Focusing your fiction

I recently read a friend’s manuscript and realized that she had good scenes and themes, but somehow I was still left feeling like the manuscript wasn’t very focused. That might’ve just been me, but it’s something I want to think about as I work on my current manuscript, where the “BIG” theme is something the narrator isn’t aware of consciously until the end, and a smaller theme is something she does notice and talk about.

Here are a couple things you can do to hone a book’s focus (shared with my friend’s permission, but all details changed to protect her):

  • A scene chart, with special focus on scene goals. This makes sure that each scene drives the story forward. I always do this: make a spreadsheet of all the scenes in my book, whose POV they’re in, what information is conveyed, but most importantly what the POV character’s goal is going into the scene. Most of the time, the character will pretty much state the goal outright at the beginning of the scene.
  • Tension check! This is something I have to do with every book, and I usually do it as part of the scene chart. One of the columns is dedicated to writing out the source of the tension in that scene. If I don’t know, I look for an antagonist or a disaster. Typically most scenes end in disaster, at least from the perspective of the POV character who came into the scene with a stated goal. Then, when I go through and edit the scene based on that, I make sure that tension is there in every page.
  • Stakes check! Again, this can be done in the scene chart, or on a higher level, like chapter or section. Ask what is at stake–what happens if the character doesn’t achieve his or her goal? What are the consequences? Do they know that? Can we be reminded of that? (This can also be a subtype of the tension check.)
  • Think long and hard about the theme (Note that this is post-first draft work most of the time!). I feel like there are two competing themes in the book: one of ignorance being bliss, and one of loving someone being a strength rather than a weakness. This makes it feel like we’re telling almost two different stories. Can you make the themes relate to one another? Make one subordinate to the other? Rephrase/rethink/reframe/re-present one so that they are corollaries? Or maybe pick one and focus on it, and make sure the other stays a subplot?
  • Once you’ve pinned down the theme, look at each scene and each character and each character’s journey. How do they support the theme? (If you’re having trouble with the last point, maybe do this first, writing out what each character’s journey and purpose in the story are currently, and looking at trends before you decide which theme to go with or how to correlate them.) How does that character/scene/journey express or support the theme?Does it serve as a counterexample, and if so, is it presented in a negative light or with negative conclusions? (This is sort of inspired by Holly Lisle’s one-pass revision technique.)
  • Look at the language itself. Is the language specific, concrete and vivid? Can we really see a vivid picture of people (visual and characterization) and settings and emotions and experiences?

What do you think? How else can you help to focus an unfocused theme or story?

Photo by Riccardo Bandiera

One thought on “Focusing your fiction”

  1. So much interesting stuff here, Jordan. I understand what you’re talking about with the focus thing. I thought the first two books in the Hunger Games series were very focused. The last book felt like it was all over the place.

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