I swear, how does The Writer know?! This time, in the July 2011 issue, they’ve provided an entire section on “Revising Your Work” just when I’m gearing up to start revising my work. It’s uncanny. And quite welcome. I needed all the reminders these articles provided for tackling revision. In thinking about how I begin, I realized that my beginning is with the characters and conflict which for my writing means structure.
The most common narrative structure is 3-act dramatic structure, i.e. beginning, middle and end. To begin a revision, I read through the story, making notes to myself about where the beginning section changes to the middle section and then the middle to the ending. The middle, or conflict act, should be at least twice as long as either the beginning or ending sections. This read-through will expose any problems.
So what specifically do I look for at the end of each section? For me, character drives everything, and the main character determines structure. So, in the beginning, “the set-up,” I introduce my main character in all his glory and warts, establish the characters in his life, and by the end of this section, he needs to face a situation that will force a decision or reveal what he wants. The main character’s desire propels the action right into the second act. If this first section seems to be going on and on, the most important question I can ask myself is “What does my main character want?” Once I have the answer, then I can better correct any issues with this section and the transition to the next act.
The conflict act is the middle of the story, and as its name suggests, it should be chockfull of conflict, of other characters trying to thwart the main character in her attempts or journey to get what she wants. Each of the other characters also has a desire that needs to be in conflict or opposed to the main character’s. So, at the beginning of this act, especially if I’m having problems with it, I “interview” all the secondary characters to learn who they are and what they want. Then I ask this question of each character, including the main character: “What will you do to get what you want?” The answer for each becomes each character’s strategy for act 2. In general, there needs to be at least one character diametrically opposed to the main character’s desire and actions to provide enough conflict for the second act, but the more the better. By the end of act 2, my protagonist’s antagonist(s) haved enjoyed so much success that she is stuck, looking into the face of failure, unless something happens or new information becomes available. This is followed by….
Relief to the tension of the protagonist stuck with nowhere to go — something does happen or more information does become available. This “event” needs to be organic, not a deus ex machina, with clues or hints or some kind of a set-up occurring throughout the second act. Armed with renewed desire and a path to gaining what he wants, the protagonist’s actions come to the climax of the story where either he gets what he wants or not. The final structural questions I ask myself is just that: “Does he get it or not? If not, why?” The “why” leads to a resolution to the third act and the end.
I’ve worked with other structures, and in every one, there is always one character whose desire drives the structure and dramatic momentum. It doesn’t have to be the main character, but it most often is. When a main character is an anti-hero, as Evan Quinn is, the structure and what drives it is still the same. Sometimes, the desire is the anti-hero’s, sometimes it’s the character opposing him.
The helpful article in the July The Writer about character and conflict is “Use a checklist to target character & conflict” by Gregory Martin. Now I’m ready to get to work….