If you are a member of any writers’ forum on Facebook or through a private group, you know that today’s authors are constantly prodded to emphasize the action in their narratives. For new, inexperienced authors, this can lead to an imbalance, a narrative where the characters aren’t allowed time for introspection.
An editor looks at the scenes to see how they fit into the narrative and to ensure they are in the right order and flow into each other well.
Sometimes, I see a manuscript where it seems as if a horrific event has been inserted for the sake of shock value. In the revision process, you should examine these scenes to see if they do their job.
- Was the event foreshadowed well, or did it come out of nowhere?
- Is the scene necessary to force change and growth on the protagonist?
- How are her fundamental ethics and ideals challenged by this event?
A structural editor will tell you that if there is no personal cost or benefit to the protagonist or antagonist, there is no need for that scene.
Writing these blind alleys is not a waste of time. You never know when you will need those ideas, so don’t throw them away—always keep the things you cut in a separate file. The fact that an idea doesn’t work for one book doesn’t mean it won’t work in another.
For my own work, I label that file “outtakes.” Having these unused scenes ready to adapt to other uses comes in handy when I need an idea to jump-start a new story.
In the rush of writing the first draft, it can be easy to focus on setting traps and roadblocks for our protagonist and her nemesis. We forget that readers need a chance to process what we have written.
Events must force the character to grow. Creepy scenes must have a purpose. If your story absolutely must contain that scene, it must deeply affect the characters involved in it. Events must be catalysts for the character’s evolution and growth.
We may think we have written evolving characters, but they remain stagnant if you don’t allow the reader time to see that evolution and process it.
We’re all avid readers. Consider how your favorite authors in these genres connect their underlying themes with the action and growth of their protagonists, and how they allow the reader to process each event.
Political thrillers are set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. They feature political corruption, terrorism, and warfare as common themes. How the protagonist negotiates these situations and is affected by them is the story. Introspection is key to the reader’s understanding of the events and their root cause.
Romance Novels detail the developing relationship between two people and show how they overcome the roadblocks to happiness. Both the conflict and climax of the novel are directly related to the core theme of a romantic relationship with a happy conclusion. Without small chances for introspection, the reader won’t feel connected to the protagonist and their story.
Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative. This genre features introspective, in-depth studies of complex, fully developed characters. Action and setting are not the points here, although they frame the character and provide a visual perspective. In other words, opportunities for introspection are a key feature of literary fiction.
Science Fiction details realistic speculation about possible future events. All technology should be based solidly on knowledge of real world science, both past and present. A thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the Scientific Method is crucial. Events involving science and technology must be based on known and theoretically possible physics. Morality and the wider effects of the choices we make are a strong theme in all science fiction. Without introspection, moral choices get lost.
Fantasy is my usual genre to write in. It is often set in an alternate, medieval, or ancient world. The common themes are good vs. evil, the hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Some fantasy is set in urban settings with paranormal tropes, but if that is the case, the author has similar constraints to those affecting the science fiction author. In urban fantasy, the reality must be true to life and contrast with the paranormal. This contrast highlights and emphasizes the fantasy elements.
These genres look widely different, but they all have one thing in common—they have protagonists and side characters who experience life-changing events. These moments become important to the reader.
In my mind, genre and setting are a picture-frame, a backdrop against which the themes that drive the action of the story are played out.
What is the underlying theme of your story? While you were laying down the first draft, did you notice a moral concept that was woven into the story? Was it love? Was it destiny? Was it the death of hope?
In the revision and editing process, we must identify the events that strengthen that theme, and frame them with moments of reflection.
Personal growth and the hero’s journey are often the central themes in my work. Those are the stories that hooked me as a young reader, and I still gravitate to them.
The idea of the heroic journey was first introduced by Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist, writer, and lecturer, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (published in 1949). In this ground-breaking work, he discusses the monomyth or what is called “the hero’s journey.”
He describes how this motif is historically the common pattern of humanity’s myths and legends. Each of these tales involves an unlikely hero going on an adventure. This hero, in a decisive crisis, wins a victory, then returns home changed or transformed.
I often use Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Hobbit as an example. When Bilbo Baggins faces the giant spiders, he also faces his own cowardice. Bilbo is amazed to find he has the courage to fight them.
That scene was the first step in his realization that his bravery doesn’t depend on the magic ring he found earlier. He is afraid, but he is not afraid to be courageous. This is a core concept of this book, and of the entire Lord of the Rings series.
What is important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?
Those are the themes you should be writing to, what your events must support. You must allow your reader the chance to consider how those events affect the protagonist, to absorb the theme and deeper personal meaning of that character’s journey.
In that way, you will hook the reader and keep them firmly in your world.