Friday, September 10, 2010

Rewriting: Pay Attention To Sequences!

Here’s another rewriting pass that you can do. We’ve talked about re-carding after you finish a draft and are about to start rewriting - sometimes it’s amazing how much your initial outline has changed. Re-carding will help you get a grasp on the story you’ve actually told (as opposed to the one you thought you were telling).

For example, the reveals that came out in the writing process might not be what you were expecting at all. Even the villain may have changed – I hear from authors all the time about that happening. Sometimes we hide that stuff from ourselves so that we can write from the protagonist’s perspective of innocence, and figure it out and be just as surprised as they are as they go along.

Well, paying close attention to your sequences – as they are really playing out, now - is another great way to get a grasp on the story that you’ve actually told, and also a fantastic trick of pacing.

I’ve never tried to explain this before, but I think the only way to get it is to actually do it. Read through the first sequence of your book (or script) and look at the beginning, middle and end of just that sequence. What is being set up in the sequence? Why are we drawn into it? What is the climax: what startling/interesting/appalling thing happens in it, what do we learn, that makes it imperative that we follow this story? Does it build to a climax? Is the climax genre-specific – an action scene in an action story, a spooky or scary scene in a horror story, a sexy scene in a romance, a puzzle in a mystery? How does whatever happens propel the action into the second sequence and make it vital that the protagonist make the next move?

Then work through the book doing that with every sequence. (I know, I know, I should just shut up already. But I swear, once you get over the cursing and throwing things, this REALLY WORKS).

I sometimes don’t get to this sequence pass until my fourth or fifth pass through (“pass through” is a much gentler term than “draft”, don’t you think? Less intimidating.). But it is always a sign that I’m on the home stretch. A sequence pass is a sure way to identify the places that just aren’t working yet. If you’re in the middle of reading a sequence and you suddenly find that you want to do anything but finish reading it – like, for example, clean the bathroom or do your taxes – then you know that sequence has a problem. And looking at the problem just in terms of what the SEQUENCE is doing, and how that sequence has to set up the next sequence, rather than in context of the whole book, will almost always give you the answer of what’s going wrong.

If nothing else, I really encourage you to look at the sequences just in terms of the sequence climaxes. This is an astonishing way to improve the pacing and suspense of a book or script (and I mean suspense in ANY genre – the “What happens next?” factor). You will often find that the real climax of a sequence is happening in the middle of a chapter, and a little rearranging (like ending the chapter on that climax) will give that scene a punch that was just lacking, before. The break of starting a new chapter will give the reader that breath to consider all the implications of what just happened.

Also always remember to consider the emotional impact that that new revelation has on your protagonist (and other characters). Once they’ve absorbed the shock of what they just learned, what are they going to have to do next? It's pretty embarrassing, really, how often I find that I have written blithely on without stopping to consider how a revelation would impact my protagonist, emotionally. Defining and bringing out those emotions not only makes the story deeper, it can lead to actions that make much more sense for the protagonist to be taking next.

Also, steal the screenwriting trick of a BIG SET CHANGE or BIG LOCATION CHANGE between sequences. You don't literally have to change locations, always, but thinking about the beginning of the next sequence as a set change or a location change and then writing it that way will propel your reader or audience into the next sequence, making them feel like the story has moved to a whole new level. How can you visually and thematically show this change? (Look at what Harry Potter and Raiders of the Lost Ark do with changing locations - even time, place, weather, season - to move into a new sequence...)

And of course, always remind yourself what genre you’re working in and ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to make that climax more comedic, more suspenseful, more spine-tingling, more romantic - so you’re always delivering on the promise of your genre.

I know this is abstract, but is it making any sense at all?

- Alex


How To Write A Novel From Start To Finish: previous posts

How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)

What is genre?

What's your premise?

The Price
(more on premise)

What is High Concept?

The Dream Journal

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

Elements of Act One

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards

What KIND Of Story Is It?

Elements of Act Two, Part 1

Plants and Payoffs

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

What's the PLAN?

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (Part 3)

Elements of Act II, Part 2

The Lover Makes A Stand (romantic comedy structure

Elements of Act Three (part 1)

What Makes A Great Climax? (Elements of Act III, part 2)

Elements of Act III, part 2: Elevate Your Ending

What KIND of story is it? (and other notes about Inception)


More Rewriting: The Subplot Pass


Screenwriting Tricks For Authors
now available on Kindle and for PC and Mac.


Fleur Bradley: said...

This post is brilliant--such a fool-proof way to edit. I'm writing a first draft right now, and use your sequence method to edit sequences as I go.

Thanks for sharing!!!

Debbie said...

Hi Alex, You asked if your advice makes sence and of course it wrote it! I just dumped forty pages from my MS because I found myself thinking, 'blah, blah, blah, let's get on with it.' There was nothing to advance the story. I'm kind of hoping to find more because the book is too long and the more I read your advice and that of other writers, the easier it gets to discard irrelevant scenes. You once said that if you think you're going to edit something out, you eventually will. Wise why is it so hard to do? BTW, you sound like you're in a better place.

Rachel Walsh said...

Excellent advice, Alex. I'm doing a third pass over the opening of my book, and I NEED to keep all this in mind. Thanks for spelling it out so well.

Oh, and I just finished reading BOOK OF SHADOWS (a signed copy, too, that a lovely friend of mine picked up from you at the RWA conference) and boy, did it scare the pants off me! An excellent and highly suspenseful read. I can't wait for your next offering! :-)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Fleur, glad it works for you! It does make the whole overwhelming task of a book much more manageable to see and concentrate on sequences.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Debbie, that's fantastic about being able to dump 40 pages, well done!

Another screenwriting teacher I had would say: "Whatever you cut stays in, anyway." I found that fascinating, and more and more I believe that's actually true.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Rachel, I'm thrilled you liked the book, thanks so much! I'm pretty happy with that one myself.

RhondaL said...

I've just begun revising and am now fretting over sequences and where the chapter breaks should go.

I think I have a chapter break where it's really just a scene change. We changed location, just didn't go very far away.

But I'm not feeling that inner "mood music," that foreboding, "dum dum DUH!!!" that should probably go at the end of a chapter.

Are my instincts off-base on this one?

live, laugh, inspire said...

Thanks Alex
These tips are great, I can see myself using them as a template when I next sit down to tackle the great 'first'novel. I am currently working on the second novel due to the exhaustion of drafting the first (draft 5 sits on the hard drive taunting me daily!).

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Rhonda, I think the fact that you're asking the question is your answer. I know it can be maddening to find the right place to break a chapter - I'm struggling with that in the pass I'm doing right now, in fact.

Just try it. Take the chapter break where there's more suspense, or create more suspense where you're breaking the chapter. No matter what genre you're working in, you're looking for that page-turning factor.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Rhonda, I think the fact that you're asking the question is your answer. I know it can be maddening to find the right place to break a chapter - I'm struggling with that in the pass I'm doing right now, in fact.

Just try it. Take the chapter break where there's more suspense, or create more suspense where you're breaking the chapter. No matter what genre you're working in, you're looking for that page-turning factor.

And I love your analogy of the mood music - that's definitely the feeling you're going for.

Chris Coen said...

>>I know this is abstract, but is it making any sense at all?

It certainly makes sense to me. I am still trying to learn how to use note cards, but I've been doing what you call recarding using a synopsis - I rewrite the (2-3 page) synop once I finish with the first draft, so I can see where the story actually took me, and I focus on the chain of plot events to make sure one leads logically and emotionally to the next. The process is awesome for catching plotholes.

(I'm having trouble with the note cards because they're so linear,
unlike the synopsis, where I can get a multi-layered picture of the
plot. Maybe I just need more space to lay the cards out so I can see the various layers?)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hmm, Chris, I'm not saying the cards work for everyone - you have to experiment and see what works for you, and just never mind anything that doesn't.

But I like them because they're NOT linear - to me they're as three-dimensional as a house because I can see the building blocks of the sequences.

And at the start of a project they're just great for brainstorming because you can throw random ideas and images and locations down on cards and decide where they go later.

I'm always simultaneously working on an outline, too, though, which often turns into whole scenes and dialogue exchanges.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Live/laugh - it makes perfect sense to move on with the second novel and let the first chill for a while. Starting a new project clears your palate for a rewrite, and makes it not so scary when you're actually DONE with that first project - you know exactly what to do next.