In self-editing, the most difficult area to master is what fiction writers call “the Big Picture.” Why? The overall story and how it unfolds is the most important part of your efforts to readers–if it breaks down at any point, readers may stop reading.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s look at a few simple ways to analyze the Big Picture in stories/novels:
As I’ve said many times, your character is the most important aspect of any story. Readers need a character to get behind, someone to root for. Often readers will live vicariously through a character, so it’s important to create a person to whom readers relate. Sometimes, this is called sympathy for the character. A character doesn’t always need to be totally likable but readers should be able to sympathize with that character in order to sign on for the entire story journey. Writers often ask why Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs) succeeds as a main character although he isn’t at all likable. My opinion is that because he tries to help Claire catch the murderer, he becomes less evil somehow. And Thomas Harris’ high skill level adds to the reader’s engagement with a less than sympathetic character. Your character should be someone readers can like well enough to follow to see how the story turns out. The more you know about your character–including stuff which never gets stated in the work–the more realistically human your character will seem to readers. Above all, research the character’s motivation. If you’re able to answer why your character does what he does, you’re more likely to grab readers on an emotional level–and that kind of engagement is much harder for readers to escape.
Just as your character’s reasons for actions and attitudes are vital to a successful story, the consequences are vital to build and maintain tension. Consequences are sometimes called the stakes–what will happen if the goal isn’t realized? These stakes are necessary for your story to pass the “So What?” test. If (character) doesn’t overcome obstacles and attain the goal, so what? He’ll be bummed out? The larger the stakes (the world will end), the more tension the story will have built into it. One good way to approach these stakes is to make concentric rings of them: Figure out stakes (consequences) on an emotional, mental and sometimes even a spiritual level; stakes on a family/community level, and maybe go bigger with stakes for a country, the world, a planet. With each concentric ring you’ll be adding another layer of tension as well as making your story “bigger.”
Many times you can see the Big Picture of your story by imagining a board game such as Monopoly. You begin the story at a certain place and the events which happen (the plot) moves your character around the board. When the character has setbacks (don’t make it easy) it’s like paying rent to another player who has a bunch of hotels or having to miss a turn. The climax of your story is like getting the Go Directly to Jail card, after which the character triumphs with the Community Chest. If you spot scenes or chapters where the character doesn’t seem to do much except march in place, you can be pretty sure you’ll need to remedy that portion and make your character move the story. Scene cards (one per scene, with one sentence written on it to summarize the main action) of some sort help you step back from your story and see the Big Picture. It’s easier to see places with missing pieces, redundancies or static march-in-place areas if you step off Park Avenue and view the entire game board.
Your Turn: What’s your favorite method to self-edit the “Big Picture” of fiction?