Friday, February 17, 2012

Plot Editing: Your Muse's Nature Trail Type(s)

Last week, we discussed—well, I monologued on—structural editing, comparing it to the paint that marks a nature trail. Another form of "big picture" editing is plot editing, which can be compared to determining the type of trail your muse follows.

Plot editing has one goal: to answer yes to the question "Do the events of this piece of writing line up?"

Does each event naturally lead to the other? Was anything forced? Was anything missing?

One way to find missing parts, by the way, is to look at each event and consider what would happen if that event occurred elsewhere, elsewhen, or to someone else. What else could or would or should result?

For example, let's say one character kills someone. What's the logical result in real life? The authorities find the body, and there's an investigation, maybe some arrests and a trial. If that standard due process doesn't happen, why not? Is killing legal in that story "world"? Was it somewhere nobody would know? Maybe the character is one of the authorities, who killed someone in the line of duty (which has its own set of "logical results" that stem from it).

If your story deviates from standard perceptions of reality (insofar as they are standard), you need to know it, and your story has to support and explain it.

That means you also need causes and effects, so you also want to look at every event in your story and make sure they fit. You might not reveal everything in order, but it does have to occur in order.

I could name one traditionally published novel* where the protagonist is (presumably) more aggressive than usual—before the event that the book later gives as the cause for her unusually high aggression. Personally, I suspect that error was added in the editing. But as a reader, I find myself reluctant to try the author again, even though I think it was her debut novel and it had a few more signs of probable editing damage.

Plot editing, paying attention to the order of things, is meant to avoid situations like that.

There's a reason that skittish little Evonalé pretty much kicks and screams in the end of A Fistful of Fire**; but that fit of temper had causes, which appear in the story, and even her temper itself doesn't come out of nowhere.

(Yes, I realize I'm overlapping "plot editing" with "character editing", here. They're intertwined.)

To include that event—EvonalĂ© losing her temper and pitching a fit—I had to set up previous events that demonstrated: 1) she had a temper; 2) she would blow her top over certain things, despite her skittishness; 3) the ending event was one of those things; 4) she would display her fit of temper that way; and 5) the ending event would actually happen. (Which required quite a bit of setup that I can't say for spoiler reasons—but a political and several previous character events connect to that one.)

So that fairly straightforward plot event required a minimum of 5 things, depending on how you look at it.

This "plot editing" applies to non-fiction, too. Cause and effect must line up.

So look at each plot as a trail. Does the trail go back down the same mountain it took you up? Is there a bridge over that stream? Are there gaps in the trail? Does it ever fold back and double up or mysteriously go back over the same bit of terrain?

To be sure, stories can be more complex than nature trails, and they can repeat and double up on themselves like a nature trail can't. Being limited to three-dimensional space, you can't spontaneously walk over the same patch of ground twice without circling around or changing direction. A story, though, has no such physical limitations.

That means it can be a bit tricky, for some books, to figure out when you have a functional trail that connects properly, and when you have redundancies that don't quite work.

But here's the trick: Even redundancies are parts of a linear trail.

Meaning, even though a story trail might have lines or bits that look like they're going over the same bit of ground again, they can't actually be doing that—it has to be a point later on the trail. It might resemble the previous one, or it might even mirror something that's come before, but it must still move the story forward.

Depending on your particular story, that might move things just a hair. But it must move forward.

If your story has multiple timelines, each storyline is its own trail. But each trail has to intersect or at least be in view of each others at the right points.

How on earth do you do that?

You could outline each storyline, possibly even more than once, to make sure they fit together properly. You could set up timelines. Personally, I like 3x5 cards, which you can line up and rearrange so nicely.

But honestly, I personally tend to wing this one, going by instinct for when I need to break it down and look more closely. And that's because I haven't found a method that stops my obsessive side.

When I really get into it, I try to make the structural numbers of my story mean something. For example, due to the major event in Destiny's Kiss being a 17th birthday, I tried to get it into 17 chapters.

Fortunately, I've managed to control that obsessively nitpicky side of me enough that I can ditch those urges if I can't easily indulge them. (That's also why I tend to be oblivious about dust and mess, actually—because otherwise, I get obsessive about how it should be. And then very little gets done because I'm fighting to make it perfect.)

I still want to write a story that perfectly parallels word counts and contains a meaningful number of chapters, though.

Do you edit your writing with an eye for cause and effect? Do you have any other techniques to share?


*I'm not naming the author to be polite. I know of other folks who enjoy her, and I did really like one of her related short stories. She writes some memorable characters.

**I am not calling my debut novel perfect. Nor am I saying that it's an ideal example. It's just one that I know intimately, and I've had more than one reader comment positively on how everything draws together and mention that scene specifically.

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