The Second Draft, by Molly Best Tinsley
In ancient times, when I was trying to leap the genre divide between short fiction and the novel, an editor turned down my first, full-length effort with this explanation: “You have a lot of activity in these pages, but I’m not discerning the action.” As a plot-challenged, right-brain lover of language and quirky characters, it’s taken me years to wrap my mind around the difference.
What my early novel lacked was structure, or meaningful action. Instead I’d offered what was basically chronology—activity. Activity, no matter how textured or ingenious, leaves the reader wondering where the story’s going and what she should be tracking. A strongly structured narrative, on the other hand, hooks the reader into a ride she can’t resist.
I know how that feels. I’ve stayed up too late plenty of nights lured on by just one more chapter. I really want to make that happen for an audience. I think that’s why I decided to collaborate on a spy thriller and then craft a sequel on my own. In that plot-based genre, authors are unabashed about deploying strategies that engage and manipulate their readers.
In the early drafts of a narrative, you are busy telling yourself the story. It’s probably best to banish a hypothetical audience from your mind as you free your imagination to discover the surprises lurking in its recesses. It’s fine to ramble into backstories and what if’s. You write through to the end because you need to find out where you wanted to go.
But once you’ve got a finished draft, it’s time to tackle revision from the other side, from the perspective of your reader—what does she need to keep going? Can you pretend you know nothing about the world you’ve created, open to page one, and answer the question: does this narrative do more than give a well-written account of interesting events? Are your textured description, snappy dialogue, and humorous moments serving a meaningful structure? These are the issues you tackle in what I’m calling “the second draft.”
I now assess and edit manuscripts for Fuze Publishing, the same way I work on my own. I break the text into three simple parts—beginning, middle, and end—in order to get at its structure.
The Beginning: Disrupting a pattern. For a story to have momentum, it must start with big bang, an attention-grabbing scene with the energy to propel the narrative forward.
Your entry point is not the time for a-day-in-the-life musings. When revising with an audience in mind, you need cut to the chase. Something must happen to destabilize your protagonist’s world. In a murder mystery, it’s the discovery of the dead body. In other narratives, it’s a “first”—a first meeting; an arrival.
A strong beginning challenges your off-balance protagonist to do something, anything, from simply struggling to regain equilibrium to saving the human race.
The Middle: maintaining momentum. Resistance is hot. When move hits counter move, energy levels rise. As your protagonist sets out to do something, let her encounter an obstacle course.
External challenges like illness, gender, or the Pacific Crest Trail, introduce resistance to your protagonist’s progress. Antagonists with ornery agendas add further dynamic, unpredictable obstacles.
But the most potent resistance to the protagonist’s endeavor should come from the inside–a personality trait, habit, or past wound that keeps interfering with progress. I call this the Fortunate Flaw because although it’s a weakness, this evidence of vulnerability elicits readers’ sympathy and forecasts the possibility of growth and change. It gives the protagonist’s story somewhere to go, the events acquire a rationale: the famous arc.
The Fortunate Flaw can be a simple idea: ambition, inability to trust, indecision, idealism. It becomes complex as it’s embodied by your particular protagonist.
If your narrative is heavy on plot, it probably plants many external, circumstantial obstacles in your protagonist’s path. To prevent her from seeming a pawn of events, it’s even more important to establish her internal life. You want the action to seem an extension of her character, the result of decisions she’s struggled with, a fate she is at least partly responsible for.
The End: from epiphany to showdown. At the high point of the protagonist’s arc, events cohere to produce an aha! moment, which inspires her to overcome that Fortunate Flaw. The revelation may enable her to solve a puzzle, make amends, and/or commit to a new plan. Strengthened by this internal change, she can go on to effect external change by confronting the antagonist in a showdown.
Initial disruption, continuous resistance led by the Fortunate Flaw, and transformative revelation make for meaningful action, which is what rivets readers to a good story. Does your narrative deliver? These components may be present but need to be pulled to the foreground. Can you turn up the volume on them to make their importance clear? Do they need to be decluttered of superfluous activity?
We all know that writing is really a process of rewriting, and that any given narrative can go through twenty drafts or more. But this process needs to include one final, crucial orientation. First we set down the material we actually wanted to write, capturing characters, setting, an action or conversation. This is the stuff that seems to flow as if inspired; for some writers it feels like “channeling.” Once we have a completed draft, we begin reworking it based on the needs of our imagined audience.
How can we deploy the elements of our story to pique curiosity, to keep our readers wondering what could possibly happen next?
Molly Best Tinsley taught on the civilian faculty at the United States Naval Academy for twenty years and is the institution’s first professor emerita. She is the author of My Life With Darwin and a story collection, Throwing Knives, as well as two spy thrillers, Satan’s Chamber (with Karetta Hubbard) and Broken Angels, and a memoir, Entering the Blue Stone. She also co-wrote the textbook, The Creative Process. Her fiction has earned two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sandstone Prize, and the Oregon Book Award. She lives in Ashland, Oregon, and her middle-grade fantasy novel, Behind the Waterfall, will be released in mid-November.
Molly is also the co-founder and editor of Fuze Publishing where she works with authors to sharpen and polish their manuscripts.