November 29, 2018

Restructuring a Chapter

I haven't written much for my blog this year because I've been trying to focus my creative energy and time on revision. But when Christopher Gronlund posted a before and after of a paragraph he'd recently improved, I felt inspired to share a rewrite example of my own. I knew I'd made posts of this type before, though I hadn't recalled until locating the two earlier entries that both specifically demonstrate how a passage gets shortened along with strengthened.

Before I could go further with the idea of presenting a section of revised text, I noticed how many big chunks I was moving and deleting in the chapter I was currently working on, and I wondered if I could show off that process instead. The concept got pushed aside while I finished actually wrangling the Frankenchapter into shape. Then some initial work on this post was interrupted by the demands of the next messy chapter. Also, as usual, real life happened in the meantime, including a trip for family celebrations and the first Thanksgiving in our new house.

I've finally set aside the brainspace to finish a visual representation of one chapter, before and after restructuring. Many thanks to my in-house graphic designers and consultants for helping me realize my visualization vision! You can click to view a larger image:

Colorful visualization of a restructured chapter

What's going on here? The left side is the starting state of the chapter, consisting of six scenes of different lengths. In the text, each scene is a story event, separated from the next by white space that usually denotes a time gap. For example, in the first scene, the narrator's wife and new baby come home from the hospital, and in the second, it's a few days later and there's conflict with his visiting mother-in-law.

The right side of the graphic shows how the original pieces of the chapter were chopped and shuffled during revision. Now there are only four scenes, and the colors indicate where sentences and paragraphs from one scene were incorporated into another. The new gray color denotes entirely new material that doesn't map onto anything in the earlier version.

This is a big picture look at the chapter, so it doesn't represent all the editing I did on every sentence and paragraph. The yellow third scene becomes a slightly longer yellow second scene without absorbing any pieces from other scenes, but what you don't see is that all the text is better written, with heightened tension, tighter dialogue, and more vivid detail. I'm also not showing places where I rearranged ideas and paragraphs within scenes.

Let me provide some explanation of the changes that are illustrated:

The chapter starts, as I said, with the homecoming of mother and baby. The events of this red scene were pretty solid, but I wanted to mention up front an idea that previously didn't become prominent until the end of the chapter. That's how a section of purple text from the final scene winds up near the beginning. When I first revised this scene, I didn't graft in the other pieces, but as I progressed in the chapter, I found ways to add a few details and interactions from scenes I was deleting.

The original orange second scene, with the mother-in-law conflict, was an unnecessary ramping up of already established tensions that come to a head in the next yellow scene. I planned to use some of this scene as summary to introduce the following scene, but it was really so extraneous that I didn't have to. Only a few small bits needed to be preserved and worked in elsewhere because they were important thoughts for the narrator to express or discuss with others.

In the yellow third scene, the extent of various conflicts within the family becomes clear. Parts of this scene remained basically intact, especially sections of dialogue that were already flowing smoothly, but the aforementioned editing improved the scene throughout. I believe the reason it turned out a little longer is that I wanted to expand on some of the narrator's thoughts to better set up later actions.

The shortness of the green fourth scene is a clue for me that there might not be enough going on to warrant keeping it in the story. My outline for this revision shows that I intended to save more of the scene, which mainly consists of a conversation between the narrator and his wife. As I was working on the chapter, I determined that the conversation didn't add much besides logistical complexity, so I compressed it all into a couple of summarizing paragraphs.

I expected to preserve the blue fifth scene, in which the narrator's daughter misbehaves, the penultimate in a long series of misbehaviors that culminate in the last scene of this chapter. But as I considered the blue scene, I realized it spends a lot of time describing a scenario in a way suggests it's going to be relevant later, when all that matters is the fact of the misbehavior. There's already a misbehaving incident in the first scene of the chapter, so everything is pretty well established by this point. I pulled out a few chunks that needed preserving and used them elsewhere, including during the first scene's misbehavior.

The multicolored scene that's third in the revised version of the chapter is brand new in that it puts the characters in a situation and setting that didn't happen in the earlier draft. It's not a super exciting situation (they're eating dinner), and the scene doesn't need to be very long, but it incorporates the saved pieces of the three deleted scenes and acts as a bridge into the events of the last scene.

The purple final scene brings the chapter to a climactic end as all the conflicts merge. This is one of the novel's major events, so I'd already worked hard to polish this scene, and some parts didn't need much editing. As always, though, there was room for improvement. I hope the result of my continued tinkering is that the scene -- and the entire restructured chapter -- makes a stronger impact on the reader.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Rahul Kanakia on his attitude and approach to revision: "Nobody knows your book and your vision better than you do, and for that reason nobody else can really understand the parts of the book that are inessential and the parts that are exactly what they need to be."


Christopher Gronlund said...

This is so cool! It's always so strange when you sometimes see you've written almost all you need, needs to be in different order.

It's impressive how much focus went into this chapter!

Lisa Eckstein said...

Thanks! Yeah, I've done so much rearranging of pieces during this revision. It would be fascinating (but probably not feasible) to see a visualization of the whole manuscript this way.

Post a Comment