Tag Archives: setting

Editing Focus 2: Consistency

Yesterday, we discussed macro (Big Picture) editing, in which we ensure that all the story components do what they’re supposed to do and work harmoniously together.  Today, we’re going to concentrate on another aspect of macro editing: consistency.

Let’s use our same three categories — character, plot, and setting — to see what types of errors we’re looking to catch in this editing focus.

Character Consistency

In yesterday’s focus, we were editing for character depth and function.  Today, we’re editing for detail, voice, and point-of-view.

Detail Editing

Details are things like eye color, hair color, stand-out characteristics like moles or scars, and stature.  So, for example, if Lord Beardsley’s eyes are gray on page 10, then make sure they’re not suddenly blue on page 123.  If Bandit Bob has a scar on his right cheek, make sure it hasn’t moved to the left wrist twenty pages later.  (Reminds me of Young Frankenstein and the shifting hump).

The surest way to avoid this type of consistency trouble is to have written character sketches.  If a detail is important enough to include in your novel, it’s important enough to note in your character sketch.  If you notice that you have trouble keeping one character’s details straight and you don’t have a sketch, then make one as you re-read, jotting down details as you find them.  A running sketch like this will help you to correct problems you find along the way.

Voice Editing

Voice, even more than eye color or tattoos, is what defines your characters.  If your character has a distinctive dialect or way of speaking, then make sure that voice is authentic throughout the story. If you can’t write a certain dialect convincingly, then don’t even attempt it.  Better just to indicate that the character speaks with a heavy brogue than to do a lame job transcribing it.  Don’t start what you can’t make believable.

Voice consistency is also critical for POV, especially if you take up multiple characters’ perspectives throughout the story (as in alternating third-person limited or alternating first person POV).  In these cases, it’s essential that your characters’ voices be distinct and consistent, because otherwise your reader won’t know whose head she’s in.  And, if your characters all sound like carbon copies of each other, then it’s not only confusing to your reader, but boring. (Consider Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury for a stunning example of voice and POV.)

POV Editing

Let’s talk about POV.  If you start out with third-person limited POV, make sure you don’t switch to third-person omniscient in Chapter 10.  And remember, when you’re inside a character’s head, you can’t reveal details that he or she wouldn’t see or know, so you’ll want to be sure that things are revealed appropriately through action and/or dialogue.

Check also for those instances, especially in third limited or first person, where you might be tempted to have your character self-describe.  Most people don’t walk around thinking something like, “I’m five foot two.  I have mousy brown hair and glasses.  Gee, I wonder what’s for breakfast today.”   Instead, if you must have a character describe herself, try to work it into the action:

I stretched on tiptoe to see in the mirror.  Whoever had hung that darn mirror didn’t design it for someone five foot two.  I frowned and shoved my glasses further up on my nose, but there wasn’t a thing I could do with my hair.  Mousy brown and wild, it never would behave.  I fussed with it for a moment, but then my stomach growled.  I wondered absently what was for breakfast.

Make your narrative realistic and keep your perspective consistent.

Plot/Action Consistency

We’ve all read novels where there is a consistency glitch in the action.  Hopefully this isn’t an Epic Glitch — like the author forgot one of the main elements he’s established as necessary to the story’s climax. Make sure that whatever threads you weave into the fabric of your story are carried throughout — deliver what you promise.

Leaving Epic Plot Glitches aside, let’s consider a smaller, but no less annoying, consistency error:

Lord Beardsley gallops through the Dark Forest.  Suddenly, Bandit Bob steps out from behind a tree.

“Avast!” cries Bob. “Hand over yer gold!”

Lord Beardsley dismounts and strides toward Bandit Bob, brandishing his Vorpal Blade. “I will gut you like a fish, and then I will celebrate by laughing maniacally!” vaunts Lord Beardsley.

He gallops toward Bandit Bob on his Battle Horse.

Oops.

He dismounted, remember, and we never see him get back on his horse.

This type of error is easy to commit.  If you get up to get a fourth cup of coffee glass of water between Bob’s challenge and Lord Beardsley’s response, you may well and truly forget that he got off his horse to confront his adversary.

An attentive read-through of your novel should allow you to catch these types of mistakes.  I hear you laughing to yourself, thinking that you’re not so inattentive as to commit such an egregious and ridiculous error.  Don’t consider yourself immune.  I’ve seen these glitches in professionally published (and presumably, therefore, professionally edited) books, where both the author and the editor should know better.  Be better.   Check for consistency!

Setting Consistency

Much like consistency in character detail, editing for setting consistency requires you to have a strong grasp of your world.  If  your culture doesn’t use electric lights, then you can’t have them turning on the lamp in Chapter 3.  And, on a “set design” level, if you place a fireplace on the west wall of the room, then it can’t be on the north wall in the next scene.

Sometimes we don’t completely think through the consequences of a setting choice.  They can be far-reaching.  For instance, if you place your characters in a world where they don’t have horses and have never even heard of horses, then you can’t have your characters use horse-y metaphors, similes, or turns of phrase.  Hamish can’t say, “You’re as wild as an unbroken mustang.”  He can’t say, “You can lead a horse to water…”  Be sure that if you limit your world like this, you think through the consequences.  Make your figurative language authentic to your setting.  It’s actually fun – it makes you stretch as a writer.  But it can also trip you up, so put this on your editing checklist as well.

Final Word

We’ve now finished our brief look at the process of macro-editing!  J. Leigh will take up Focus 3 and 4 (micro-editing) later this week.  (Remember, you don’t have to do these steps in the order we’re discussing them, and sometimes you have to do them more than once.)

Happy editing!!!


Editing Focus 1: The Big Picture

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.

Character Editing

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.

Character Function

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.

Character Depth

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.

Plot Editing

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.

Setting Editing

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.

Congratulations!!!

You’re now ready to embark on Focus 2: Consistency Editing.