Thursday, March 19

Day Nineteen: Check the Narrative Focus

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Stage Four: Tightening the Draft

Welcome to Day Nineteen of Fiction University’s Month-Long Revision Workshop. Up until now, we’ve been adding and tweaking our stories, focusing more on getting the missing information in, and cutting the unnecessary information out. Odds are we’ve gotten some scenes a little messy, but the overall novel is working from a plot, character, and scene to scene standpoint. Now is the time to tighten things back up.

Today, we’re going to go deeper and examine the text itself, starting with how the narrative flows. Once we know everything is aligned and pointing where we want it to go, we’ll start tightening the draft overall.

1. Check the Narrative Focus

Narrative focus keeps the text flowing smoothly from one idea to the next. It helps keep the writing tight, and prevents the story from wandering off on a tangent and making readers wonder what the point is.

The larger, macro focus issues should have been taken care of in the first week as we checked to make sure our plots were advancing well and in a logical fashion (if not, or if yours still needs work, you can continue to work on that here). Those larger steps will guide us in these smaller, scene-by-scene steps.

Although there are three checks here (scenes, paragraphs, and sentences), feel free to check them all in one pass. In most cases, there’s no need to edit the scene three times unless it’s severely unfocused and needs the extra attention. For most scenes, a quick scan will likely be all you need to ensure nothing was knocked off focus.

(Here's more on narrative focus, with examples)

Scene check: First, make sure the scene has a point and the text is supporting that point, as well as advancing the ideas behind that point. Start with the goal for the scene:
  • Is the goal clear? 
  • Does the goal move the scene forward? 
  • Is the bulk of that scene’s information supporting this goal?
  • Does the goal lead to the next scene?

Not every scene needs to be 100% on topic, but if you notice multiple ideas or goals all pulling the protagonist in different directions (and not in a good, conflict-inducing way), that could indicate the scene is unfocused and trying to do too much.

Look for any off-topic ideas or goals in the text and revise to bring it back on topic, move the extraneous text to a better scene where is it on topic, or cut it from the scene.

If you did a fairly detailed editorial map, you might be able to do this check there instead of in the actual text.

Paragraph check: Once the scene is flowing well, skim through the individual paragraphs to make sure they’re equally focused. During the drafting stage, it’s common to have ideas hit us and we just write them into the scene, not always thinking about how they fit with the existing paragraph. When this happens, the story flow looks more like a spray and we end up with a scattered sense of what’s going on.

Try breaking up any unfocused paragraphs and regrouping them by idea, then adding transition sentences to lead readers where you want them to go story-wise. Show what’s important and take readers to the next important detail. For summarized ideas that feels a little sluggish or tell-y, you might try dramatizing them instead.

Sentence check: When the paragraphs feel good, check the individual lines. Look for run-on sentences, especially those trying to do too many things at once. If you can’t tell what the point of the sentence is, revise to clarify.

Overall, if a detail bogs down the text or goes off on a tangent, consider getting rid of it, or moving it somewhere else where it flows more naturally. Beware of irrelevant details that draw focus away from what’s important and cause readers to miss the critical information (unless of course, the point there is to hide a clue).

Look carefully at how your novel flows and how that information is conveyed to readers, and make sure it’s all flowing in the right direction.

After today’s session, we should feel confident that anything we knocked out of alignment during the previous sessions has been corrected. Tomorrow, we'll take a closer look at our dialog and tighten that up.

Tomorrow: Streamline the Dialog

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
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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