What a developmental editor is looking at:
If you can describe what happens in your story in just one sentence then it has a plot. Hopefully there will be more to your story than just this one line – that’s where all the subplots come in – but there should at least be this one overriding plot event. It doesn’t necessarily need to be explosive, but it does need to be there.
Losing the plot is one of a writer’s biggest issues. It can have you tearing your hair out, convinced you’ve written rubbish and wanting to throw an early Bonfire Night. But often these issues can be fixed, just as long as you know what they are.
One of the reasons authors may veer off-topic is because they haven’t planned their narrative in depth and are writing on a hunch. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you not to do this: many writers prefer to write this way. But it can mean that occasionally you write yourself into a box, up against a brick wall or even into a holy quagmire of a mess.
In other words, you’ll be making more work for yourself come editing time. That’s fine if you’re happy with that – sometimes the best stuff comes when we free write - but to avoid total chaos, you might want to think about having some sort of loose plan as to what’s going to happen in your book and when, so that you’ll be able to at least stay on track a little. Consider having a few landmark points along the way you need to head towards.
Another cause of wayward plots is when a writer feels they need to ‘pad out’ their story. But there’s absolutely no point whatsoever in describing the entire contents of John’s refrigerator just to pass some time or show your readers how inventive your descriptive writing is. If it adds something to your story or tells us something about John we need to know, then fine. Otherwise ask yourself ‘is this really relevant or am I just filling space?’.
Your reader won’t thank you for these extra anecdotes and ramblings, they’ll just be left bewildered as to their relevance.
I’m not suggesting every point you make must move the plot along, but it must at least have a bearing on it no matter how slim. For example, if one night Tom decides to tell Becky about a film he saw when he was twelve that has haunted him ever since, and proceeds to describe it in great detail from beginning to end, then we might assume this tells us something about Tom that we need to know (e.g. what his fears are, what sort of emotional attachments he builds).
Editors often talk about a tight plot and this is what you’re aiming for. It means everything that happens in your book happens for a reason and helps to drive your characters and story forward to the conclusion. If your narrative doesn’t reach novel-length expectations without some extra padding, then presumably your plot or subplots need reassessing.
So you’ve heard the term dramatic arc before and I’m sure you know it relates to the rise and fall of events within your story’s plot. Depending on your genre, the drama in your plot will rise, peak and fall at generally recognised points.
For a romance, the drama is likely to start low-key, rising steadily throughout (as a relationship develops, for example), perhaps with one or two peaks and troughs along the way (it’s not all smiles in the garden of love), followed by the highest dramatic peak towards the end (will they, won’t they?), just before a fall again towards a low-key satisfied ending (happily ever... etc, etc).
A thriller, on the other hand, may begin at a peak (with a murder, for example), before rising and lowering periodically (finding new clues; theories scuppered), until the final conclusion (you’re nicked, son!). Generally speaking, most books will conclude with the bottom end of the arc to avoid leaving the reader high and dry, so to speak.
Dramatic arc can flounder in two ways:
The key here is to use your genre as your guide. Again, you might decide to flout genre rules at some point, but not until you’re absolutely certain you know the risk is worth it and will pay off.
If you’re not sure about how to use dramatic arc or pace in your own genre, then read other books in the same genre and take cues from those: this is the quickest way to learn, and you can compare their arcs to yours.
And this is why I’d suggest learning the rules before you flout them. If you lead your readers up the garden path, they won’t thank you for it. For example, if you’ve written a mystery, your reader will expect to be drip-fed clues that are not too easy to solve but also which avoid a ridiculous and impossible conclusion.
Twists they’ll love, get-out clauses they’ll detest. So no ending with ‘it was all a dream’ or ‘and then he woke from his coma to find it hadn’t happened’ or ‘they kissed and made up because it wasn’t worth arguing any more’. Keep it real. Even if it’s an alien planet, keep it real.
In part 4 of the series, we’ll turn our attention to issues of character, setting and timeline during the developmental edit.