I’m a chronological kinda girl. I like to start at the beginning of my novel and write to the end. I like to know where my protagonist is at emotionally when they start a scene, and unless I know what happened to them to get to that scene, I won’t know their mental state. But sometimes, I reach a point where I can’t go forward until I go back.
I’m facing that right now with my new novel. I’ve reached my mid-points (yay!) and know where each POV character ends up for my big mid-point reversal. Problem is, when I looked back at the first half of the novel it felt…bleh. There just wasn’t enough tension or enough twists and turns. As much as I like the story, it needed more work to make me happy with the plot.
It was time to go back to page one and tweak the plot.
For me, it was all about getting my characters to the mid-points. I liked what happened there, but I discovered I hadn’t done enough groundwork to make getting to those good twists interesting enough. So I took a hard look at my mid-points and each plot and character arc and asked:
1. What was driving my characters to that mid-point?
Plots can shift as you write. Stories can evolve. After 30K words, I had a much stronger understanding of who my characters were, so how they got there could be developed much better. Things I had originally planned didn’t work as well as I first thought. But other things appeared as I wrote were much more interesting and a lot cooler. I needed to:
- Identify the steps my character took to get from page one to the mid-point.
- Weed out the steps that didn’t advance the plot I wanted.
- Strengthen the steps that did advance the plot I wanted.
2. How were their character arcs affected by this mid-point?
A good mid-point reversal will hit the character hard in both their internal and external conflicts, often playing one off the other for the most impact. I knew where I wanted my characters to be emotionally, and how their inner conflict was going to throw them for a loop. I needed to go back and set it up so when this happened, it caused the most conflict and did the most “damage” (either real or metaphorically). So I:
- Re-examined their emotional arcs and adjusted it so they were at their most vulnerable at the mid-point.
- Looked for ways in which both POV’s emotional states and needs would conflict at the mid-point (causing further trouble and more surprise).
- Looked for ways to scar them emotionally. (This allowed me to make them wary about things they’ll need later in the story, making upcoming obstacles all the more difficult to overcome).
3. How could I raise the overall tension and unpredictability so the mid-points were a major surprise?
I had a few surprises in the rough draft, but not nearly as many as I wanted. The spy/mystery element is a big part of this novel, and I really want readers to feel like they have to pay attention to every detail, because so many things are hidden in plain sight, and any of them could be the key to something readers would want to know more about. But writing all that in the first draft? No way was I going to get that right in one pass. To achieve the desired complexity, it was going to take several passes. So I looked for:
- Ways to mislead the reader without lying to them. (Red herrings)
- Clues that were important, but not obvious until later when another piece was found.
- Places where I could raise the stakes.
- Places where I could connect already existing elements for greater impact.
- Places where one POV’s goals and actions caused trouble for the other POV.
- Places where I could take away information without muddying the story. (and thus upping the mystery)
It might sound like all this requires a lot of rewriting, but it really doesn’t. My scenes are still unfolding the way I originally wrote, and it’s only taking small changes and nudges here and there to shift a motivation or a goal to improve the scene. Plus, I’m not trying to make it perfect since it’s still a first draft. All I’m trying to do it get the story and plot down so when I move to the second half, I don’t have all these loose ends tripping me up. I’ll know where my characters are emotionally, what they’ve been through, and why it mattered so much to them. And after I turn their world upside down at the mid-point, I’ll have a much better understanding of how they’ll react and what they need to do to get out of the mess they’re in.
Sometimes you need to go back to move forward, so don’t worry that you’re not making progress if this happens to you. I could have just moved ahead and finished the first draft before making these changes, but I know that would have been more work than going back and fixing it now. It would have been like building a house on a foundation you know isn’t level. With tools you don’t have.
Shore up that foundation and build with confidence that your story will stand tall and strong.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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