Editing: Structure

So you’ve gone through and tightened your plot, strengthened your characters, confirmed that the dialogue is realistic, and shaped your world until it was so tangible you forgot you didn’t live there. Congratulations! You have a solid second draft! Feels good, doesn’t it?

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Now it’s time… to create the (drum roll) THIRD DRAFT. We know what you’re thinking: wait, shouldn’t I be taking a break? Reconnecting with Netflix and friends? Or just Netflix?

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Sorry, but no. You’re on a roll and you need to keep rolling.

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Editing requires discipline and momentum. Whether you’re working on it eight hours a day every day, or during your forty-five minute lunch break Monday through Friday, or grabbing 20 minutes before your commute every day, you’re doing some serious work. Don’t stop now.

Serendipitously, your third draft will be all about momentum. Does your story have it? Is there a pace and/or structure that’s keeping the reader turning the page?

This is where you have to make some hard decisions about the structure of your story. Are you going to follow the classic formats (three act structure, eight point arc, etc.) or follow your own?  Are you going to have a change in narration or setting with each chapter/break? Are you going to have one chapter flow into the next, or end each break on a cliffhanger, so when your reader says they’re just going to read one more chapter before bed, they wind up finishing the book at three in the morning — loving and kind of hating you when their alarm goes off the next morning?

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While it’s tempting to fall back on classic structures and forcing your story into a mold, we recommend reading through what you have so far first. Chances are you’ll see some kind of structure already peeking through. It may be close to a classic format or it might be something completely new. Do what feels right for the story. The key is that it’s consistent throughout. Once you decide on your structure, make sure the work follows the shape from beginning to end. You shouldn’t ask your readers to fight to stay in your story — especially at three in the morning.

Once your story has a firm shape, like everything in life, it’s all about the details. You’ll need to go into every arc, scene, act and/or chapter and make sure they each achieve something that furthers the plot — whether it establishes an aspect of the setting, a facet of your character(s) or moves the action forward. Break down your story into smaller stories and make sure that they are essential.

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If they aren’t essential, you have to either give them more depth, or cut them loose.

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Just remember, if you really love a scene and desperately want to keep it, chances are it’s trying to say something but isn’t quiet there yet. Work on it, find its meaning and let it shine through.

Your number one task is to be brutally honest with yourself, though; if you can’t make it work, no matter how much you love it and how good it is on its own, it will only hurt the whole piece. Chocolate is amazing, but not on a steak. So if a scene doesn’t fit, even if the writing is impeccable, cut it. But paste it to a new document.

Who knows, it could be the pivotal ingredient to the second course/sequel!*

 

*Finish what you’re working on now first though!

 

 

 

 

Editing: Plot

OK. Let’s recap. You wrote the first draft. You’ve given yourself a break and you’re ready to look at your work with fresh eyes. That original first draft is saved, hopefully in a few locations… you know, just in cases.

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Now it’s time to go through it and make sure you have the all-important plot.

Because the plot is your purpose for telling the story; it’s the glue that holds your masterpiece together.

Stories come to us in fits and bursts. Sometimes they flow, and other times they trickle, and often, the story you thought you were telling when you first started typing is a completely different tale by the time you’re done. Which means you have to go back and make sure that everything is cohesive.

Basically, you don’t want your work to be Rachel’s Thanksgiving dessert from Friends. Ground beef is fine, but not in a fruity dessert. Make sure you all your ingredients make either Shepherd’s Pie or an English Trifle, not some unpalatable combination of the two. (Genre-mashing can be great, but it has to be done smoothly!)

Rachel Trifle

English foods aside, you don’t want contradictions in your plot. With your characters, it can be a good thing, even a grounding thing, as long as you give solid character-based reasons for it, but with plot it can weaken your tale. This means cutting the “ground beef” out. The old kill your darlings quote applies here. You might have a great scene or awesome character, but if it undermines your plot it’ll have to be saved for another story — the one about Shepherd’s Pie, perhaps?

Everything must serve the plot. And if you’ve done your job well, plot and character will overlap majorly. Even in a case-of-the-week TV show, the cases tie back to the main characters’ season/series arcs in some way. In the CW’s Supernatural, for example, at the exact moment Sam Winchester is facing the possibility of having to sacrifice his brother Dean for the greater good, the brothers meet a girl with a werewolf sister who is out of control.

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If she can’t tame her sister, she’ll have to make the ultimate sacrifice and take her out. The episode is a tight standalone story, but it holds up a mirror to the brothers’ relationship and hints at what might be coming for them.

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Awesome costume design detail: Sam and Dean are even wearing the same color scheme as the sisters, to help emphasize the mirroring

And remember, your plot manipulations and machinations and mechanics—and other things beginning with “m”—shouldn’t be obvious. There shouldn’t be billboards advertising “foreshadowing”… it should be subtle AND entertaining. Some of the best stories, the ones that stay with us, only reveal how it’s glued together much later in the story. (The gold standard of awesome plotting is still Die Hard, btw. Just saying).

So in this first pass of editing, focus on removing what doesn’t work. e.g. scenes that don’t further the plot or the character, or slow things down, or take your story off track in some way (no matter how much you love it), add in what’s needed to keep the plot together, and finesse each point so that the reader can’t see the working mechanics of it all. You can do this by making key plot moments funny, or action-oriented, or a major character moment… or distract the reader with flying monkeys… you’re basically being a magician and using sleight of hand, making the reader/audience see one thing, when you’re really doing something else.

Flying Monkeys

For example, in the opening minutes of Die Hard, John McClane’s seatmate on the plane tells McClane that when he gets to his hotel, he needs to take off his shoes and socks and “make fists with his toes” to relax. McClane thinks this is crazy, but when he gets to Nakatomi Plaza, he does it, and it works. You think that’s the payoff… but that’s the moment when Hans Gruber shows up, forcing McClane to spend the rest of the movie barefoot (and to run over broken glass at one point). That throwaway comment was a setup to help make things very difficult for the hero later on — something all plots need to do!

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It’s a setup for a plot point that’s also a character beat… and it happens so quickly and entertainingly you don’t notice it’s either! That’s how it’s done folks

It’s true that characters can change us and scenes can stay with us, but a good, tight plot is what makes us fall in love with everything in the story. No matter what type of story you’re telling, there should always be a bit of romance between the story and the reader. The plot is how you woo them to fall in love with your work.