Be Your Own Editor - Part IVby Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, April 1999
Recently, a Boot Camp critique began, "I think this may show my lack of understanding of theme/focus) but who/what is the main point of the story?. It starts out as Pedro's story and ends (I assume) as his and we see the Priest episode through Pedro's eyes, but what lingers is the priest on Viagra. You call it your Priest story, it's titled 'Hard Up' and certainly this is what is memorable. The 'Priest on Viagra' overshadows Pedro totally so much it makes me feel the main focus of the story couldn't really be Pedro -- but if its about the Priest seen through Pedro's eyes, do we really need to know quite as much about the character of Pedro. The Pedro stuff is great but is it all really appropriate for this story?"
You have a great scene, maybe some absolutely brilliant dialogue, or there's this ever-so-funny joke you just have to get into a story. You've done all three and now you're redrafting. What stays, what goes, and how do you decide? In the film Prince of Thieves, Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham was so good he virtually stole the film from Kevin Costner's Robin Hood. In a light-hearted action thriller, this "mistake" could be overlooked, in the case of a serious short story or novel, such a distraction might have serious effects. But what are these effects, why are they mistakes, what exactly is the damage being done?
When we spoke about the use of language and point of view in creating mood and attitude in a story, that mood and attitude was part of the effect we hoped to make on the reader. If we want the reader to be sad, we don't pick a jaunty Birdie Song rhythm.
But note, we are talking about creating an effect. That is, we don't write casually, but with a purpose. In a perfect story every word, every phrase, every sentence is part of a construction. Even the white space and pauses should be there to create an exact musical-emotional experience.
Our story contains people and these people are confronted by obstacles. If we write well we invent the characters and conjure up obstacles but we don't also invent the character's action in response to the difficulties we've invented. Instead, we immerse ourselves in the character, become the character, as the character attempt to solve the problem. How a character resolves a problem creates meaning, a statement about the world, or an attitude. Your original choice of character, your feel for what type of story you wish to present, the mood and tone you've developed to illustrate events, all combine to create meaning, something that after the story is done with, lingers and resonates. This for me is theme and in this article, "Part Four of Editing, we look at editing our story in the light of its theme, adding power and purpose, removing anything which dilutes that purpose.
I tell my students to Pick a Rose. (The) Point Is Crucial Knowledge, Always Remember Only Story Elements.
When I complete a novel I lay every chapter out on my living room floor and I examine each in turn and ask, what is this chapter doing, what's it here for? Does it have a real purpose, is it indispensable? If a chapter or a paragraph is not genuinely required, doesn't that mean it's padding, it's diluting the power and effect of the good stuff? CUT!
In some future articles I hope to examine Theme & Character as I did in "Plotting is a Severn Letter Word", but going into greater depth. All good stories have a residual meaning, but not all stories with "meaning" are good. The satisfaction of a story is often because it either "says" something to us well, or makes us consider what we thought was right and fact in a new light. Whether we as writers consciously set out to say what our story is saying, or whether this deeper point evolved is immaterial at the editing stage. What matters now is, now we seem to have created or evolved a story with a powerful question to answer, can we search the text for contradictions and dilutants?
Imagine you start a story intending to show (or thinking you intend) that all politicians are corrupt. If you have one non-corrupt politician, then your story doesn't work. At least it doesn't now show what was your opening belief or attitude. Well, you say, one of my politicians married and the love of a good woman kept him decent. Great! So now your message is deeper and richer; all politicians are corrupt except those who are married to a good woman. With your crude and simplistic starting point, maybe there was little to show and do. But now, your idea (good woman) gives you so many plot strands. All unmarried politicians will be corrupt, one who is corrupt and marries a good woman learns to be decent, maybe one who is decent loses his wife and is then corrupt. And so on. But your theme is once again shot to pieces if a politician married to a good woman is corrupt. Either this element needs to be cut, or your theme is higher and more complex in order to include this new feature.
Now back to Pedro and the priest. The tone and manner and focus on Pedro "told" the reader that this was Pedro's story. Bringing in the problem of the priest with the immovable erection may seem funny but what is it doing in terms of the story's overall thrust (pardon the pun)?
The story can be about Pedro-ism, some life-thought revealed or considered through Pedro. The story might investigate the tragedies of the celibate life, or make some wry comment on male potency or some other aspect of sex, but if our story is undisciplined and the points it makes seem utterly unconnected then the ultimate feeling will be that the whole is a mess. We will feel unconvinced and unsatisfied.
Our main characters are the instruments carrying or developing our themes. They often require other characters as foils or antagonists but any other characters growing to star status should only do so if their character is to have a major effect on the story's ultimate meaning.
In film, secondary characters are often made vivid, but they are usually designed so they don't weaken the star role. In film the star is almost always the carrier of meaning. To prove this, try a simple exercise:
Your screenplay involves your protagonist being terribly humiliated in a bar. Six weeks later he returns to the bar. We know he is going to respond somehow to that humiliation. Now write out the scene.
When you wrote this scene, you must have had a character in mind, tall, short, fat, clever, dumb. The character may have been yourself or some alter-ego or it may have been a composite of various film-stars, perhaps you imagined a particular star.
Now, the director telephones you and says, we are going to use Arnold Schwarznegger for the role. If the film is meant to be a standard vehicle for Arnie, we have a pretty fair idea of the type of interaction that will take place in the bar. If the character had been John Wayne, we know the confrontation would have been good-guy American, probably a fist-fight and very honourable. Had the chosen star been Al Pacino, we would have a different plot, and if he was Danny de Vito, something yet more different. And Woody Allen?
What this shows us is two things. One that character, how you perceive him is an important factor in plotting. if you allow the character to breathe and behave naturally, he'll write your plot for you.
Second, the various stars, Wayne, Schwarznegger, Pacino, Allen deal with the world in different ways. How they deal with the world is the message which accumulates in the passage of the story. John Wayne almost always embodied mythical values set in the Wild West and that physical courage and decency were important to being a man and American. Woody Allen evokes another way of negotiating life, wit, and a certain self-reflecting little-guyness. A Woody Allen personality built like The Terminator is almost impossible to conceive.
James Frey in How to Write a Damn Good Novel made the point that how our characters resolved their problems was Theme. If John Wayne walks into that bar and fist-fights his tormentor the film is saying, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." Just like High Noon. Another character might go in to the bar with a blazing Uzi. What this "says" is very different. Woody might well go in with flowers and a clever remark. His actions say something different.
Commonly, student stories say contradictory things, not by design but by lack of control. If part of your story says it's cool to be a pugilist and half says poetry is the thing, what is the whole story saying? As Frey says, you can only ride one bike at a time. It may be that you are trying to say "whatever turns you on is cool, poetry or fighting". That's fine too, that is in fact what the story is doing -- that's your theme. But if this is the case, the text must show it. It must reconcile the two attitudes through some process. If it doesn't then it appears to be wandering, doing nothing, saying nothing, having no point. There is nothing worse than reading a story and at the end thinking, "Yeah? So what?" or "Huh?"
So when we have finished that draft and we are looking to trim fat, to sharpen dialogue, improve language, deepen characterisation, iron out the plot, we must always think of the story's overall direction, its momentum, what it is saying, what it means. If you are happy that the story has a residual meaning, now work through the text and examine every sentence. Does it reinforce the meaning or is it necessary to get to places where the meaning is reinforced. If not, why is this sentence here? Is it merely something you're in love with, a cute line, a snappy joke? Does it belong?
Remember that everything in an artistic experience is part of that experience, the point of view, language, tone, character and plot all interact for the total effect. When we are editing, we must remain aware at all times what the main intent of our story is.
We cull anything which isn't necessary, ensure the characters' actions mean the right thing, make certain that the language chosen gives the right semantic interpretation and also that musically and tonally the sounds of the piece fit the message.
In Razorbill, my fourth Caz Flood novel, set on a volcanic island, Lanzarote, there is a constant motif of jealousy. Crimes are motivated by jealousy, Caz herself is jealous, Caz's boyfriend is jealous. By the book's end, jealousy has hurt a lot of people, killed a few. Despite being "just" a mystery, the novel explores the effects of jealousy.
Knowing that my overall theme was "jealousy destroys", setting the story on a volcanic island was just a little extra, all that seething stuff just waiting to explode. And knowing that everything is either furthering the basic plot of the mystery or examining jealousy from all sides allows me to play little games, like here, where Caz and another girl are joke-jealous of one of the resort's stars.
They had more coffee at seven-fifteen, counted their fingers until they got to ten, had another coffee. At ten to eight they went out for the early-morning warm up exercises by the leisure pool. When they got there, a Greenie called Dorte was already setting up the equipment. She was so good-looking Caz wanted to spit; five-four max with great brown legs, blonde hair like only the Danes did it, and a smile that could have warmed the pool.
"She is a champion wind-surfer, a tri-athlete," Ina said, reeling out a CV she knew would hurt. "And she is also teaching rock and roll and playing in the Green Team Band."
"Does her breath smell?" Caz said hopefully.
"I’m going to kill her."
Ina glanced down at her non-existent chest, then at Dorte. "You must get in the queue, Caz."
They were both grinning when the music started.
This is just character, setting and background but nevertheless it contains a foreshadowing, a joke, but a joke saying people kill because they are jealous. When I edited Razorbill, I doubt I thought the above text was vital, but it did have a purpose and served more than one. Thus, it was allowed to stay. Had it ONLY been a joke, out with the knife.
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.