If, like me, you love to listen to yourself write, you’ve probably needed to cut huge swaths of words out of your novels. I’m rewriting my YA urban fantasy St. Vitus Academy Bk. 1; The Lazarus Rock. Word count: I’m afraid to say (shh–it’s 129,000 words looooong.)
A giant poster board
Multi-colored sticky notes of various sizes
A keen sense of ruthlessness
(Alert: Here’s where being a touch OCD comes in handy. A touch OCD? Okay, I’ll admit it. Adrian Monk sends me emails saying, “Chill out.”)
(1) I start by labeling the chapters (in orange) and sticking them on the board.
(2) Then, I write each scene out on a slender sticky (in manila) and place them under their chapters. (The green tabs are for the days of the week, for easy reference.)
It looks like this:
(3) The third step is to break it down into three acts, then label where each act ends (red arrows after Ch. 8 and Ch. 20):
This throws into stark contrast another major issue and that’s with pacing. Look at how many scenes are in the 3rd act.
Act 1: 23 scenes.
Act 2: 53 scenes.
Act 3: 58 scenes.
What’s the 3-act structure and why should a novelist care? Here’s a basic summary from screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff:
Introduce a main character and a problem, intensify the problem, then solve it.
Another bare-bones structure summation that you hear a lot is: someone wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it (but eventually does.) Again, three parts: a heroine with a desire, opposition to the desire, and eventual triumph (or failure).
(Read the whole blog post here.) It’s not like there’s an exact algorithm, but the 3rd act should probably not be where you want to load a lot of your story. Best case scenario, you should have most of your storylines except the major conflict all wrapped up by the end of the 2nd act. I’ve received feedback saying that, in the 3rd act, the tension flattens out and the forward momentum feels uneven. Most of Ch. 23 has always vexed me, and that’s because those scenes are in the wrong place. They should be in the build-up rather than the winding down as they tie up secondary plotlines and character development.
Now I know that some scenes can be moved around in order to fix some pacing issues. But should they be? How do I know which of this multitude of scenes should make the final cut?
Step (4) is what I call the Disney scene test. Pull out a DVD of a Disney movie, any will do, and study the scene selection section. (Disney has a long history of really solid storytelling and you can see why in how they label their scenes.)
From Mulan: Honor To Us All, The Matchmaker, A Proclamation From the Emperor, Mulan’s Choice.
From The Incredibles: Golden Age, Weddings and Lawsuits, 15 years and 50 pounds.
See how efficient? How the titles hint at movement in the story, from the golden age of superheroes to changes in the status quo to middle age malaise? (This malaise will be Bob Parr’s status quo–how does a former superhero play ordinary and not help people? –as the plot catalyst throws the story into action.)
Whereas I have scenes labeled, “Michael asks Reginald questions,” and “Anne meets Noah in Chem class.”
S0 I went through and titled all my scenes as though they were for a DVD. If I couldn’t come up with a good title, I examined the scene for flabbiness or relevance. I also labeled weak scenes in purple, and weak scene-outs–the end of a scene or the hook. If I find myself floundering as a scene comes to a close, it usually means I don’t have it yet. I haven’t shaped this scene with a beginning, a middle and an end, with enough of a reason to exist. (A recent post on the Pikes Peak blog by Robin Widmar with some great scene-writing advice.) Here’s what my giant posterboard of anality looks like now:
Next, I’m trying to address the issue of having a weak antagonist. I keep the real antagonist hidden for more than half of the novel, but his proxy should be more prominent up till then. So for Step (5), I tabbed in blue all the places where the antagonist appears or has an influence on a scene.
I then went through and tried to strengthen and tighten up the scenes to make the antagonist more of an obstacle to the main characters and to up the ante. I marked the plan in the blue squares at the bottom. The purple squares are ideas for jazzing up or combining weak scenes to strengthen the overall story movement.
That certainly looks crowded and confusing, but it’s actually made the issues in my novel quite clear and shown me some ideas for fixing them. It’s easy to move the sticky notes around and get an overall sense of how the rewrites will affect the story. Hooray for the giant posterboard of anality! Now to pick up a scalpel and gleefully murder some of these darlings…
Next up on Devlin’s blog: My Origin Story Part 8: The Obligatory Post-Apocalyptic Novel