Revising fiction–deep revision–may require authors to expand scenes or add new ones. But how can any author know which scenes those are? We’re so close to our stories, it’s hard to have any perspective. And yet, we must provide our readers with a clear and accurate picture of our characters’ inner and outer journeys. We must show the world at the beginning of the novel, the obstacles that stand in the way of the character’s path to success, and the transformed “new reality” at novel’s end. There are at least five “big picture” items your story needs to address.
An analogy I use when I’m teaching a writing workshop is a simple one. Have I (or you) made my character go through the door? Going through a door means unlocking opportunities to make your draft manuscript even more wonderful than it already is.
What sort of door you might ask? Let’s look at some of them.
Open the Door to the Here and Now
I’ve often read manuscripts that dance away from the here-and-now of the story. Characters mull over their choices. Authors endlessly analyze the psychology of a character’s psychic wounds. The author’s motives are noble. Out of a desire to help readers understand why characters behave the way they do, the author takes long walks down Memory Lane.
Unfortunately, there’s a downside to that from the reader’s perspective. When characters are trapped and unable to take action to make their lives better, they turn into modern-day Hamlets. They escape by thinking and thinking and thinking. Like Hamlet, such characters come across as passive. That’s all well and good in the world of great literature. The tent is big enough for James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, both of whom devoted a lot of space to their characters’ inner lives. However, excessive rumination can make readers impatient for “something to happen.” Too much thinking and too much background keeps a the plot from moving forward. It bogs down the book. When revising fiction, make sure the reader doesn’t lose sight of the present.
How do you do that? Make sure you open the door to the here-and-now. Readers want to witness what’s happening in the story’s ongoing action. That equips us to make judgments about the character’s behavior. We want to admire the character and invest ourselves in her or his journey. Ask yourself whether all that backstory is necessary. Often, readers can infer that some bad event has colored the character’s judgment or skewed their responses. Try writing a scene in the present that dramatizes the residual effects of past trauma. Save the backstory for later.
Open the Door to the Outer World
Open the door to the world outside. Readers will gain a deeper understanding of, and connection to, your characters if we know how their outer world impinges on their inner lives. This is important for historical fiction. We must understand the epoch the characters are living in. The time period and setting play a big part in characters’ personal lives. How much freedom did women have, for instance? Did the oldest son in the family inherit all the land?
But, even for novels set in current times, the world outside the door looks quite different if the character is living on a farm in rural Alabama versus in the Mission District of San Francisco. The world outside the door can help readers understand what the protagonist is “up against.” Class, race, geography, regional weather patterns, and jobs/unemployment can all play a role in undermining a character’s ability to move forward.
When you’re revising fiction, look for ways the world outside can add new obstacles to those your protagonist already faces. You may want to add some passages of exposition (telling, vs. showing) to provide context.
Open the Door to Disagreement
I love the symbolism of these doors. Did these neighbors talk to each other before painting their houses? Maybe they hated one another and chose colors that would be as offensive as possible. What would it be like to live next to an implacable neighbor, someone who literally went out of their way to make your life miserable? If you haven’t thought of using your protagonist’s neighbor that way, you might be missing an opportunity. Secondary characters of the “implacable neighbor sort” can do a lot to bump the main character off track.
Alternately, you might view these two doors as the husband and wife in a long marriage. How deep have their resentments burrowed? Have they painted themselves into opposing corners? The same sort of feud can often be at the root of brother-brother and sister-sister disagreements.
Look for doors that place two people in stark contrast. During revision heighten that contrast.
The Door to the Inner Sanctum
Above I suggested that readers enjoy seeing the outer world. However, readers also crave glimpses of the character’s inner world. This world can be the place your protagonist feels safest and most able to let down his or her guard. Places that come to mind are an art studio, a woodshop, a potting shed, or a garden. These settings are packed with objects. Readers can infer how the character’s feeling by how she or he handles the “stuff” that’s around them.
If you’ve ever had an editor tell you “show, don’t tell,” try placing the character in one of these private, sacred places. Let your character interact with her or his surroundings. Open the door to the inner sanctum.
The Door to Delight
Even realistic fiction offers moments for magic to creep in. I’m not talking about “magical realism.” I’m talking about moments of calm, redemptive wonder of the sort a child might experience. The other day my sister and I were talking about the difference between happiness and joy. She believes happiness comes from outside, but that joy is an emotion we experience when we’re tuned in and receptive to everyday wonders.
Have you allowed your character a few moments of pure joy? If not, then open the door to delight and walk on through.
In your own writing have you found that there are doors you don’t want to go through? Do you readily open the bedroom door? Would you rather close the door on a fight than let it play out? I’d love to hear what you’ve discovered. Leave comments, please.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.