COMMUNITY LEARNING HUB: ONLINE MODULES

4.2 STRUCTURAL EDITING (1)

In this section you will learn:

  • Your character journeys. 
  • Heroes and Villains. 
  • Asking the right questions and keeping focus.
  • Common character based structural edits to bear in mind.

Quick recap: In the last session, we looked at the importance of giving your manuscript – and you – a break, before reading it like a reader and creating a report of your findings. We then looked at establishing your aims for the novel by writing some helpful copy and a synopsis.

So, you’re now armed with the tools you need to start thinking about your edit – but where to begin? The temptation is to jump right in at the beginning – but DON’T. Step away from the manuscript!

As an editor, I never actually work on the writing at the structural edit stage – it’s not worth it. The writing is imperfect, of course it is, but who cares? We can deal with that later. For now, I have bigger things on my mind! Instead, I write a plan of action for the writer in the form of an editorial note – a kind of ‘to do’ list – and that’s exactly what I want you to do for yourself throughout this process. I can’t really help you edit your novel, as every manuscript is unique, but I can get you thinking about it in the right ways. Your novel is a puzzle – you don’t start it by immediately trying to assemble the first pieces you see. You have to organise all the pieces first. 

In this and the next session, I’m going to run through a few of the considerations I bear in mind, in some form or other, in every structural edit, and which I think you will be able to apply to your book, too. I’m going to focus on character journeys in this part before moving on to plotting in the next part. So, here we go… 

EXERCISE 1: HEROES AND VILLAINS

Your hero and your villain are the lynchpin of your novel’s structure. The hero or heroes are the ones we, the readers, will identify with and grow to love. Their hopes, fears, joys and sorrows will be ours too – and it’s their journey that will pull us along. But your villain is perhaps even more important, as they provide the tension, obstacles and – really – the reason for the story. There’s no story if there is nothing for your hero to overcome.  

So, as your first task, I’d like you to ask yourself, and answer in the simplest possible terms, the following questions: 

What does your hero want?

Why do they want it?

What does your villain want?

Why do they want it?

These questions are simple, but they are questions that underpin every novel. If you can keep them in mind as you edit, you’ll make sure the plot stays on course – you’ll keep the story and its characters focussed as they embark on their journeys. And – trust me – it’s deceptively hard. They are questions I had to return to again and again as I worked on my own book. The temptation is always to stray off into new, interesting directions – these questions will help pull you back to what’s important.

So, once you’ve answered them, I’d like you to display them somewhere prominently around where you write – or, if you don’t have a permanent writing desk, stick them on the front of your notebook, or somewhere on your computer. You’ll be returning to them again and again as you work through your book.

EXERCISE 2: CHARACTER JOURNEYS

And now, I’d like to focus in on the journeys of your characters. In this exercise, I am a journalist interviewing your characters at the very beginning of your book, perhaps the day before the story begins. You are playing your character – first your hero(es), then your villain(s) – as you answer…

What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

What are you carrying on your person right now?

What did you do yesterday?

Who or what do you love the most?

Who or what do you hate the most?

What would be your perfect day?

Then, I would like you to answer the same questions again, in the voices of your character, except setting the interview at the end of your story. 

This exercise helps you develop the voices and characteristics of your characters – but it also helps hone in on how far they develop in the story, and in what ways. Thinking about this, how would you describe the arc of each character? Is there enough of one, especially in relation to their aims, as per the first exercise? It’s worth spending some time thinking about these journeys and how they could be made more dramatic, or tightened up, before you begin editing.

COMMON EDITS TO CHARACTERS

Here are a few additional questions to ask yourself in relation to characters and their journeys, based on very common edits I make on my own work and others’. The list is by no means exhaustive, but gives you a few ideas of things to look out for. 

  • Are all the characters pulling their weight? Look back on your reader’s report – did you pick up on any peripheral characters that felt redundant, or perhaps simply sections where there was a lot of dialogue, but not much happened? Can any characters be chopped out, or perhaps combined?
  • Have you adequately developed and explained the motives of your characters – WHY do they want what they want? Have you shown this to the reader rather than simply telling?
  • Do your hero and villain feel original enough? After completing the exercises above, you should have a good idea of what your hero and villain sound like. Are they distinctive enough or, when you wrote the book, were you subconsciously drawing on tropes? Remember, the best villains are complex – and often they have understandable, if twisted, motives. It’s very easy to write a cardboard villain, very difficult to write a believable one… 
  • Are there too many character quests or subplots? Are there enough? It’s a tricky balance – but again, this is something to think about with relation to your experience of reading as a reader. Did the plot feel ‘heavy’, overly complicated? Or did it feel a little flimsy? The idea is to have an overarching quest for your character – again, referring to what they want the most – with a few, related, sub quests to keep the story fresh and intriguing… 

So, you’ve answered a lot of questions and done a lot of thinking – to finish off this session, it’s time to start that editorial ‘to do’ list! Using what you’ve learned about your book, stick to actionable points on your list, rather than a simple list of impressions. So, for instance:

  • Strengthen x’s motives in chapter 5. He loses his focus and is distracted by x. Could this chapter be cut? 
  • Combine x and x, peripheral characters.
  • Add prologue in which x happens, to help explain x’s motives. 

Don’t feel you have to stick to all these edits, when the time comes – but it’s helpful to start the list now, while this session is fresh in your mind.

Kesia Lupo studied History at Oxford University and Creative Writing at Bath Spa. She lives in Bristol with her husband and works as a children’s book editor, writing in the mornings before work.

She is a Senior Editor at Chicken House publishers.