November 11, 2011

Does It Have To Be This Way?

One of the most difficult parts of revision is asking yourself, "Does this scene/character/plot point/detail have to be this way? Is this the strongest choice for the story, or does it feel right merely because that's what I wrote in the previous draft?"

I've been mulling over an upcoming scene in my manuscript. It's not one of the most significant or memorable scenes of the novel, but it does serve a purpose, and I intend to keep it. In the scene as it currently exists, the family has gathered for Thanksgiving. The narrator's brother is the only person not present, so after the meal they call him, and during the speakerphone conversation, an important piece of family history is debated.

I have some fondness for this scene because when I added it to the second draft, with no particular plans for the content of the phone call, I had one of those out-of-author experiences where the characters start saying things I didn't know I'd thought of. I decided to run with it, and a whole new section of plot resulted.

Unplanned sparks of potential brilliance always deserve serious scrutiny in revision -- "Does this actually improve the story, or do I only like it because I was excited when it emerged from my brain?" In this case, I've evaluated the conversation and its consequences, and I think it adds to the story. But as I think ahead to what changes the scene might need, I'm wondering why the brother isn't there for Thanksgiving with the rest of the family.

I can't remember if I left him out for a reason in the last draft. It was probably because I wasn't sure what to do with him in general. The character plays an important role as a child in one of the storylines, but in previous drafts he grew up to become curiously absent for no particular reason, which was a problem pointed out by my readers. In planning this revision, I've given the adult brother more to do, but I'd forgotten about this event.

So I'm asking myself if the scene has to be this way. I don't think there's anything about the brother's absence that leads to the scene's important conversation, so maybe he should be there to discuss it in person. Or maybe for other reasons, it is better if he doesn't come for Thanksgiving, in which case I need to justify -- at least in my own mind -- why he's missing the holiday. Or perhaps the scene doesn't need to take place on Thanksgiving at all. Everything's open for change.

Revising requires second-guessing everything in a story. It's easier to keep things as they were, but the easy option means the story might not become as strong as it could. Don't shy away from looking at every element of your manuscript and asking, "Does it have to be this way?"

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project offers 8 Writing Tips from Flannery O'Connor: "Try arranging [your novel] backwards and see what you see. I thought this stunt up from my art classes, where we always turn the picture upside down, on its two sides, to see what lines need to be added. A lot of excess stuff will drop off this way." (Thanks, Louise!)

1 comment:

Anna Scott Graham said...

Excellent point! In subsequent revisions, all that remains is examined under tighter scrutiny, eliminating all loose or unnecessary threads. Sometimes it's difficult excising what flourished in a stroke of genius, but after time away, the emotional side wanes and our vision become clearer. Hard calls to make, but ultimately a better novel emerges.

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