Stepping Back

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

Before going on, take a look at the photos here. Study the images. Why are they arranged the way they are arranged? Why are some twisted? Can you see any pattern to them?

Sometimes during the writing process, the details can take over. Perhaps our characters have been studied in infinite detail. We know what our heroine eats for breakfast on Sundays, what our hero is secretly wearing underneath that jacket. Or perhaps we’ve crafted the rules and history of our little world into a document larger than the story itself.

Even if we haven’t spent time pre-thinking details, we think a lot about them during the writing. Is that exactly the right word? Do I have too many adverbs in that scene? Does this scene further my character’s development? How can I imply that the antagonist had a horrible childhood without resorting to “As you know, Bob, I had a horrible childhood” dialogue? As we write and rewrite, every scene, every word is carefully considered until each scene accomplishes the purpose we’ve assigned to it.

So. Now it’s time to step back and see what you have.

Background Image: Murray Thompson/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Remember the collection of photos you looked at? Just like a writer stringing together the scenes of a story, the collage maker selected each photo and placed it where he did for specific reasons. But there’s more to the picture than the individual photos. Step back and take a look at the same collage from a distance here.

Each photo is part of a larger whole. The photos were selected for the impression of color they would give at a distance. All the individual detail boiled down in the end to a blur of color in a larger mosaic. Each individual picture contributes to an overall impression that is, itself, a detailed picture. They didn’t necessarily work as they were taken originally, however. Some needed to be rotated so the colors would flow from one box to another.

Stories, particularly longer ones, should have a similar effect. When all the reading is done, the reader may remember a scene or two in detail, just as you may remember one or two of the individual pictures that caught your eye in the mosaic. However, it is the look from afar that readers will carry away with them. It is the look from afar that you should craft with as much loving care as you crafted the details.

No matter how perfect each scene, each word is, if they do not fit together to make a coherent mosaic you will not be telling the story you wanted to tell. Each scene leaves the reader with a certain impression or feeling. It is how these scenes run together that determines if you have a mosaic, or just a collection of photographs. Some scenes may be just fine on its own, but need special tweaking or twisting to flow within the entire story. When all is said and done, your story needs to work as a story, not as a collection of scenes.

Step back from your story. Let it sit for a while, then read it with a fresh eye toward the bigger picture you are trying to paint. Keep these things in mind as you read:

  • Don’t read for the details. Read it for the big picture. This can be hard when you’ve sweated for so long over the details. If you can’t do it yourself, find someone who can do it for you.
  • Identify the themes of your story. They may not be what you originally intended, but a big picture read should give you a clear idea of what they actually are. Are your main themes consistent throughout, or do you have random themes in random places? While it’s ok to have multiple and minor themes, there should only be one or two main themes that consistently guide the action.
  • A photo out of place will spoil the effect of the mosaic, and create a jarring gap in the image. Do any scenes or chapters do something similar? Or do they run seamlessly together to build the story? A perfect scene or sentence may be entirely out of place when you look at the story as a whole. You may want to look at Murder Your Darlings, by James Patrick Kelly, if you need some help being ruthless.
  • Does your main character grow in a way that is consistent with the overall image you are trying to paint? Character development, like scene development, should fit within the overall picture. Readers will be jarred by characters whose actions aren’t contributing to the overall story.
  • A small imperfection in the details of one image won’t spoil the overall effect of the hidden image. Remember that the details are there to contribute to the final, distant image, not to exist for themselves.
  • The big picture should not be superimposed on the story. Rather, it should be the natural outcome of the choices you made writing the story. Don’t go hitting your reader over the head with your big picture or refer to it outright in the text. Let the readers step back on their own and see it for themselves. They’ll appreciate the discovery of it more if they make it on their own than if you constantly tell them it is there.
  • And most importantly, is the story revealed by the big picture the story you wanted to tell? You may think you’ve gone in one direction, but the image revealed by a big picture read may show you’ve gone in another direction entirely. Many times this is just fine, but sometimes it isn’t. Either way, you should identify what your overall story is actually saying.

Big picture thinking is important for every story, but it is particularly important for book-length stories. It’s the big picture that will keep the reader on track and interested. It also gives the story re-read value. If they love the big picture, they’ll return over and over again to see how each piece fits into it, to find the details they missed to see how those build the image too. The details and the big picture should work together to make a fascinating image that works both close up and from a distance.

Step back. Pull your head out of the details, and view your story as a whole. It may surprise you.

Final Poll Results

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