Project 2012: What to do with draft number two

At this stage, if you are following along, you will have completed the read through of your first draft and removed those scenes that don’t add to the narrative.  You will have saved the surviving scenes into a new document.  This is draft two, and this is where we start to do a lot of structural work.  So open your spreadsheet, grab some notepaper and lets get to work.

Before we start, lets talk about structure

Eye of the Mother-Ship by sunsurfr

There are as many ways to structure a novel as there are grains of sand on the beach.  Okay, maybe there aren’t that many.  But there’s certainly more than way to do it.  How the novel is structured depends on a lot of different factors: who is telling the story, what genre it is, what type of story, what the author is trying to achieve.  So don’t rush out looking for the “perfect” novel structure.  It doesn’t exist.  What you want to find is the structure that is right for your story.

Beats and rhythm

One of the most important parts of structure is the rhythm of your story, how and when you deliver the high- and low-intensity scenes to your readers.  Think of the big set-pieces in your novel: the moment where it all goes wrong, the moment where your main character hits rock bottom, the moment when he comes face to face with the antagonist for the first time (literally or figuratively) and that moment when the two opposing forces in your novel come together for the final showdown.  These are the “beats” of your story.

In general, (and I say this advisedly, because there is always an exception), each “beat” should bump the tension up a degree until the point where it explodes, i.e. the climax.  And rather than go into a long and rambling analogy involving sex, I’ll direct you to a recent and excellent post by Chuck Wendig on the subject (language warning!).  Go read.  Done?  Okay.  That’s most of what you need to know.  So now let’s get to work.

Constructing your story

If you did a lot of plotting before you wrote the first draft, you might already have a structure set out.  If you wrote by the seat of your pants, you might be a bit all over the place.

The goal of this step is to make sure that the order of your scenes and chapters lends itself to building rising tension in your story.  You also want to make sure that you don’t have a couple of beat scenes in a row followed by a long stretch where the tension stays the same.  Spend as much time as you need on this step, because it will save you hours of time and a great deal of angst later on.  You don’t want to revise an entire chapter, only to find that it it needs to move to the front of your story and be revised AGAIN.  Get the order right now.  Worry about the prose later.

The how-to

This is all hard work.  Don’t think it’s going to be easy, or over in one session.  Even if you plotted before the first draft, I will venture to suggest that things have changed as you wrote and there are still improvements you can make.

Firstly, write out a list of your scenes.  Either put each one on a notecard, or if you are using something like Scrivener, make sure each corkboard card has a summary of the scene on it for you to refer to.

Now pick some colours.  You might choose red for a beat scene, yellow for an action scene, blue for a quieter scene of introspection or character building.  Scenes can be more than just one of these things, but there will usually be a predominance of either action or introspection.

Also remember that an action scene doesn’t mean car chases and explosions.  If you are writing a romance, the action scene might be one where your two main characters are in conflict, with each other or someone else.

Go mad with your colours.  If you find a scene that you can’t tag easily, put it aside for now.  This might be a good indication that it doesn’t serve a purpose.  When each scene has been tagged, sit back and look at your story.  Do you have a lot of blue scenes all in a row?  Are the scenes well spaced out in terms of action and introspection?  Are all of your beat scenes towards the end of your story?  (If they are, consider cutting most of the scenes that come in front of the beat scenes.  It’s often a sign that you have started your story too early.) Do you have a cluster of red and yellow at the beginning of your novel, but a big blue expanse in the middle?

The next part is pure fun.  Get your cards and start moving them around.  Shift scenes to try and get a good buildup of tension and remove any clusters of colour.  Yes, this will mean that some scenes will need to be rewritten, or even removed.  But it is worth it to strengthen your story, so don’t be afraid to throw those words out if you have to.

When you have a potentially good structure happening, stop.  Take a photo or a screenshot and give it a name (e.g. structure #1).  Now grab your notepaper and go through, looking for places where the structure change has interrupted the narrative. Make notes on what scenes need to be changed to fit.  Look for opportunities for new scenes that increase the tension and add to the flow.

As you go through, you are likely to get more ideas on changes.  Don’t change this structure!  Make notes, but do the whole process without altering structure one, otherwise you risk getting yourself and your story in a tangle.

When you have finished, put your notes together with that structure.  THEN go back, make the changes you identified, and run through the exercise again.

After a few goes, you will find that certain scenes will stay where they are.  When you are down to shuffling a couple of blue scenes around, stop.  Leave it alone for a while and go write some more on your new story.  Leave it long enough to get some distance (1-2 weeks at least) then go back and read it again.

Is it still working for you?  Can you actually feel the building tension as you read the scene notes?  If you can, well done.  Make any tweaks and get ready for the next step.

If you can’t, then you need to start thinking about why.  The progression of the story should be just as visible, if not more visible, at the precis stage.  If you can’t see the progression of the story when looking at it like this, there’s a good chance that you might not have a strong plot, just a collection of events.  And this might mean some major replotting is required.  Don’t be down.  Better to spend time making an average story great, than to spend hours revising a story that has serious structural problems.

So go to it.  Have a look at the bones of your story and see what you can do to strengthen the structure and make the narrative more powerful.