Before beginning a revision project, it’s important to consider several technical matters. Just as important is to keep in mind that these aren’t rules, but principles that will encourage you to make informed choices about your work. For every suggestion or example, there are exceptions, and nothing here should be taken as carved in stone.
Show, Don’t Tell
We’ve all heard this before. But keep in mind that this is NOT an imperative so much as a warning. There is a time and a place for telling, and in fact, situations in which it is preferable or even necessary to tell the events rather than show them. Not every piece of information in your story needs the same level of attention and importance. But which is which, and how do you know?
Telling is a summary of events, as if they are merely being reported. This can create distance between your reader and the story. “Bob went to New York City.” This is telling.
Showing brings your reader directly into the story through description, dialogue, detail, and exposition. It shows the world of the story to the reader.
“Bob stood on the windy train platform as rain pattered on the tracks and the roof of the shelter that loomed over his head. Damp cold soaked through the shoulders of his thin coat. A horn blasted in the distance. The 3:15 to New York City trundled around the bend and bore down on the station platform.” This is showing.
So as you work through your manuscript, be mindful of when you are showing, and when you are telling, and ask yourself which technique best serves the story in any particular moment.
Patterns are common enough in real life. The sun rises and sets and rises again. Days get longer, then shorter, then longer again. You catch the 7:15 train to New York every weekday morning. The articles for this blog publish every Thursday.
But in fiction, unless these repetitious patterns of life contribute to the story by building in meaning, your reader may lose interest. The significance of these patterns to your reader lies not in the starting and stopping, the rising and setting, the longer and shorter, but in the underlying meaning that the pattern reveals.
Your reader will generally be more interested in what particular moments mean, rather than revisiting an endless pattern of similar moments over and over again. Which isn’t to say that illustrating such patterns is verboten, but rather, that a focus on the reason for the repetition and its underlying meaning will generally be of more interest to the reader.
Coincidence in fiction is not something readers generally like, because too often, coincidence leans in favor of the protagonist, so much so that it can seem as if the hero is divinely ordained to succeed, and no struggle is necessary on his part to achieve the story goal. A mentor swoops in and tells him to cut the red wire, rather than the green. A woman he’s just met falls madly in love with him. A dog finds the key to the Ultimate Death Trap and brings it to the hero just in time.
The problem is that convenience doesn’t convey meaning. Character is revealed through action and conflict, but coincidence lacks conflict. It’s expedient, it’s easy, and it’s lazy writing. It’s usually a sign that the writer painted himself into a plot corner and couldn’t imagine a way out.
By contrast, simultaneity conveys meaning. Simultaneity speaks to the underlying meaning of the author’s intent. There’s a reason, beyond mere convenience, for the particular event, and this raises the stakes.
As you move through your rewrite, be aware of moments when you may have relied on convenience to move your story forward. Explore ways to disguise coincidence by creating conflict that is pertinent to your theme. You can keep your story points, as long as you lose or disguise the coincidences.
Pacing should be forever in flux in your story. And pacing operates at every level, from the sentence to the paragraph, to the scene and the chapter. As you work through your revision, the story will reveal its natural rhythm to you. The challenge with pacing is that if you alter it in one section, that single change can influence the pacing of the entire manuscript.
This is one reason why I recommend doing a new outline of the story before getting started on the revision. It’s difficult to be objective about the entire story when you’re busy refining a particular passage. It’s easy to become focused on the trees, and lose sight of the forest. By getting the lay of the land before plunging into the rewrite, you’ll be better equipped to see how your story wants to be paced, and have the proper tools in hand for adjusting the pace in any particular passage.
Some people think it’s manipulative for an author to withhold information from the reader, and some authors think that this tactic heightens tension. But the real question is, “What’s the most effective way to tell my story?”
The writer must constantly be making decisions about when and how to reveal information to the reader. These decisions influence the story’s tone, pace, and even its interpretation, and writers shouldn’t feel constrained by having to reveal information simply because it’s been hinted at.
Likewise, allowing the reader to get ahead of the story by providing too much information can be fatal. “Ha! I knew the butler did it!” If your reader knows what’s coming, or can accurately guess at information that you’ve withheld, then you aren’t doing your job. Reading is one of the few times when we’re actually thrilled when our hopes are dashed and our expectations defied.
Ultimately, all’s fair in writing so long as it produces the most emotionally and rationally satisfying experience for your reader.
Your protagonist only evolves through conflict with your antagonists. Without a worthy villain, there can’t be an evolution. If the villain isn’t more powerful, more stubborn, more ruthless, and more cunning than your hero, then your hero can solve the story problem by willpower alone on page one, and then what good are the next 300 pages?
What separates your protagonist from your antagonist is your hero’s willingness to surrender the meaning that he attached to his story goal. By understanding his true situation, your hero develops the wisdom to see his situation from a wider perspective. The antagonist never develops that wisdom, never sees the situation for what it truly is.
Sometimes, you’ll write characters that don’t belong in your story because their function is redundant, and they’re engaged in conflicts that don’t add anything new to the story. If you find yourself wondering why a character is in your story, and you’re unclear what his function is, it’s possible that he just doesn’t belong. Imagine removing him from the story. Does his absence tighten the narrative? Or is it possible that he serves a crucial function that another character can serve even better? Never be afraid to conflate characters by distilling one character’s function and giving it to another character. There’s a value in going through your story and searching for characters whose roles feel similar to other characters, because the presence of such redundant characters can confuse the reader and bog down the pacing.
Are you writing your story in the past or present tense? Most stories are written in the past tense, even if what is happening is in the present. Really, it doesn’t matter what tense you choose to write in, so long as you’re consistent. If you started in the past, switches to the present, switched back to the past, will take a jaunt into the future, the reader was/is/will be confused. What’s important in the rewrite is that you make sure that the tense doesn’t change.
There is nothing wrong with the occasional use of an adverb. However, adverbs are not the most effective tools for conveying meaning. Oftentimes, if an author feels the need to tell us how a character is speaking or a wall is leaning, then chances are that the writing lacks specificity.
Particularly in a language as diverse as English, there’s a good chance that there is a specific verb or adjective that conveys the desired meaning more concisely and accurately than the verb/adjective+adverb combination. Be specific, look for ways to take the reader directly into the moment, show the characters’ experience, and the adverb usually becomes redundant.
If an adverb is necessary, then it should convey some additional meaning that isn’t already present in the verb or adjective that it modifies. “Very heavy” is just heavier than heavy, but “impossibly heavy” suggests that there’s something screwy with the force of gravity.
Weights and Measures
“The walls were 3.56 meters high, the ceiling 22.7 feet wide…” Such precision might be useful in an algebra textbook, but in a work of fiction, it can be dull and overly precise.
When dealing with measurements, keep in mind that distance is relative. “The hero and his sidekick stood fifty yards from the tiger,” could mean anything. Is that a safe distance? A dangerous distance? How fast can a tiger cross fifty yards? How much faster can the sidekick run compared to the hero?
These factoids are not often at your reader’s fingertips as they are reading, and you don’t want them flitting off to Google and Wikipedia to find them when they should be reading your story. You can’t assume that your reader will understand the context, but you can assume your reader will always be searching for meaning in every factoid you offer. So look for ways to tell your reader through description something that adds meaning to your story, rather than being unnecessary pedantic and precise.
Context is particularly important in works of speculative fiction. If your world draws from real-life medieval history, keep in mind that there was no uniform standard of weights and measures in such a real-life culture. So how long is “a foot” in such a culture? My foot? Your foot? Her foot? If you’re working in a futuristic setting, don’t tell us the alien starship was “3000 mega-statute kilometers” away. It sounds very groovy and futuristic, but it’s not a real thing and your readers have no idea what it means without more context.
“But That’s How It Really Happened!”
I hear this a lot when writers are drawing from their personal experiences to write their stories. Let me be plain: Unless you are a godawful famous and important person, your reader doesn’t give a damn how it actually happened. They only care that it happens in an interesting way in your story. So don’t let something as slippery and subjective as “the truth” (small t) get in the way of telling your story in a compelling way to reveal “the Truth” (big T), which is the meaning you are trying to convey through your story. Trust your instincts to tell your story. The purpose of a writer is to interpret the facts in a way that explores a theme, not to provide a blow-by-blow account of your morning toilette.
Next Week: The Work Begins!
Starting next week, I’ll be stepping week-by-week through my rewriting process. If you finished a NaNoWriMo project recently, or just have a manuscript gathering dust in a drawer, and you want to take it out and shine it up, join me!
Happy Birthday to the Hedge King!
January 12, 2017 marks the one-year anniversary of the publication of Hedge King in Winter. As a special thank you to my fans, from now through midnight EST on 11 January, 2017, I’m runningA Gleam Giveaway of
FIVE SIGNED PAPERBACK COPIES
of Hedge King in Winter!
Each paperback is a handsome, matte-finished, 6″ x 9″ trade paperback, featuring beautiful cover artwork from renowned international artist Viktor Titov of Grafit Studios, as well as custom cartography by the outstanding Cornelia Yoder, not to mention the complete text of Hedge King in Winter, my first published fantasy novella, with custom interior work by Glen Edelstein of Hudson Valley Design.
All you need to do to qualify for one of these free SIGNED PAPERBACKS is:
- Confirm your entry via Facebook;
- Tweet about the Happy Birthday to the Hedge King Giveaway;
- Refer your friends by email, Facebook, Twitter, GooglePlus, Tumblr, and Pinterest.
Each action counts as an additional chance to win, so the more you spread the word, the more chances you have to win! Winners will be announced on 12 January 2017 at 10:45am Eastern Time.