Taking the Stage: A Novel Approach to Editing Your Manuscript
Have you ever watched an actor prepare for a role? The meticulous detail, the character immersion, the rehearsal, feedback, and fine-tuning—it's a masterclass in creation and refinement. So, why can't writers adopt the same method?
In this blog post, we're going to explore an innovative approach to editing a novel, one that draws inspiration from the world of theatre. You might wonder how the process of preparing for a role could possibly relate to the task of refining a manuscript, but the parallels are surprisingly rich and insightful.
I'll guide you through seven comprehensive steps—from "Character Study" and "Rehearsal", all the way through to the final "Polishing the Performance". Each step borrows from an actor's approach to preparation, adapted to the needs of a writer polishing their novel. Whether you're a seasoned writer or a fresh-faced newcomer, these steps will help breathe new life into your editing process, ensuring your final manuscript is ready to take the stage and captivate its audience.
So, without further ado, let's raise the curtain on this actor's approach to novel editing!
Character Study: Like an actor diving into the psychology and backstory of their character, you should do the same for all of your major characters. Explore each character's motives, desires, and fears in-depth, even creating detailed character biographies if necessary. This understanding will allow you to ensure that every action and line of dialogue is consistent with their personality and past.
Scene Breakdown: Actors often break down their scripts into individual scenes to study them more closely. You can do the same by breaking your novel down into its component scenes or chapters. Evaluate the purpose of each scene and whether it moves the plot forward or develops the character. Cut or rewrite scenes that don't add value.
Rehearsal: Just as actors rehearse their lines to understand the flow and rhythm of the dialogue, you should read your novel aloud. This will help you catch any awkward phrasing, overused words, or clunky dialogue that you might have missed when reading silently.
Blocking: In theatre, blocking is the practice of planning out the physical movements of characters. For your novel, consider the physical space where your scenes take place. Are the settings clearly described? Are the movements of the characters logical and easy to follow? Enhance or revise the scenes as needed.
Improvisation: Actors often use improvisation to explore their characters and the scene more deeply. You can do the same by writing "improv scenes" that aren't intended for the final draft. This might help you discover new aspects about your characters or plot, and you might even come up with a new scene that makes the final cut.
Feedback: Actors don't work in isolation. They constantly receive feedback from the director and their fellow actors. You can benefit from a similar feedback loop. Have a trusted friend, writing partner, or professional editor read your novel and provide constructive criticism. Be open to their suggestions and willing to make changes based on their insights.
Polishing the Performance: Actors continually refine their performance until it's ready for an audience. Likewise, you should be prepared to revise your novel multiple times until it's the best it can be. Even when you think it's finished, let it sit for a while, then come back to it with fresh eyes and revise again.
In a Character Study, you're aiming to get into the mind of your character, much like an actor immerses themselves in the role they're preparing to play. This deep understanding will allow you to create a character that is consistent, believable, and engaging.
Backstory: Create a backstory for each major character. This doesn't need to be included explicitly in the novel, but it can help inform your understanding of the character. What was their childhood like? What kind of family do they come from? What major events shaped their life? What are their past traumas, victories, disappointments, and achievements?
Personality and Motivations: Understand each character's personality traits, beliefs, values, and motivations. What drives them to act the way they do? Are they acting out of love, fear, ambition, revenge, curiosity, or some other motive?
Goals: Clearly define what your character wants. This can be a tangible goal (like finding a hidden treasure) or an intangible one (like seeking approval or love). The character's goal can drive the narrative and cause conflict when it clashes with the goals of other characters.
Strengths and Weaknesses: Every character should have strengths and weaknesses. A character's strengths can help them overcome challenges, while their weaknesses can create hurdles and conflicts. How do these strengths and weaknesses affect their journey?
Growth and Change: How does the character evolve throughout the story? Good characters often experience some kind of growth or change over the course of a novel, and understanding this arc can help make the character more dynamic and interesting.
Character Relationships: How does your character interact with others? Understanding these relationships can shed light on the character's personality and motivations. For instance, a character might act differently around their boss than they do around their friends or family.
Visualise: Lastly, try to visualise your character. How do they look, speak, move, dress, etc.? This can help you write more vivid and engaging descriptions.
By conducting a thorough character study, you can create characters that feel real to the reader and drive your story forward in a believable way.
Scene breakdowns are critical for understanding the components of your story at a granular level. Each scene in your novel should serve a purpose, propelling the narrative forward, developing the characters, or ideally, doing both. Here's how to perform a thorough scene breakdown:
Scene Identification: Begin by identifying every individual scene in your novel. These may align with your chapters, or there may be several scenes within a chapter. Each scene typically involves a change in location, time, or focus on different characters.
Purpose Identification: Determine the purpose of each scene. Is it to advance the plot? Develop a character? Create tension? Foreshadow an event? Every scene should contribute meaningfully to your novel in some way.
Character Analysis: Examine the characters present in each scene and their roles within it. Are their actions and dialogue in line with their established character traits and motivations? Are they behaving in a way that's consistent with the personalities you've developed for them?
Plot Progression: Look at how each scene advances the plot. Does it lead logically into the next scene? Are there any jumps in time or logic that are confusing or need to be better explained? Are there any loose ends that need to be tied up?
Conflict and Resolution: Identify the conflicts and resolutions in each scene. Conflicts drive the story forward and keep readers engaged, and every conflict should eventually lead to some kind of resolution, even if that doesn't occur until later in the novel.
Emotional Dynamics: Consider the emotional dynamics of each scene. What emotions are the characters experiencing and how do these emotions affect their actions and the course of the scene? This can also help to assess pacing, and to ensure that there's an appropriate variety of emotional tones throughout your novel.
Imagery and Symbolism: Analyse the use of imagery and symbolism in each scene. How do these elements contribute to the overall mood, theme, and deeper meaning of the scene and the story as a whole?
Scene Revision: Based on your analysis, revise each scene as needed. This might involve cutting unnecessary scenes, adding new scenes, or reworking existing scenes to make them more effective.
A thorough scene breakdown can help you see your novel in a new light and identify any areas that need improvement. This step is crucial for making your story as strong and engaging as possible.
Much like actors rehearsing lines to understand the flow and rhythm of the dialogue, reading your work aloud is a powerful tool for novel editing. It can help you identify awkward phrasing, overused words, or clunky dialogue that might have been missed while reading silently. Here's how to get the most out of this step:
Read Aloud: Start by simply reading your work aloud. Pay attention to the rhythm and flow of the words. Does the dialogue sound natural? Does the prose have a pleasant rhythm, or do you find yourself stumbling over certain phrases?
Record and Playback: Consider recording yourself reading the novel. You can then play it back, effectively allowing you to become the 'listener.' This can provide a new perspective on how the words flow together and can also make any issues with dialogue or prose more apparent.
Identify Issues: Listen carefully for issues. These could be sentences that are too long or convoluted, dialogue that doesn't sound quite right, or overused words and phrases.
Test Different Voices: If your novel includes dialogue, try giving each character a distinct voice when you read their lines. This can help you determine if their dialogue fits their character. Would this character really say things in this way?
Check Pacing: Reading aloud can also help you assess the pacing of your story. Does the story flow at a good speed, or are there sections that drag or feel rushed?
Check for Consistency: As you read, check that character voices and narrative style are consistent throughout.
Revise: Use your findings from reading aloud to revise your work. Rewrite awkward sentences, replace overused words, and make other changes as necessary to improve the flow and readability of your novel.
Remember, this process is like an actor's rehearsal: it's not about getting it perfect the first time but about exploring, discovering, and refining. It's a powerful tool in your editing process, providing a different perspective on your work and enabling you to polish your prose to a shine.
Just as a director would map out an actor's physical movements on stage or screen (known as 'blocking'), a writer must also pay attention to the characters' physical actions within the narrative setting. Here's how to do it:
Setting Description: First, clearly visualise the settings in which your scenes take place. The setting includes the specific location, the time of day, the weather, and the objects present. Ensure these are clearly described so the reader can effectively imagine the scene.
Character Movements: Next, map out the physical movements of your characters within each scene. These can be major actions like running or fighting, or minor ones like making a cup of coffee or pacing the room. Ensure these actions are logical, clear, and contribute to the mood, character development, or plot progression.
Spatial Relationships: Consider the spatial relationships between characters. How close are they standing or sitting to each other? How does their physical proximity reflect their relationship or the current tension between them? How do they move around each other?
Use of Props: Consider how your characters interact with the objects around them. These 'props' can provide opportunities for action, reveal aspects of character, or even symbolise larger themes. For example, a character nervously fiddling with a wedding ring can indicate marital tension.
Sensory Details: Don't forget to incorporate the five senses in your description of characters' actions and the setting. What can the character see, hear, smell, taste, and touch? Sensory details can make the scene more vivid and immersive.
Consistency: Ensure there's consistency in the blocking. For instance, if a character is holding a drink in one hand, they can't open a door with that same hand unless they put the drink down.
Revise: Based on your blocking analysis, revise the scenes as needed. Add more detail to make the setting clearer, adjust character actions for greater impact or realism, or enhance sensory descriptions to create a more immersive experience.
Remember, effective blocking can add a great deal of depth and realism to your novel. It helps readers to visualise your scenes more clearly, understand your characters better, and become more engaged in your story.
Just like actors use improvisation to discover new aspects of their characters, writers can use it to explore uncharted territories in their story. Improvisation in writing involves letting your creativity flow freely without overthinking or worrying about the rules. Here's how you can incorporate it into your novel editing process:
Free Writing: Begin with a free writing exercise. Choose a character, a scene, or a plot point and start writing without any particular direction or plan in mind. This can lead to unexpected developments, new plot ideas, or a deeper understanding of your characters.
Alternate Scenarios: Try to imagine different outcomes or events for your characters. How would your protagonist react if they were thrown into an entirely different situation? How would the story change if the roles of two characters were reversed?
Character Interactions: Experiment with unlikely character interactions. How would a conversation between two characters who never meet in the actual story unfold? What if your protagonist had a confrontation with a minor character? These exercises can reveal new aspects of your characters' personalities.
Change Perspective: Write a scene from a different character's perspective or in a different narrative style. If your story is in third-person, try writing a scene in first-person, or vice versa. You might discover new insights about the scene or character this way.
Stretch Boundaries: Let yourself break the rules and stretch the boundaries of your story world. This could mean introducing a fantastical element into a realistic setting or changing the historical period of your story. Even if these improvisations don't make it into your final novel, they can spark creativity and lead to new ideas.
Extract the Best: After you've done some improvisational writing, review what you've created. Most of it might not fit into your novel, but look for any interesting ideas, vivid descriptions, or insightful character moments that could be incorporated into the final draft.
Revise: Based on your improvisation, revise your novel as needed. You might change a character's reaction to an event, add a new plot twist, or tweak a scene for greater emotional impact.
Improvisation can be a fun and rewarding part of the editing process, offering fresh perspectives and unexpected insights. By pushing your creative boundaries, you might discover new directions for your story or deeper layers to your characters.
Actors rarely work in isolation; they often rely on feedback from the director, their fellow actors, and even the audience during previews. As a writer, you too can benefit from constructive criticism. Here's how to incorporate feedback into your editing process:
Find Trusted Reviewers: Seek out trusted individuals who can provide a helpful critique of your work. This might be a writing group, a fellow writer, a mentor, or a professional editor. Alternatively, consider hiring a professional manuscript consultant or joining a writing workshop.
Share Your Work: Once you've identified your reviewers, share your work with them. This might be the whole novel, or you might choose to share one chapter at a time, depending on what you're most comfortable with and what you think will be most beneficial.
Guide the Feedback: Give your reviewers some guidance about the type of feedback you're looking for. Do you want general impressions, or are you looking for detailed line edits? Are you unsure about a particular plot point, character, or scene?
Receiving Critique: When you receive the feedback, approach it with an open mind. Remember, constructive criticism is not personal; it's about the work, not you. Resist the urge to defend your work and listen to what the reviewers have to say.
Evaluate the Feedback: Consider all feedback, but remember you're the author, so you have the final say. If a piece of feedback resonates with you or if multiple people point out the same issue, it's probably worth paying attention to.
Implement Changes: Decide how you want to implement the feedback. This might involve major rewrites, minor tweaks, or sometimes, defending a choice you feel strongly about. Remember, feedback is most useful when it's used to strengthen your own vision, not when it leads to compromising that vision.
Thank Your Reviewers: Don’t forget to thank your reviewers for their time and insights. A little gratitude goes a long way, especially if you hope to solicit their feedback again in the future.
Getting feedback can sometimes be tough, but it's an invaluable part of the editing process. It provides fresh perspectives on your work, highlights any blind spots you may have, and ultimately helps you create the best possible version of your novel.
Polishing the Performance
Just as a theatre production has a dress rehearsal to perform the play exactly how it will be presented to the audience, you can do a similar final read-through of your novel to make sure it's ready for publication. Here's how to do it:
Prepare: Once you've incorporated the feedback from your reviewers and made your final edits, prepare for your dress rehearsal. This involves setting aside a dedicated period of uninterrupted time.
Read Without Interrupting: Read through your entire novel without making any changes. This is to get a sense of the overall flow, pace, and cohesiveness of the narrative. Note down any issues or parts you're not happy with, but don't stop to fix them yet.
Check for Consistency: Pay close attention to the consistency in the story. This includes character behaviours, plot development, timeline, and thematic elements. Make sure all the threads of your story tie together neatly.
Assess the Pacing: Pay attention to the pacing of the story. Are there areas where the action drags, or conversely, where it feels rushed? The pace should match the narrative's needs, heightening tension where necessary and slowing down during emotional or introspective moments.
Look for Typographical Errors: Keep an eye out for any typographical or grammatical errors that may have been overlooked. This includes spelling mistakes, incorrect punctuation, or awkward phrasing.
Consider the Emotional Journey: Reflect on the emotional journey of your novel. Does it make you feel the way you intended? If it's a thriller, does it keep you on the edge of your seat? If it's a romance, does it tug at your heartstrings?
Revision: Once you've finished your dress rehearsal read-through, go back to the issues you've noted and revise them. This may involve minor tweaks or substantial edits, depending on what you've uncovered.
Final Touches: Once you're completely satisfied with your manuscript, make any final formatting adjustments, write or revise your front and back matter (title page, acknowledgments, author bio, etc.), and prepare your manuscript for submission or self-publishing.
Remember, the Dress Rehearsal is your final chance to smooth out any remaining rough edges and ensure your novel is the best it can be before it meets its readers.
As we close the final act of this post, remember that the journey of a writer, like that of an actor, is one of continuous growth and learning. Just as actors continually refine their craft, so too should we, as writers, strive to improve our work with every draft.
The unique approach we've explored today, drawing parallels between an actor's preparation for a role and the editing process of a novel, offers a fresh perspective. It encourages exploration, attention to detail, creativity, and critical feedback - all while keeping the heart and soul of your narrative intact.
It's crucial to remember that the process might be challenging at times, and the transformation of your manuscript might not happen overnight. However, much like an actor tirelessly rehearsing for a play, the final result—the standing ovation, or in your case, a polished and compelling manuscript—will make it all worthwhile.
So, get out there and breathe life into your characters, weave your plot intricacies, paint vivid worlds, and most importantly, tell your story the best way you can. The stage is yours!
Remember, "All the world's a stage," and in the realm of writing, every word counts, every character matters, and every story has the potential to captivate its audience. Happy editing!