthy as long as they appear regularly. You might insert into an early scene, for instance, the villain viewing an old photo of the Oklahoma City bombing and saying: Whoa, that’s what freaking fertilizer can do?

That is how a sturdy story arc is built: piece by piece all through the book. If you start small and then write increasingly longer passages, the mere length provides a building dramatic emphasis. Then readers really will be on the edge of their seat when the villain’s van turns onto Wall Street.

Exercise: New insertions can often be written independently of the existing text. Writing that way can be helpful in terms of maintaining continuity between each piece. Write out the fragmented story and then look for places to insert the blocks. You’ll usually find that only the beginning and ending of the piece has to be changed in order to align with what you already have.

“I write down portions, maybe fragments, and perhaps an imperfect view of what I'm hoping to write. Out of that, I keep trying to find exactly what I want.”          —James Salter

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.