After a few months off the blog, during which I wrote a two-page monthly column on self-editing fiction in Writing Magazine, I am now ready to resume the instalments with new content on how to edit your own fiction manuscript.
This month, we’ll go back to where we left it. It’s all about story. Here I discuss some of particularly common shortfalls I encounter in editing fiction manuscripts at the level of plot and how to avoid them.
In most fiction and especially in genre fiction, the story in your book will be determined by a plot. Get the plot wrong and you got the story wrong. Get the story wrong, readers will find it hard or impossible to follow it.
The plot is the way you structure your story. Having a clear idea of your plot is crucial to developing a compelling story.
How can a plot go wrong?
The list below is a collection of particularly common shortcomings I have personally encountered in fiction manuscripts submitted for assessment.
The conflict is not strong enough. My local free paper could break records in no-story headlines. The last time I’ve ever opened it, the front-page headline was “New Home for abandoned Moggy”. Out of curiosity, I read the first paragraph. A local couple that always wanted a cat have found an abandoned kitten by the Manchester Ship Canal and took it home. A huge photo of the smiling couple holding what looked like a pretty relaxed and happy kitten was next to the headline. Could you use something like this in the story? Yes, as part of your backstory or characterisation. A character finding a kitten he or she always wanted could add enormously to his or her characterisation, could move the story forward if used effectively (it could be a clue, an alibi, a reason for further development in the story etc). It would be beyond silly to use it as the main plot in your book. Does the protagonist’s quest in your synopsis sound strong enough? It is worth pursuing? Could it change someone’s life?
The story doesn’t suspend disbelief. Suspending disbelief enhances the reading experience, it is an integral part to an immersive experience, so count on this when you make your story extraordinary in every way. However, even if not everything in your story would make sense in the real world, it should in the universe of your story.
The conflict is not escalated. If the obstacles are easily overpassed, the conflict needs to be developed further. If the solution to an obstacle seems too convenient for you as the author, it’s the surest sign you need to ditch it.
The story is not believable. If your main plot is too far-fetched to convince anyone of its plausibility, it needs changing.
The main plot is delayed unnecessarily. Here you’re simply taking too long to introduce the quest into your story. You’re concerned with too much setting description or character introduction. Example: Don’t use a really long dinner scene if it doesn’t add to character development. In fact, please don’t use a really long dinner scene at all (unless you’re Alan Hollinghurst of course). If you choose to let the readers know the quest in your story by the end of the first chapter, you’re pretty much on the safe side.
A loose or weak plot results from plot holes. Sometimes the metaphor is extended when critics refer to plots as being “watertight”.
Too many red herrings. Cluttering the story with irrelevant details, causing confusion for the reader is a particularly common inadequacy in new writing. “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” (Anton Chekhov, Letters). Remember this piece of advice from Chekhov every time you use any object at all in your story. Nothing in your story should be random. If it’s in the story, readers will expect it to be used at some point later on. That’s why writers have called this extremely effective plot device Chekhov’s Rifle. When you read your manuscript again, keep a very close eye on any objects being mentioned along the way. Are they used later? If not, exclude them or replace them with something characters can use. In Joanna Price’s Eeny Meeny Miny Moe, a mystery we have published last year at Aston Bay Press, the protagonist goes for a run at sunset and she takes a deodorant can in her pocket, knowing there is a vicious rapist on the loose, targeting local women. She gets back home safely, but the forgotten deodorant can in the pocket of her coat plays a major role in the story denouement. This device is valid not only for objects. An event or detail of any type can work just as well, as long as the reader is made aware of it in advance, before it gains any importance at all. Example: In a science-fiction manuscript we have received for assessment, the protagonist hides from a group of rioters in the ventilation tunnel of an underground mine. Just when we think he’s safe, out of rioters’ sight, the electricity is cut out, stopping the oxygen supply in the ventilation tunnel. This is a superb twist, especially if used as a cliffhanger at the end of the chapter, but it would work even better if readers were made aware of a threat to the electricity supply earlier in the story or if the incident has happened before, during an important event, thus suggesting that there is a problem with the electricity. When it happens again, this time with potentially devastating consequences, it doesn’t feel as forced in the story for the sake of suspense.
As an editor, I’m mildly obsessed with randomness. I find details such as “12:43:47” as the time on an email heading in a novel completely annoying. I would appreciate it adds to the realism of the email, but if there is no reason for the time to be exactly 12:43:47 and not one second later, this kind of detail really should not be added in at all. It comes across as childish and attention-seeking for the wrong reasons.
Becoming aware of the potential power every little thing has in your story will help you dispose of any unnecessary objects or scenes that don’t move the story forward.
Inconsistencies, also called “Homeric nods” (after Horace’s annoyance in The Art of Poetry at Homer’s “nod offs”), are particularly common plot holes too. A detective that’s mentioned briefly as working on the case, when he was known to be on holiday (unintentional “nod off” on the author’s side).
For the last four pages, Jim travels through a third world country. He loves it. He loves the people, the happiness of the children dancing in the street and so on. Four pages later, bang, ‘Jim was grateful to have escaped the city and spend some time in the mountains. The air, the bad smells and the general misery around him had almost driven him crazy.’
Deus ex Machina. Your characters need a hand from God, fate or coincidence to complete their quest. When you decide to use this device, you accept that your plot can’t work on its own, hence it needs rethinking. Example: Jim the detective meets a psychic who tells him the name of the killer.
A random or matter-of-fact ending. Think about your ending as the conclusion of all your characters’ efforts in your story. Would the story end the way it does anyway (i.e. even without the characters’ input)? An example would be a detective novel in which the killer is revealed not through the investigation carried out in the novel, but by a completely new character who makes a phonecall four pages before the end of the book and tells the Police he witnessed the murder and reveals the killer by name and surname. A novel’s ending needs to be meaningful – the ending simply makes sense and we can easily see why it ended in A and not B, C or D – and satisfying – we are convinced by the necessity of this ending can easily anticipate what the characters’ lives would be like after the end of the story. Necessity is a powerful attribute endings need to possess. If you story could go on for another one hundred pages or, worse, could have ended one hundred pages earlier, your ending needs improvement. The more necessary your ending comes across, the more it resonates with the reader’s sense of justice.
Loose ends. Think of everything in your book as part of an arc: it starts, it raises and it discharges. This applies to everything, from characters to plot. If a character arc can be perfectly symmetrical or almost linear, in a minor character’s case, the plot arc would be slightly asymmetrical, with the climax closer to the ending.
The Sequel Trap. When you intend to write a sequel to your book, you must ensure you end the story of the first book at the end of the first book. This means the plot needs to close and the characters must solve the main quest. It’s not fair on the readers to ask for their time for hundreds of pages only to have them find out that they need to buy the second book to find out how this story ends. If you want a tie-in with the second book, consider adding a minor background storyline towards the end of the first book and leave it open, a storyline possibly to become the major storyline/quest in the second book. A love tension between two major characters that doesn’t completely discharge by the end of the story seems to be a preferred choice among writers.
Write a very detailed synopsis of your book (not suitable for agents and publishers, as we’ll see at the end of the series). Having a clear outline of events in your book will help you focus better on the quest to be solved. Read your workshop synopsis to a friend and take the “lazy student test”. The lazy student is the student pestering everyone in the half-hour before the exam with the question, “What happens in this book?” We’ve all been there. If they’re unlucky enough to have, say, Marcel Proust as the topic for the exam, the hard-working students can find themselves a little stuck. But if they have James Patterson, they can talk.
The lazy student’s reaction to your synopsis can give you clues about your story. “Is that it?” means your story doesn’t suspend disbelief and is too weak; “Give me a break!” – not convincing, too far-fetched; (interrupting you in mid-flow and checking watch), “OK, so what happens?” – the story is too delayed; “Hang on, but you said…” – the story is inconsistent; “What happened to the detective’s father, who was dying in hospital?” – loose ends; “The cheat!” – the sequel trap.
Once you’re happy that your plot is 100% watertight and the ending works perfectly, please visit the Workshop section of my blog, http://www.self-editing.net, and share with like-minded writers fragments from your manuscript before and after self-editing.
Next month we’ll talk about narrative and the tricky-to-master skill of creating perspective and point of view.