A short series looking at how to approach revisions. Part 3: Seeds need water, water needs seeds.
So far we’ve looked at tweaking the start and end (where information tends to bunch up), and making sure characters have identifiable story-world reasons for what they’re doing.
Another element worth looking at early on is establishing the tone. Not the overall tone of the story, I’m talking about the tone of each scene. The specific tone I’m talking about is one that indicates this will be a story worth reading.
Each scene in the story will be responsible for getting the reader to move on to the next. In early drafts scenes will often veer toward the functional. The tone is neutral. You’re establishing facts, this person is going here, the other person is staying put. You may have good reason for arranging your characters and moving them around, and you may feel it’s realistic to have them behave in a fairly low key manner. But the interactions are flat.
“You going out?”
“Okay, see you later.”
The above exchange is very different to this one:
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
It’s very easy to convince yourself your character don’t speak that way, or aren’t in that kind of a place emotionally. Neutral is reflective of their state of mind, of the state of the story at this point.
But it’s not about forcing a particular attitude on your characters, it’s just being aware of what the current attitude is and if it’s beneficial to your story.
I can change the above scene to this:
“You’re going out wearing a kilt?”
“Can you bring me back some weed, son?”
“You’re going on a date? Someone agreed to date you? Someone call CNN!”
“Home by eleven or you’re grounded for a week.”
And so on. Each version sets a different tone. How I express that tone can be finessed over several drafts. What I want that tone to be is something that should be known as early in the process as possible.
I’ve intentionally used non-melodramatic examples above (“You can’t go out, the mafia have put a hit out on us!”) to show I’m not talking about increasing the stakes or raising danger levels. That approach does work, but should be used because it fits the kind of story you’re telling.
If Jeff Jefferson, retired Navy SEAL, is called backed to active duty to rescue the President’s daughter (because he’s the best!), then it’s in your story’s interest to explore highly dramatic options.
If Louise Fenkle fancies the photocopier repairman, probably not a lot of jumping through windows required (unless, of course, that repairman’s real name is Jeff Jefferson).
Once you have a first draft with a character who gets from A to B, with each chapter forming part of that journey, how those chapters change and become more complicated is a long process that will happen over many drafts. But after that first draft, it’s worth going through each scene and asking some basic questions to make sure the core elements are present.
1. What is the problem between these characters? Is there some indication of that problem?
Even if the characters are great friends or loving family members, showing perfection is dull. Showing some underlying tension, whether it’s aggressive or humorous or whatever, brings things to life. Doesn’t have to be screaming and shouting.
2. What is working against the character in this scene?
Even the simplest tasks, like making a sandwich or catching a bus, can be made entertaining by introducing an opposing force into the mix. Doesn’t have to be a big thing. Unexpected or unusual events are also goods way of catching the reader’s attention.
3. Is there a question posed by the end of the scene?
It’s not enough for you to know there’s still stuff to do, the reader has to have a feeling of that in the text. I don’t mean cliffhangers (although they’re fine if you have them). I mean a sense of what it is the characters need to do next. A lot of aspiring writers have the knowledge in their head and they forget no one else has. It needs to be on the page.
If you can put these three elements into each scene, then those scenes will only get better with each revision.
Mind you, chucking someone out of a window might not be such a bad idea either.
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Next Monday, the return of my Chapter One series where I look at the opening chapter of a popular novel to see how good writers start stories (usually not how agents and publishers suggest — weird huh?).