A penny for your thoughts makes it very hard to get by in this economy.
I was recently asked to give feedback on a novel manuscript. On the whole I’m enjoying it, but since critical, forensic feedback is always more useful than an encouraging, “It’s good!” or “I liked the bit where...” here’s a brief list of some of the areas I was looking at when I fed back. Obviously all these are easier to see when not caught in the fog of writing, so if I’m guilty of any of these (which I absolutely am), please be gentle.
Nice to Meet You
The book is about a large family and follows each of the members’ lives. Each chapter focuses on a different character as they splinter off on their own path, after an initial prologue which introduces the whole family. Nice setup, but obviously this means having to learn about a lot of characters at once. Initially this was as a paragraph each in descending order of age. Fine, functional, but for the opening of the novel could be a lot better. Can each character be given a mini-scene or an action/interaction/dialogue to introduce them? Do we need to meet every character in detail at once, or focus on a few and then open out to the rest as they become important? It put me in mind of the opening of the Godfather, which had a similar setup while also introducing the arcs, themes and plots throughout the rest of the story, as explored in this excellent article from Industrial Scripts.
Flavours of Conflict
Also mentioned in the article above are the different types of conflict, Internal (an inner character struggle or flaw), Interpersonal (a struggle between two characters) and External (a struggle against forces beyond the character’s control). Throughout the manuscript most of the conflicts were external, with the majority of the characters good, decent people coping with problems over which they had little control. This made them reactive more than proactive, and the beats of encountering a similar kind of trial more repetitive. More subplots with internal or interpersonal struggles would offer more variety and different solutions to different problems.
Variety of Voices
One of the main challenges of writing is creating realistic, believable characters, but just as importantly is that they are unique and distinct. Each character should feel like their own person, with their own view, attitudes and voice. I’m of the opinion a writer should be able to hold two opposing trains of thoughts simultaneously, otherwise all your characters would sound or behave similarly. Related to the above with most characters being good and decent with minor personality variants (this one is stern, this one is outgoing), with the amount of characters in the story there needed to be more distinction.
Also each character will have many facets to themselves. How one behaves with their family would not be the same way they act with their friends, or a lover. This gives a good opportunity to explore different sides to the character with these different groups, and may help them develop or change their opinion on something to help further the narrative.
Hitting the Same Beat
There was one character in particular who, every time you met them, seemed to be crying or holding back tears. In each isolated incident, that was probably a fair response, but taken together and coupled with these occasions being the only times we met this character, they just seemed like a walking bag of tears. While an action may make sense in its context, the overall narrative has to be considered, and if the same thing is happening repeatedly, is the same note being hit too often?
When planning a scene or chapter, there will be an obvious way to tell it, but rarely is it the best way. There were a couple of times in this story I wished a different route had been taken to twist my expectations, find new ways for events to play out that reveal new sides to these characters. How about if the character reacted this way instead of that? Is it more interesting if this character does this action rather than this one?
What to Tell
This story is a saga, which I admit I don’t have as much experience with as other story forms. Often what is as telling as the story told is the story untold. Choosing what scenes to write can really establish a theme or relationship, and others can seem so interesting you want them to be explored more. There were some events that were summarised in a paragraph that I wished had been expanded upon as the dramatic potential was so rife, whereas time was devoted to other elements that maybe weren’t so engaging. There are scenes that encapsulate big moments, but if the ending is a foregone conclusion does it need to be explored in depth? While other, smaller character beats can really help an audience connect with a character.
Finally, and this must be the one most common to most writers, one I’m quite guilty of, is filling the story with subtext rather than text. Every writing book puts it up as one of the most important aspects, but it is one of the hardest to get right. Don’t say what everyone means, thinks or feels, find other ways to demonstrate it and let the audience figure it out for themselves.