Filling in the Spaces

When layering a previous draft with new plot material, an author obviously has to check to see that the new material aligns with the old. A more subtle approach is to judge the value of the old material in light of your advanced knowledge of the novel. The word layer is a useful one for this process. Part of what you’re doing, every step of the way, is adding texture and depth to the story. If you’re inserting new text in addition to the old, and making a few minor corrections, you’re merely making the book longer.

A novel can skate on the surface of its unfolding plot events. That’s why a plot-filled best-seller is such a light read. To add characterization, you provide background material. To make the narrative unique, you develop a distinctive point of view(s). To illuminate the fictional world you provide descriptions. All of these elements add threads to your weave. An engrossing novel tends to mix both action and context.

When adding new material, this question of action:present versus context:past should be kept in mind. Let’s say you depicted white Sheila and black Elaine in an early scene. In your original version they didn’t know each other, and so their first scene together had a lot of skirting around racial flash points. Getting to know you, in other words. But you have moved beyond the original conception. Now you want this duo to solve a mystery at their place of work. What happens with the go-lightly scene?

You could keep it and add the new material in a second scene. But you could pull away and take a longer view. If they’ve been working together for, say, two years, why don’t they already know each other? Maybe they’re both huge Colson Whitehead fans. Maybe they have the same sort of screw-up little brothers. Just from these few examples you can see that maybe the point at issue here isn’t addition. It’s reformulating what you have to better accommodate the addition.

What was action is replaced by background material. You spend a morning drawing up a story about those two years together. You can define how they’ve interacted before the book starts. You can write their new scenes with the knowledge that one will react to the other in certain predictable ways—those ways you make up as part of the background. You find a few places prior to the new scene to drop in the background packets. Now the relationship is a given. You’re free to explore your new plot events within a story with that added depth element.

Exercise: Once you have drawn up your new material, read over all of the related scenes with the featured characters. Don’t plunge right into their first scene. Based on what you know now, can you see if their arc of development rises quickly enough to support the dramatic burdens you are placing on them in the next draft? 

“In our deepest moments we say the most inadequate things.” ― Edna O'Brien

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.