Revision Strategies with Maren Anderson
I just wrote “The End” on the first draft of a manuscript I’ve been picking at for months. My normal M.O. is to write a very fast, very bad first draft. But my revision strategies have been changing lately. You see, this book was slow, slow, slow in coming. It was also very squirrely. Every time I wrote an outline for the book, the characters turned left, not right, and my outline went out the window.
Some writers might be discouraged by this tangled mess of a draft, but not me. While I firmly believe that you will never be a published author if you don’t have a completed first draft, I also know that you better not submit that tangled web of a draft.
Revision (literally “seeing again”) is what makes that lumpy blob of clay into something beautiful. One thing to make a beautiful story is to have it mimic life a little by withholding some information.
Remember the old “show, don’t tell,” mantra? That’s the difference between “She was sad” (telling) and “She sobbed in the corner, tearing her hair out by the handful” (showing).
Another way that writers tend to “tell” too much is when they are introducing characters. Most of us want to tell our audience everything about new characters as soon as they walk into a room because we love the characters, and we need the audience to love them, too.
So, what’s the problem? Why shouldn’t we get our reader up to speed on a character as soon as possible?
Pleasure of Discovery
It’s because part of the pleasure of reading is the act of discovery. The pleasure of meeting new people is figuring out who they are. Real people aren’t going to hand you a typed paragraph explaining what they would do in a given situation. Everything if they did, it would probably be wrong (and creepy). Characters shouldn’t be introduced by paragraph, either, and for the same reason.
Character descriptions are inherently less interesting than the character’s actions or dialogue. These things can actually demonstrate qualities that would otherwise just be packed into a paragraph of prose like so many sardines. Let the characters flop like fish on a deck. THEN I’ll know who they actually are.
Also, if you give a reader a character introduction, the reader will then expect that character to behave according to that definition for the rest of the story. The reader will feel cheated or betrayed if the characters changes (which characters should do, right?), and may think something like, “No, wait. It said that she NEVER liked sardines! Why does she like them now?”
In this scenario, the curtain has been drawn back and you, like that big faker Oz, have been exposed. Good writing doesn’t call attention to itself (which is WHY you are supposed to kill your darlings, and why we need these revision strategies). Making your readers notice a character’s arc because it is different from her introduction is a way to call attention to the writing.
How to Introduce a Character
So, how does a good writer introduce a character without committing any of the above sins? Here are some r:
- Define the new character through the observations of another character.
Trudy hated to admit it, but Calvin was charming, witty, and slippery as an eel worming his way through an oil spill. She was glad she wasn’t the one signing the apartment lease, but she worried that she might have to call Calvin to fix something in the future. She didn’t like the idea at all.
- Use the character’s dialogue or actions explain it all.
Benny walked past the ashtray and flicked his cigarette butt onto the hotel lobby carpet, then walked away as it smoldered. He glared at the broken elevator as if it had timed its malfunction to his visit. Then he began hefting himself up the carpeted stairs, muttering “Mother*****r” every third step.
- Use the characters POV to describe something else.
Ginny had never been in a cathedral before, so she stood in the middle of the nave, head tilted so far back her mouth hung open, like she was drinking from the streams of colored light pouring from the windows. There was nothing like this in Eastern Oregon. She dropped her backpack onto the floor and was instantly embarrassed by the clatter, so she plopped into the nearest pew and pretended to pray.
Notice, I didn’t give physical descriptions in the above examples, but I bet you have a picture in your head for each of them. I would further wager that your pictures are pretty close to what I have in my head.
Don’t Give Up All the Goodies
Just remember: when you introduce a character, you don’t have to give up all the goodies at once. The reader just needs to know enough about him or her to get them started.
Now that you know where you’re going, let’s use those revision strategies and take a few steps with a writing prompt.
Your prompt: Find a spot in your writing where a new character is introduced via a chunk of descriptive prose. Re-write the prose using one of the three revision strategies above.
Good luck, and happy writing!