Thank you, Beth, for pinch hitting this round!
Back when I taught a class or two of literature, I read somewhere that a truly great writer sets the theme of the whole story in the very first paragraph. My students didn’t believe me. So we tried analyzing a few opening paragraphs. There to our surprise, the writers had laid out the theme, subtly, of course, but in a few phrases, the basic conflict, mood, and genre of the story was implied.
Since then, I’ve discovered setting this not-quite-hook applies to even my own ugliest of drafts.
So why am I thinking about theme, conflict, character arc, and that opening hook today? Because my current novel — 90,000 words on paper — languishes. The appropriate ending escapes me. So I’m deep in revision, as Adrienne Rich said so poignantly, “Re-vision-the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction . . . .”
Where did I go wrong? I used those 3×5 cards to front-end engineer the overall structure, wrote character studies for all main characters, had a blast writing the chapters, letting the words flow more or less in line with those plotting cards, and revised to my heart’s content so that each scene would sing true to the story.
But, somehow caught up in chronicling what happened next, I lost sight of my characters’ motivations, their hopes and dreams, their flaws.
The last chapters found my two main characters facing each other across an abyss of irreconcilable differences at a time (mid-19th Century), when friendly divorce was unheard of. I hoped for a happy resolution. Alas, not even a great heart would forgive a man for taking another wife and fathering children, all of whom yet lived. And I didn’t want to maim the male character as a cosmic excuse for seeking comfort, or kill him off to create a wound my female character would necessarily need to heal.
So setting aside the drama, I’ve begun re-vision. Surprisingly, my process has led right back to the beginning, that opening chapter, that opening scene, those first few words that paint the essential conflict between my two main characters. I offer my process here in the hopes you may find it useful.
Draft a theme and blurb – without looking at your stalled draft. Name the key characters and the key conflict that underpins the whole story.
Rewrite the synopsis of each chapter as it is – so the whole story as it unfolds is absolutely clear and on ‘paper’.
Read through the chapter synopsis once to get a sense of the ‘big picture.’ Underline main characters and key conflicts so you can see where they appear, what they’re doing (and maybe why). Think again about their relationships, inner motivations, and flaws. Note: I was surprised to “see” that the main conflicts between my main characters didn’t emerge right away at all. Yet all through the drafting stage, I had thought these conflicts were obvious.
Make notes (pencil, pen, or virtual CAPS on that word-processed page) for anything that’s missing or seems a bit off. Add a brief description of what needs to be in this section, this chapter, this scene.
Write a synopsis of each section. Analyze how all fits together to support that theme you drafted at the beginning. OK, revise the theme if it no longer fits the story (or plan to revise the story so it supports the theme).
Ruthlessly chop away any chapter or scene that doesn’t belong. Note: I’m a chicken at this stage. I have a separate file named “scenes not used” that’s organized by chapter. In reality, I’ve never used any scene once moved to this file, but it serves as a kind of safety net, reassuring me that my work is not lost.
Write those new scenes. Refine the opening once again. Edit, edit, edit!
Once you are satisfied the opening, the story overall, and the ending are all cohesive, and the writing at this stage is the best you can create, send the whole draft out to your beta readers and look forward to another revision or two or three. Then, celebrate the ending of this story with another beginning – your next book.
Following this process (steps 1-5) has taken me about three weeks. I’m feeling better about my characters, the story I want to tell, and how it all fits together. Would it have been easier to have planned the story ahead of time? I still wonder. Since I’m currently writing historical fiction, the facts of a particular time shape the story. Maybe next time, though, I’ll write more productively. Or, maybe this is just how I work, slowly, very slowly.
Maybe you’ve never experienced a draft that simply stalled – rather like the sun not rising in the east or the snow geese not returning at winter. But just maybe my comments will help you to move past plot holes with aplomb. That’s my hope.
A final note: I do subscribe to a few of those inspiring writerly newsletters (see links below for a few of my favorites). This week, Roz Morris suggested that our characters – at the very beginning of the story – need to appear “off balance.” Her post “How to add jeopardy to your story BEFORE the main conflict starts” says that by beginning with a sense of unease or instability, readers connect more intensely with our characters and identify with their conflicts. Her article gave me another layer to add to writing about my characters and helped me understand that elusive deep point of view.
Meanwhile, we each tell our stories from the heart, revising and learning the craft of writing as we persevere. May your writing go well!
A few blogs to check out:
- Anne R. Allen
- Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer
- Kathryn Lowry Logan’s Notes from Tabor Lane
- Roz Morris, Nail Your Novel blog and her article on how to add jeopardy to your novel before the main conflict starts.
- Kristen Lamb’s blog