J. Leigh laid out our editing map very nicely last week. Today, we’re going to consider Focus 1, what I call the “big picture” edit. There are three levels present in Focus 1 — character, plot, and setting.
As we step back and look at the Big Picture, we need to consider how well each character performs his or her role in the story. We’re looking here at character function and depth.
Your characters are the doers and receivers of the action of the plot. Main characters will be changed the most dramatically by the events of the plot, and they will also have the most impact on the plot direction — character development and plot arc are truly inseparable and interdependent. So, when we edit for character function, we’re looking to make sure that a character’s arc tracks with the plot arc. In order to check this, you might ask the following questions:
Is/Are your main character(s) the main character(s) throughout the novel? In other words, do we follow Mr. X’s actions, thoughts, and emotions primarily throughout the novel, and does he have the greatest impact on the plot?
Do your secondary characters have clear purpose? Secondary characters function in a novel by impacting the main character’s arc and/or by impacting the plot arc. We care about them because they are important to our main character(s), not so much because they are important on their own. Consider, for instance, Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. We care about him first because Elizabeth cares for him and because he is tied to Mr. Darcy’s past, and then because his dastardly behavior (running off with Elizabeth’s sister) and Mr. Darcy’s role in its resolution crystallizes Elizabeth’s true feelings for Mr. Darcy. Wickham isn’t really important on his own, but he is integrally important for the plot and for the development of our two main characters.
A character’s depth is very much tied to his or her function in the story. Obviously, we spend the most time and energy on our main characters. We explore not just their actions, but their motives for action, their responses to action. We care about them as a “whole person,” you might say. When we edit for character depth, we need to make sure that we have created a compelling main character. The reader has to have strong feelings about him or her — love or hate. You can’t have a successful main character if the reader could care less what happens to him. We also need to make sure that the detail we give to our secondary characters is proportional to their role — they need to be detailed enough to perform their function in the story, but not so much that they start to rival the main character.
When we edit for plot on the Big Picture level, we are looking for a tight, streamlined story arc. Everything that is in the story needs to propel it forward, either by revealing your main characters or by advancing the plot. A scene may be exquisitely written, but if it’s not doing one of those two things, it needs to go. Remember, we don’t write in a vacuum. You’re writing for your reader. Your novel is like a train, taking your reader on a journey. Your reader doesn’t want to get dropped off at the train station to wait for your plot to resume in twenty pages or so. He’ll walk to the next track and pick up a new train.
Most of us start writing with at least a vague blueprint of our story in mind, and hopefully this blueprint becomes more like a detailed architectural plan as we dive into the world and the characters and the action. Architects don’t add useless doors or windows to their plans; likewise, writers should make sure that their scenes lead somewhere.
So, as you reread your story, do you feel the push? Do you feel the plot moving you forward? Do you feel like you can’t put your book down? Like you have to read just one more chapter? Like you can’t wait to find out more about your main character? If there are spots where you get bogged down and bored, then take a good, hard look at those scenes. Improve them or cut them. Be ruthless.
In my post Dressing the Set(ting), I made the point that the setting details you include should be functional, not just beautiful. When you’re looking at setting editing on the macro level, you’re considering your world-building. The reader needs a certain amount of detail in order to enter the construct you’ve created. But too much detail all at once will make your novel a snoozer.
I’ve been trying to think of a way to describe the ripple effect that one good detail can have, and I’ve finally come up with one (and it’s a bit skewed, I admit). If you’ve ever played Minesweeper, you know how you sometimes click on a square and it opens up a whole field? Setting details should work a little like that. They should unlock your reader’s imagination.
This is one of those points, frankly, where a beta reader can be supremely helpful. After all, you know this world. You’ve been living in it for months. You can fill in the blanks without even realizing that there are blanks. But if you don’t have anyone to help with this stage, then take a breather from it and come back to it after a week or so.
Big Picture Editing
So, now you’ve reread your novel with an eye on character, plot, and setting. You’ve seen how these layers are fundamentally interconnected, you’ve eliminated throwaway scenes (thus making your more detailed editing easier) and you’ve conveyed your world with powerful details. You’re now satisfied that your story hums on a macro level.
You’re now ready to embark on Focus 2: Consistency Editing.