The revision stage part one: exposition, climax, denouement
Ten isn’t a number I use often in my blog posts, but the revision stage is a long one, especially if you want to do it right. What’s the right way, you might ask? Well, the answer isn’t specific. Really, the right way is you putting effort into it. If you can’t quite reach that novel-length word count or had a word count goal and you didn’t make it, check out this article for tips on increasing word count. If you wrote way too much, and hopefully you’ll know whether you did, either consider breaking your novel into two parts or read this article for tips on decreasing your word count.
Many of you might not be there yet, but those are more specific revision tips that will help you if you know what you need to do. If you don’t, or if you just want to get started revising, here are some things to look for.
Keep in mind that not every author looks at their novel in this much detail. This isn’t a to-do list for all authors so I have to do less as an editor. And, for the record, even if you did every one of these things, you’d still miss a lot. I do in my own writing. I revised my second novel seven times and still missed things. You can’t see things in your own work. Not everything, anyway. So, this five-part revision series is to prepare you a bit and give you an idea of how to revise. It’s to give you the proper tools for a good, thorough revision. You can search YouTube for a video on how to build a house, but even after you build the thing, you need professionals to make sure it’s properly built and meets all requirements. I say this because I know a few of you who will wonder why on Earth I’m writing this thing. Tools, man. Tools.
Exposition (and rising action)
How do you open your story?
This is the beginning of your story. In a movie, it’s that overview of the world we’re going into with the panning cameras and aerial views. In a book, it’s where you root your story. Depending on the perspective you’re writing in, an overview of your scene may or may not be the way to go. I personally try to avoid it in my own writing because people aren’t reading for poetic prose. They want a story, not a painting.
Now, when you start your revisions, this is where you might want to begin, but don’t take my word for it. Read through all ten and decide for yourself. Revisions can start anywhere, really.
What do you do with your first page?
But, the beginning tells the reader whether or not they want to keep reading. If you can read the first couple paragraphs without saying, “Well, if the reader just reads to . . .” you might have something going for you. I don’t care if the reader only needs to read to the second page. I’ve already put that book down. Your job is to get the reader to want to go to the second page. So, if you have a main character, which you should, use them. Get your reader invested.
If the scene is your attention grabber, use it. Backstories, dreams, flashbacks, dialogue, and morning routines are not opening scenes you want to look into. They’re not as grabbing as you think. You’re starting the story, so let your story begin. All those things put the story on hold because nothing is presently happening (except the morning routine and dialogue). With the latter two, you’re either setting yourself up for a dull scene (unless the morning routine happens to be something not routine for our species) or you’re throwing your reader into a dark room with voices. Readers can’t feel anything for characters they don’t know, so opening with something like “She’s dead, mom,” does nothing for the reader. The impact that could have been in that line isn’t because your reader doesn’t empathize with anyone.
Can it begin later than it does now?
So, look at your beginning. Look at the structure. A lot of writers, especially those who don’t use outlines, need to rewrite the beginning of their story because the idea grew as they continued the story. That’s okay. Compare your beginning to the rest of the story, and analyze where your story might best begin. Does the story start here, or does the story truly begin in the next paragraph? The next chapter? You don’t need as much back story as you think, especially in the beginning of the story. Avoid infodumps, and stay away from opening your story with something that is insignificant to the story as a whole.
What is your climax?
This is the peak. Everything after this point in your story is downhill. In other words, things are ending. For the last Hunger Games book, it was likely when Katniss killed President Coin. In Of Mice and Men, it was when George shot Lenny. In Romeo and Juliet, it was after the final death. The climax is not the middle of the book, usually. The reason for that is because all that kept the reader interested is over once you reach the climax, and everything after that is part of the next topic, the denouement, so things are being resolved.
How far along is your climax?
Make sure your most exciting point isn’t in the middle of your book. If it is, you might have too much happening after that. Might. If you have another conflict going on, you might not have found your climax. Just take a look. Keep this in mind because it’s easy to wonder where you should end a story and discover later that you wrote too much, but you don’t know where to cut. We’ll get to that later, though.
How much impact does your climax make?
My point here is to make sure your climax meets the expectations or exceeds what you have set for it. If you write about someone who has to choose between killing himself and killing his wife throughout the book, and in the end, he shoots himself, keep in mind this is expected. Actually, depending on how you set up the story, whatever the ending is might be expected. Don’t take your ability to be suspenseful for granted. You might be excellent at it, but you need to make sure when you reach this point, you’re not jumping through it like a quick hoop so it’s immediate and a shock and bam. What just happened?
If a reader expects something to happen, and the climax is quick, it might feel unearned. If you drag it out too long, it’s dull. Find your happy medium. Only you can do that. I haven’t read your book. For all I know, quick might be the way to go. But, make sure it’s earned. If the guy in my example just says, “Okay, here goes,” and shoots himself and the wife finds him later, I might be a bit disappointed. I didn’t need closure, but I need a bit of doubt. Give your reader conflict before the climax. Give them a reason to either doubt the possibility of that final action or to at least linger within the action itself long enough to process that it happened. This is a topic I can’t explain as well as I’d like to, so feel free to ask questions.
Does your climax mirror the rest of the story’s expectations?
Sometimes, your storyline changes a bit and you end up with a bigger problem, or a smaller problem becomes more interesting. If this is you, you’ll likely discover this in the climax. Was the rest of your story leading up to this point? Were your readers waiting for this moment? If not, you have some work to do before the climax happens at all. This is the moment of truth, revelation, ultimate action, death, salvation, or whatever else it might be the moment for. Make it great. Make it loud and glorious and even if it’s not full of action and showered with excitement, make it meaningful. Make it true. To do this, you must make it mean something to the reader. To do that, you must make it mean something to your main character and to the story as a whole.
Denouement (and falling action)
How does your story end?
The ending. Fin. Blah. What a feeling when you type the final words in your story, right? Well, now you’re going to edit those gems. Endings are the hardest—at least for me—to write. There are so many directions to take with an ending that it’s difficult to sum it up. You might have a cliffhanger or might offer closure or a question . . . You have options.
Before the ending . . .
The basic idea that you’ll want to keep in mind when writing the events after your climax is that all unanswered questions need to be answered unless you intend to keep some that way. Make sure your reader receives all the information they need before they close the book, and don’t introduce new questions unless it leads to Book 2. The denouement can be a chapter, five chapters, a page, or any number of options. Again, it depends on the climax. But, use this part of your story to finish things, not rebuild or build up unless, again, it brings the reader into the next story.
That last scene doesn’t have to be an inspirational quote or a “clever” cliche (MC smiles slyly before turning around a corner or something subtle but not subtle like that). It doesn’t even have to be an epic scene. It just needs to end. Especially if this is the absolute ending unless you’re being a bit conceptual or thematic, keep your ending from dragging on because you don’t know where to end. Read a few final pages in books your familiar with. Those will be good examples for you. Again, this is hard to explain for me because there are so many exceptions and so many options, but you can always ask questions. I’m better with specific questions.
I discuss main characters. When revising your story, your characters and your plot are what drive the story. Without them, you don’t have a story. Characters are lives you create for others to live. You need them to be believable. I’ve written an article about creating believable characters, but in part two, I’ll discuss what you can look for to determine what can be improved. Who knows? You might already have amazing characters.
Have you read the other parts of the revision series?
Write for yourself, but edit for your reader.