How do you begin your novel? Once the draft is down, how do you revise it?
Many writers write from discovery—following along with the characters through the story as they go. Sometimes they have an idea of what will happen; they know the beginning, and possibly the end, and sometimes things in between. But the whole picture of where they’re going, they discover as they go.
Many authors outline their books first. Especially for genre writers, where specs are everything, this often works very well.
But either way, once the first draft is down (which is really just a big blob of ideas), it’s time to dive into revisions, often rewriting huge chunks of it.
And the most useful way to do that, the simplest, clearest, easiest to follow, is to meticulously outline what you have, compared to how story structure and the characters best weave together to create a memorable tale.
What I often see when developmental editing are stories that burgeon and sprawl. I see plot threads that lead to nowhere, manuscripts with huge sagging middles, and characters who don’t grow or change or even affect the plot in the end.
By writing a concise outline, finding the holes and flaws, you can avoid this altogether.
We often talk of that 3-act structure, and it’s there for a reason. Did you know that the honing of that came from ancient myths? At least the ones we still know about. And we know about those because they kept the reader (or once, the listener) engaged until the end.
In short, that structure works.
So what does your novel outline entail?
First and foremost, compare what you have to the arc of the storyline that works:
- ACT 1, although it doesn’t last long, contains precise plot points in order to plunge the reader into the story.
a. We have “real life” as it is for our protagonist,
b. Then comes the call to adventure, which is the thing he has to face. This contains the main story question of your book.
c. And his refusal of the call—why he can’t possibly go hike up Mt. Everest, or whatever summit looms large before him.
d. Then, something happens to change his mind. He meets someone or an event occurs that causes him to reconsider. Over the cliff he jumps.
- ACT 2 is by far the largest part of your book.
a. We go from here into the meat of the issues. What he’s facing. Who’s going to help him. Who’s against him.
b. Here he learns and masters the tasks he needs to succeed. He fails a lot too. That’s what tests his metal.
c. And, what causes him to come nose to nose with his Achilles’ Heel. You know, that thing that he’s been pushing down or aside, which has held him back. That thing that if he doesn’t face and master, predicts complete failure.
d. He then descends into his own depths to confront the beast within.
This is the place we come to know our character in the deepest way, as he comes to know himself. All while he’s driving the plot along, as the plot forces him to grow.
- ACT 3 begins as he reemerges.
a. But it’s time for a reward! He now “owns” that piece of himself that will propel him to victory. And both he and your reader deserve a breather.
This is often the place for a love scene. Or a big celebration. Something to rejuvenate him so that he can then hammer the story to the end.
b. Now we’re heading toward the final battle.
Often here, the villain gives a big thrust, which in turn pushes the plot inevitably toward its climax.
c. And now the climax occurs. The big battle. The big test. Whatever we’ve been leading up to since the opening sentence, happens. The thing that answers the story question we began with.
It tests our hero in all ways. He’ll need every skill he’s learned, every task he’s mastered—and most importantly, what he’s mastered about himself—in order to succeed.
d. Then we have a brief (and I do mean brief. Often in developmental editing what I see are stories that go on and on and on, for 30 pages even, once the climax has occurred. You get about ten pages here. Fifteen max) time of denouement. Where the smoke clears, and we see what’s been accomplished. Or, hasn’t been.
And from here, he brings the knowledge learned back to society with him.
I work with my authors on this outline, comparing it to their own books. And they’re always amazed at how much this simplifies the process for them.
Do you have to follow this outline to the letter?
No. As with all writerly rules, don’t drive yourself nuts over this. Just know that this structure works. You can deviate from it some. Some of the stages will overlap and even blur.
The main thing to ask yourself at this point is: Why am I breaking the rule? Do I gain more than I lose by doing so?
As I often say, everything, literally everything about book writing is in service to the plot, the characters, and how they interweave.
With that as your goal, you can’t go wrong!