Writing Filters to Use: The Big Picture Filters

Okay, so the initial first draft of your short story or novel is completed. Congratulations! Throw a big party. Pat yourself on the back. That was a lot of hard work. Then things calm down, and you decide to sit down to work on draft number two. You take a gander at your masterpiece to discover it isn’t as glamorous as you first thought. Sure, you knew it needed work, but not that much! Where to begin? What to do? The text before you becomes blurred. It gets hard to breath, and you wonder if maybe this might be what insanity feel like. But before you commit yourself to an insane asylum, there’s hope, and it’s as simple as just a little focus.

That’s where writing filters come in. It’s the process of keeping a few things (usually 2 to 4) in mind while going through subsequent drafts of a story. These “filters” help narrow things down so you can focus on what needs to be done instead of having a panic attack. Sure, there might still be a few panic attacks here and there, but at least you can move through the muck of your jumbled mess. There is a light at the end of the tunnel somewhere, and using writing filters can help distract you until that light can be glimpsed.
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I find that there are actually two levels of writing filters. There’s the Big Picture Filters and the Finer Detail Filters. This first post will be discussing the Big Picture and next week I’ll post about the Finer Details. Before we get started there are two questions that should be kept in the back of you mind during every editing draft…
  • What suggestions would you make to better accomplish what the author (you) intends for the story?
  • What questions come to you while reading the story?

First look at the bigger picture of the story. There are ten major topic areas to look at when viewing the story as a whole they include: plot, character, conflict, dialogue, scenes, point of view, pace, setting, continuity, and balance. Pick one or more of these things to focus on (only) for each pass (you can do several passes in one draft, that’s up to you). Decide which is most important to the development of the story in that moment, though typically plot and character development are some of the first things that should be fixed, because they make up the basic structure of a story. Conflict is highly important as well (without conflict there is no story). Below are questions to ask yourself about the topic areas and ideas on how to enhance them.


Plot

Questions to ask…

  • Was the main plot clear and believable?
  • Was the plot interesting and engrossing?
  • Is there enough to sustain the story through the final page?
  • If it is a short story, were there too many subplots?
  • If it is part of a novel, could it be improved by more attention to subplots?
  • Or should the novel have more subplots?
  • If nonfiction, was the work organized clearly and succinctly?
  • Are major plot issues resolved?
  • Is the plot introduced in an engaging way?
  • Are there hooks; are they logical; are they related to the rest of the plot?
  • Is the premise right for the story that’s been written?
  • Has reader expectation been whetted and then satisfied?
  • Is there focus or is the plot scattered?
  • Is the story presented in the right sequence of events?
  • What questions were raised in the story?
  • How are the question(s) answered or left unanswered?
  • Are the right questioned answered?
  • Does the story start in the right place? Does it start too late? Too early?
  • Did the story end where it should?

Things that can be done to enhance plot…

  • Weed out coincidence
  • Maintain forward movement
  • Include surprises
  • Move logically from point to point
  • Resolve plot threads
  • Root out author intrusion (make sure it’s the characters talking and not the author)
  • Whether you consider the opening event or the protagonist’s acceptance of his call to action the inciting incident, make sure you have both
  • Make sure the ending is sufficient in terms of length and depth for the story
  • Make sure the ending is inevitable
  • Make sure the ending doesn’t drag; make it satisfy the reader
  • Make sure the black moment and climax are strong enough for the story
  • Use back story sparingly and blend it so it doesn’t stop story momentum

Character

Questions to ask…

  • Did the people seem real?
  • What did the writer do to make them come alive?
  • If the characters appeared shallow, what might the writer do to more fully develop a character(s)?
  • Is too much time spent inside the/a character’s head? Excessive internalization slows the story. If the character is thinking or wondering about every action, the writer foreshadows the plot and alienates the readers desire to continue reading.
  • Are the characters interesting enough for the story?
  • Do the lead characters have sufficient motivation to move through the plot?
  • Which characters are grounding the story or leading it?
  • Are the characters consistent?
  • If they aren’t consistent, does it work?
  • Is character motivation appropriate for the story that developed from it?
  • Is the antagonist strong enough, a good complement to the protagonist?
  • Do characters have strengths and weaknesses?
  • Are character goals clear?
  • Are characters well-rounded?
  • Are all featured characters vital to the plot?

Things that can be done to enhance Character

  • Make sure there are enough characters to carry the plot
  • Make sure there are no unnecessary characters
  • Give the main character secondary characters to support him
  • Give the main character other characters strong enough to challenge him
  • Fit characters to genre and era
  • Give characters appropriate and sufficient habits, quirks, favorite words, speech patterns, dreams, goals and motivations, and hot buttons that other characters can push
  • Make characters three-dimensional—include thoughts, actions, and reactions
  • Take into consideration the characters job and, even name, and how it portrays them to the reader

Conflict

Questions to ask…

  • Did the conflict and tension in the fictional plot(s) and subplot(s) come to a reasonable conclusion?
  • Were you left hanging still unsure of how or what happened?
  • Was the resolution appropriate for the character development?
  • Is there sufficient conflict in each scene and between characters?
  • Does conflict escalate?
  • Did the writer use an appropriate denouncement (if the story has one)?

Things that can be done to enhance Conflict

  • Create tension
  • Make characters and readers uncomfortable
  • Increase conflict as the story progresses
  • Ensure conflict between characters and between protagonist and himself and within the antagonist
  • Ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen to your characters within the story and then do it.

Dialogue

Questions to ask…

  • Did the words seem natural to the characters and fit their personality?
  • Was there too much or not enough dialogue? It’s okay to tell the reader some of the thoughts of the thoughts of the main character, but we should only know the thoughts of other characters through their words and actions, i.e. did the writer show us the story or did he tell it to us?
  • Whose story is it?
  • If dialect is used, is it used effectively and appropriately?
  • Were there enough/too many beats in the dialogue?
  • Was the dialogue used to move the plot forward or as a weal way of cramming back story?
  • Does dialogue advance the story?
  • Is dialogue appropriate to the scene?
  • Does dialogue increase conflict?

Things that can be done to enhance Dialogue…

  • Ensure that characters sound sufficiently different
  • Make sure it is dialogue and not conversation
  • Use genre-appropriate dialogue tags
  • Keep adverbs in dialogue tags to a minimum, unless genre allows them (use he said, she said’s )

Scenes

Things that can be done to enhance Scenes …

  • Make sure there are a sufficient number of scenes
  • Make sure individual scenes satisfy and that they are different in terms of action events, character combinations, dialogue patterns, and type of conflict
  • Give scenes variety in length, format, depth, and pattern
  • Use a variety of settings for scenes (or play against variety and stick to only a few settings)
  • Make sure scenes are in the best order to cause problems for the character and induce tension in the reader
  • Make sure the right scenes are dramatized and the right scenes are summarized

Point of View

Questions to ask…

  • Story view point (first, second, third limited, omniscient)
  • Is it the right POV for the story and for the scene; would another be better?
  • Is POV clear?
  • Is POV maintained within scenes?
  • Character view point
  • Who should be the viewpoint character in each scene?
  • Is the story in the right character’s POV? Would another character work better?
  • If the story is in multiple characters POV, should it be changed to just one character?
  • If the story is in one character’s POV, would the story work better in multiple characters POV?

Things that can be done to enhance POV

  • Make sure that viewpoint character doesn’t change within scenes (no head-hopping)
  • Make sure viewpoint character knows only what he could really know
  • Use a change in POV or viewpoint character to bring story and character closer to the reader or to hold the reader at a distance when necessary

Pace

Questions to ask…

  • Did the plot/subplots move fast enough to keep your attention?
  • Did it skip around too much to keep track of the characters and plot?
  • If nonfiction, can it be tightened?
  • Are there enough examples (non-fiction)? If so, where and how does the writer need to improve pacing?
  • Does pace vary?
  • Is the pace of each scene appropriate?
  • Does pace influence tone?
  • Does pace increase/decrease tension?
  • Are action and dialogue balanced? Characters should be somewhere doing something when they speak; actions alone will keep the reader at a distance- outside looking in. Pages of description is no better than empty space. Speech that neither defines character nor moves plot can be deleted. In general no more than four lines of dialogue should be written without a break: some action, even a gesture.

Setting

 Questions to ask…

  • Is setting conveyed sufficiently?
  • Is the setting appropriate for the story?
  • Would a different setting work better?
  • Is setting used to advance plot, to create tone, to increase tension?
  • Are readers given a clear sense of place and time for each scene?

Things that can be done to enhance Setting…

  • Verify details
  • Make sure setting details are appropriate to story and scene
  • Make sure setting doesn’t overwhelm action and plot
  • Include props that characters can handle and use

Continuity

Questions to ask…

  • When you finished reading, were there loose ends that were left unresolved?
  • Was there anything that needed further explanation?
  • Were there any inconsistencies?
  • Do the characters plod through the story? It is not necessary to record each step the character takes. Can some details be deleted allowing the reader to take an active role through the imagination and inference?

Balance

Questions to ask…

  • Is there too much going on in the story?
  • Is the author’s hand too visible? Does it stick out?

Things that can be done to enhance Balance

  • Ensure balance between elements; make sure no one element overwhelms
  • Balance character thoughts, dialogue, and actions with setting and description
  • Balance sections, scenes, chapters, and acts

I know it’s a lot to take in. Take a deep breath. Just remember to focus on a few areas at a time. Once you feel like you’ve nailed everything above, don’t think you’re done yet. There’s more to do! Now it’s time to get to the smaller details. Check out the followup post Writing Filters to Use: Finer Detail Filters.

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