The First Cut

In my last blog, I said I was taking some time out from writing as I needed to think more deeply about where the plot-line of my new novel was taking me. After a short break, I looked again at the manuscript, which was about a third complete, and my scene cards. In spite of all the planning and preparation that I did before starting my second novel, it was obvious that something was missing. But before I could add it, the plot-line needed some drastic surgery.

The song goes ‘The first cut is the deepest’. The Cat Stevens song was not about writing, of course, but the words seemed to fit my mood as I slashed some 21 scenes and almost 10,000 words from the manuscript. I didn’t delete them completely; I placed them in my unused scenes folder. As I use the Scrivener software, this is a simple process of dragging the scene files to the unused folder. Some scenes might be used later in a reworked form. What was left was a lean more focused manuscript.

Not all writers would agree that you should start editing mid draft. KM Weiland, for example, suggests you should note down what has to change, but to write on as if those changes had been made until you complete the first draft. Only then does she suggest you start the edit process. It’s probably very good advice, particularly if you have problems finishing a first draft. But it’s not the way I can work. The inconsistency in the manuscript would constantly niggle me until I fixed it.

So how do you fix a plot line that doesn’t seem to work? Putting the manuscript down for some time does help to regain perspective. Then you need to stand back from it and try visualise main steps of the plot. Like some other authors, I like to use scene cards to map the steps in the story-line. In my case, I use some specialised screen writing software to play with the cards; but physical cards set out on a cork-board, or floor, can be just as effective. From the cards I identified the three key scenes that held the structure of the plot together. These are:

Turning point 1: The scene that marks end of the set-up sequences in Act 1 and projects the hero/heroine forward on their journey towards his/her new goal. The pursuit of that goal forms most of the action for Act 2.

Turning point 2: This is usually an epiphany scene at the end of Act 2 where hero/heroine finally realises what they are doing wrong. It marks the end of Act 2 and a new direction for the hero/heroine for the climatic ending in Act 3.

The Mid point: This is a scene at the centre of the story where something important happens: a twist, a revelation, false climax or false disaster.

Where I had gone wrong is that nothing important seemed to be happening at the mid-point. By simply asking what is the worse thing possible that could happened, I had my answer. (No I’m not telling you what it is. It would spoil things.)

The idea that something important must happen at the mid-point of a story is not new. Screen writers such as Syd Field have long known that something important occurred at the mid-point of most movies. But it is also a feature of good novels. In fact, James Scott Bell wrote a whole book about the importance of the mid-point: “Write your Novel from the Middle.” James Scott Bell’s thoughts are that you should find your mid-point first. Then you know what has to happen before it and if you know your ending you know what needs to happen after it. The point is it should be something big. The bigger the better.

So if you’re a writer, do you know what your big event/revelation is in your story? Does it occur broadly at the mid-point? And what type of a writer are you — do you make major edits as you go or push on and complete the first draft before starting the edit?

2 comments on “The First Cut

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