In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.
All fine writing is the result of rewriting. I don’t know who coined that phrase, but it is certainly a fact. The first draft is the art of writing. The revision process exists to recognize mistakes and mop up the mess, and readers never witness the accident. Readers seek the ease of flawlessness.
LEVEL TWO: STRUCTURE/CONTENT
With the opening in place, consider the structure and content of the story. Analyze character, setting, plot, and their relationship to one another. Changes at this point may affect the entire story structure, causing new scenes to appear or existing scenes to disappear. Work at a high level to establish the arc of the story. Why perfect the details of a scene if it might be removed from the entire piece?
Verify the Plot
Is there at least one strong dramatization per chapter? Don’t let a chapter go by without serious conflict among the characters. Readers anticipate it.
Does every scene serve the story question? Scenes progress the story question, for better or worse, otherwise they wander off the thread of the story. This is the time to add and remove scenes as needed.
Does the conflict heighten en route to the climax? When the drama heightens, that becomes the new plateau for the story arc. It eventually becomes routine, unless the drama escalates. Keep raising the stakes for the characters during the story. The climax is a natural outgrowth of the pressure cooker constructed along the story journey.
Are there too many coincidences? Coincidence is a helpful device for stories. Life forms pleasant occurrences, but if major plot points often hinge on chance encounters, the story becomes unbelievable. Limit it to one or two, although even one coincidence might be more than the story can bear. If a rare moon rock falls out of the sky and into the bed of Joe’s pickup truck, while he is on the way to a lunar geologist’s convention, where a million dollar prize for the top rock will be awarded, that might be more coincidence than the reader can handle. Keep coincidences subtle and useful.
Is there unneeded repetition? Repetition in grade school was useful, if not overbearing. Repetition in stories is useful to set up a later event. If Jane always parks her car in the same spot and suddenly changes to another, it might demonstrate a character change. In comedy, repetition sets up jokes. If Bob always sinks a hole in one on the golf course, it might be funny to see him miss when we most expect it. Repetition draws attention, and readers notice, but if Jane is always having a bad hair day, it begins to look silly.
Verify Character Details
Do character details appear in the story? Some level of character detail must exist for everyone in the story, even if they are only brief encounters for the reader.
Are the details proportional to importance? Apply character details in relation to their significance in the story. Every word builds a reader’s expectations. Secondary characters don’t deserve the detail required for primary characters.
Are the details consistent? If Jane has blue eyes or talks with a lisp on page 10, she will also have those attributes on page 200, unless appropriate explanation supports the change.
Are the details different? If every woman has blonde hair and a 38-inch chest, the story better take place inside the Playboy Mansion.
Is the dialogue realistic? Spoken language is casual, casting aside the rigid conventions of the written word. It is situational, attempting to address the line previously spoken. A single line of dialogue is a component of the whole conversation and often indecipherable when standing alone. If character are sketched with uniqueness and clarity, they will speak for themselves, defining the parameters of their langauge, moods, and attitudes.
“I’ve got the stuff,” Bob said.
“The what?” Jane replied.
“You know, the stuff.”
“I hate that garbage.”
“You always hate it.”
“There you go again.”
“I’m not the one starting.”
Is there too much dialect? Some writers seek authenticity by recording dialogue verbatim, especially with the use of slang and accents. This is cumbersome to read. Pepper the dialogue with dialect, and readers will get the point, mentally filling in the blanks. It is better to know what a character is trying to say, than replicating speech with exactness.
Verify Setting Details
Do setting details appear in the story? Some level of setting detail must exist for each scene, even if we are only passing through a room. Otherwise the story is subject to ‘white room’ syndrome, where characters move in time and space with no sense of their surroundings.
Are the details proportional to importance? Apply setting details in relation to their significance in the story. Every word builds a reader’s expectations. If the writer spends a lot of time describing a certain aspect of setting, readers believe it to be vital to the story.
Are the details consistent? If Jane’s car is red on page 10, she will have a red car on page 200, unless appropriate explanation supports the change.
Are the details different? Variety in all aspects of the story entices mental acuity for the reader. In other words, it keeps people from becoming bored.
Are the details correct? This is the time to verify factual information. Correct assumptions about location and lifestyle (i.e. geography, professions, language, etc). These aspects illuminate the prose, yet invalidate a story if they are incorrect.
Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.
Next in The Books Killers series: Poor Revisions – Level Three, Style
Previously in The Book Killers series: Poor Revisions – Level One, The Opening