Editing Tip Tuesday

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Layer it on.

Plot layers. One of my favorite books on the craft of writing is Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass. It’s a wonderful tool to use after you’ve completed your first draft.

One thing Mr. Maass states is there are never too many plot layers.  Plot layers are story lines that happen to the main characters. Subplots are story lines that happen to other characters.

In the book, One Plus One by Jojo Moyes, the main character Jess is a single mom working two jobs and can’t make ends meet. She’s a special single mom because one of her two kids is her ex-husband’s son from another relationship. Her ex took off two years earlier claiming he couldn’t deal with life and needed time to get his act together. Her daughter has a chance to attend a private school for gifted math students except Jess doesn’t have the money to send her, but if she can get Tanzie to the Math Olympiad on time her daughter might win a scholarship. But Jess has another problem. She doesn’t have a proper car or a license. She’s forced to take her ex’s beat up Rolls from the garage where it has sat untouched for two years. When she gets pulled over by the police, the car gets towed and her and her family are stranded on the side of the road when our hero steps in and offers them a ride. It’s going to take four days to get to the Olympiad and along the way Jess develops feelings for our hero. Those feelings prove to be a problem.

How many plot layers does Jess have? By my count. 7.  Moyes does a wonderful job of weaving Jess’ plot layers around the subplots of the other characters and through out the book the reader is turning the page wondering how Jess is going to handle the next crisis thrown at her. Because every character in this story is flawed and real and Jess cares deeply about her children’s happiness she’ll do whatever it takes to make them so.

When you’ve finished with your first draft ask yourself how many layers does your main character have? Can you add more? I bet you can. How do those plot layers work with the subplot of the other characters? Does everything have a purpose?

Any questions?


5 thoughts on “Editing Tip Tuesday

  1. So glad to know about the Donald Maass book, Stacey, which I’d never before heard of. I’m a “planner” (or “plotter”) myself, meaning I take great pains at the outlining stage to figure out all of the transformational arcs and subplots so I can weave as much of that into my first draft as effectively as possible. I recently finished a first-draft novel; I may very well pick up a copy of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook before I start revising.

    I’m in the middle of reading Stephen King’s masterful 11/22/63, which is a great example of a story in which the protagonist is dealing with a series of layered conflicts all stemming from the main plot goal: preventing the Kennedy assassination. King stacks the story with so many questions in need of answering, he somehow manages to justify the book’s 900-page length!

    1. Sean, you’re going to love the workbook. I’ve used it on all my three of my published books and I’ll be referring to it when I’m done with the first draft of my current WIP. As for 11/22/63, one of my absolute favorite books! I just recently reread it. King is the master. The best part about that book, in my opinion, is the small town in Texas and all the people in it. No one does character voice better than Mr. King. When he writes a 900 page book, I never worry. Can’t say the same for all authors.

      Like you, I’m a planner. I can’t write without knowing where I’m going because when I do I get lost or end up in a big circle with a gigantic hole to fill. But that’s me.

      1. Stacey,

        I was out running errands this morning, popped into the local bookstore on Ventura Boulevard, and there was a single copy of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook on the shelf, so I picked it up! Excited to read it before I plunge headlong into Draft 2.

        King’s dialogue is terrific: Every character is so specific. And he did a great job, after a career spent writing about small-town New Englanders, capturing the particular cadence of small-town Texans! I love 11/22/63 thus far and can’t wait to see where it goes; I keep imagining what I would do in that situation (it helps that the protagonist was born the same year I was), and if that isn’t the sign of an engrossing story, I don’t know what is!

        Far from feeling creatively stifled by my meticulous outlines, they liberate me: If I know where the plot is going, and I’ve already determined the purpose of and value change in every chapter, it frees me up to find unexpected little moments in the scenes, be them emotional or philosophical or what have you. Having a road map is what allows me to take surprising detours and make unexpected stops along the way with confidence.


  2. Sean, let me start with your reference to value change. Have you attended Mr. McKee’s Story seminar or read his book? I’ve done both. It was fantastic.

    Second, that workbook was meant to be for you! You’re going to enjoy it. Let me know what you think, though after you’ve been through it.

    I also think having an outline helps me get to know my characters in the first draft as I’m making my way through. The map gives me direction and I can let them start to say and do things on their own which will surprisingly connect to other things along the way.

    1. I’ve never attended the McKee workshop, but I have a dog-eared hardcover copy of Story on my reference shelf, and I find the chapters on scene analysis and value change in particular to be indispensably insightful. (Blake Snyder also covers the importance of value change in Save the Cat!) The notion of value changes, which I learned from McKee, was enlightening: If a given scene/sequence/chapter doesn’t end on the opposite charge (either positive or negative) from the one it started on, what’s the point of it? It’s such a helpful tool to get your scenes focused.

      I have a customized writing methodology that I adapted from three main sources (which I wrote about in my first blog post): I use Christopher Vogler for mythic structure, Blake Snyder for genre conventions, and David Freeman for characterization. McKee’s stuff is invaluable, too, but I think it can be a little overwhelming to a novice; better to master the rudimentals first, then move on to McKee. I started my career as a screenwriter, and screenwriting is all about structure — that gets drilled into your head from Day One! — so I take great pains at the beginning of a project to thoroughly “break the back of the story,” as they say. I find having a good command of structure has only helped me as I’ve moved into novels, since a beast like that can get away from you easily if you don’t have an A-to-Z grasp on the narrative. I’m revising my first novel now, but I’ve already got the next one (narratively unrelated to Escape from Rikers Island) broken down in a 45-page story document. I can’t wait to get to it!

      Thanks so much again, Stacey, for pointing me in the direction of Donald Maass!

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