Critiques often take the form of a line-edit, something that needn’t be done until the final draft of a story. More helpful to large story forms is the high-level critique. This means that rather than zooming in with the microscope on the commas and sentence structures, we step way back and look at those factors which, if changed, may require scrapping large chunks of writing or world-building and writing anew. (This is why line-edits are a waste of time until you know if that whole plotline, let alone a scene or a paragraph, are staying.)
The high-level crit especially deals in suggesting very large changes like:
“Do you really need this character? Its functions could be taken over by this other one.”
“If your magic works like this, then they should be able to do that. You’re going to need to change the magic or the plot to prevent that.”
“Climate won’t work that way with the geography you have. You need to change positions of the countries or change the land masses.”
But the changes are only suggestions. Don’t be afraid to throw in some that occur to you, just to jar the author’s head out of ruts. It may be a big “Ah-HA!” for the writer. Just remind them you are playing with ideas, not giving orders.
IN THE HIGH-LEVEL CRIT
These points absolutely must be discussed:
All the Rest: Grammar, authorial quirks present throughout in general terms
These need not be discussed in this order (which is that of usual importance) or each separately (some interweave). The list acts as a simple template for you.
HOW TO BEGIN
Rule #1: read the entire novel before beginning the crit*
Rule #2: “in-depth” means discussing solutions as well as problems, what worked as well as what did not
Rule #3: specific examples must be provided to illustrate points
*While many people have the bad habit of critting as they sight-read,
a) you absolutely can not tell what is necessary or not until you know the whole story, what is padding and what is missing;
b) you can not tell inconsistency from foreshadowing, or spot foreshadowing at all, until you know the whole story;
c) you can not tell what the author is trying to do until you read the whole thing (critting against what you guess or want it to be, not what the author wants, is often unhelpful or even destructive); and
d) you can not tell what the plot structure is until you read the whole thing. If you don’t know what the plot actually is, just what is given the reader before the twists and surprises show up, you can’t crit it.
Critting is not the reaction of a reader as they go along. That can be valuable IF it is done as just that, noting where you laughed, gasped, or fell asleep. But a critique must be done as a knowledgeable analysis, not a bunch of guesses or impositions of stereotypes.
This doesn’t mean you go hyper-critical to find problems in all points. Sometimes we forget that part of a critique is to praise what’s working. When it works, let the writer know and why you think it’s working. For starters, it marks the good stuff they ought to preserve, that might get lost in revision if it seemed not to matter.
If you found a character charming, funny, or scary, say at what points that struck you. If you think the plot is solid, say what interconnects you thought particularly good. Some aspect doesn’t have to be flawless to have good parts. You can praise the good parts of world-building while questioning others.
NOTE WELL: We will only address standard fare here: experimental litfi can do literally anything, which means you can’t teach anyone to crit it, because there are no rules. Note the opening page at Yahoo!Groups: we do not take litfi at OWWW. So literariness is no excuse if it isn’t working.
Summaries of the plot are optional, and should be kept short, as in 500 words for the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.
This is not a fifth-grade book report, that primarily consists of telling the story to the teacher. This is not a college book report, that primarily consists of telling the story to the professor in terms of symbolisms and motifs. This is a critique going back to the author, who knows what the story is. 99% of the time, any difference between the book-report storyline and what the authors thought they wrote can be attributed to reader errors, so you can’t blame them that they won’t even think of the 1% chance. So reporting event by event in detail is padding. If that’s all the admins seem to see, they’ll shortcrit it.
Now, the author may think she wrote a snappy thriller, and you’re seeing a leisurely mystery: that’s another matter.
In general, for commercial fiction, you do need a plot, the stronger the better. That doesn’t mean the story must be plot-driven (translation: villain-driven, as the protagonists jump from disaster to disaster without any real alternatives). On the contrary, all the editors say they prefer character-driven plots, which means that while the protagonists react to events, they have choices, hard decisions to make, and personalities that motivate the choices. Equally, their personalities may be what dance them deeper and deeper into disaster until they realize that they had better change some things.
A plot has motivations. If the characters are not particularly motivated, it is not a plot. At the very least, the detective needs curiosity or a threat of losing her job. All the plot choices need to be motivated. Otherwise it is a mere series of events.
Plots need to have beginnings and endings, and a novel requires a lot of middle, too (a short story can zoom almost directly from beginning to end).
All stories have one plot: the protagonist is knocked out of balance in their life by the Disturbing Event, and must resolve that imbalance through action and/or knowledge, changing themselves and/or the outside world. Resolving that is the climax, which gives them a new balance or restores the old one. After that everyone starts relaxing, and tidying up loose ends, and that’s the denouement.
Prologues and epilogues are not part of the plot. They are informational scenes exterior to the plot, or they wouldn’t have those funny names. Consider if the author’s prologues and epilogues add enough information in an interesting enough manner that they should be kept. So-called epilogues might actually be the denouement, in which case they should be integrated. In some cases, they are put in to show the Happily Ever After, and you should question whether it’s really necessary to show the happy family life and who the bachelor uncle finally does marry three years later, unless you are winding up a 9-book series that YAs worship by the millions.
Publishers willing to consider self-sold manuscripts usually want to see the first three chapters and a synopsis. The reason for three chapters is that this gives them a feel for your writing style and pacing, your handling of different kinds of scenes with any luck, and whether you can characterize, Show rather than Tell, &c. Possibly more importantly, they figure somewhere in the first three chapters the actual beginning of the story will show up. It’s almost a tradition for editors to accept a “final draft” and say, “Drop the first two chapters.” Writers have a tendency to start too soon and give a lot of Normal Life before they hit the Disturbing Event.
The Disturbing Event–pirate attack, escaping from the orphanage by stealth, getting the first starship assignment, realizing there’s something not just unpleasant or unhappy by mysterious about this place, arriving at the murder scene–is the one that knocks the protagonist out of their normal balance of life (however unpleasant) into the plot of the book. Editors want to see the book start at the DE or perhaps slightly after, say, in the aftermath of the pirate attack or flood, if the actual DE is too intense and confusing for an opening.
Novels are almost never three-act structures: it’s too simple for the length of the work, unless it’s an old-fashioned 50k-word novel. So we will only consider the five-act structure. This is the way almost everyone can think of it most critically rather than “three disasters and a solution” or some of the other flat schemes we have seen.
Act 1 should begin with the DE, lay in the background, and set the protagonist on the road into the story. It should also give us a good idea of who the protagonist IS. Only a beginner would want to do a novel with twelve equal protagonists: it would be so diffuse that no normal reader could follow it, or else be twelve short stories twisted together, which is not a novel.
Protagonists count because, in the classic satisfying structure (which dates back to at least 3000 BC, and seems to be a cross-cultural human preference rather than a creation of editors), the protagonist is the one to face the most challenges and conquer them, and is the one who brings on the resolution of the plot, otherwise known as the climax. Passive protagonists who let everyone else solve the problems and shove them into the climax are otherwise known as “rescue objects” and were only popular in ladies’ romance fiction of the Old School (say, up to 1980 or so).
So protagonists are tightly woven into the plot. Except in the totally plot-driven (villain-driven, catastrophe-driven) novel, protagonists are the engine that makes the plot go. One major point of plot revision may be restructuring to make the protagonist active rather than passive, or else making the character who is most active the protagonist, with the old protagonist merely the POV character (more on this later).
Act 2 should have early plans fall apart and life get more complicated as a result. Often, the major players should be introduced by now (example: the creation of the Fellowship of the Ring is a standard Act 2 event). By the end of this act, also, all those strands necessary to the climax should be introduced. If it will take a dragon, they should have been mentioned, even if their existence is scoffed at. If it will require the help of the Jovian pirates, they should be mentioned as existing by now.
Act 3 leads up to the False Climax or Minor Climax. These are two different approaches to story building, and you need to tell the difference. A minor climax is when the protagonist overcomes enough obstacles to see a light at the end of the tunnel, that they begin to think they have a very small chance of possibly succeeding. LotR is a minor climax story. In a false climax, everything seems to have worked to a new point of balance, and the protagonist seems either relatively contented or totally blocked. A Clockwork Orange is a false climax story.
In Act 4, Things Fall Apart. The MC story presents a new set of challenges on the way to the goal: it isn’t going to be as easy as it seems. In the FC story, the temporary fixes unravel, and the protagonist either finds the original goal must still be accomplished, though perhaps on a different level, or that a new, deeper goal is necessary for true resolution. The protagonist has more obstacles to overcome.
Act 5 contains the final climb up to the Climax, the resolution of this story, and ends with the denouement, where everything is tidied up. A denouement can be three lines or thirty pages, depending on the story.
The major issues a flawed plot likely will have are–
1) Major plot points are unmotivated.
Sure, life has its accidents, and these will continue to happen in a fictional life, but the pivots of the plot are not satisfying if they are decided by bumping into exactly the right person at the necessary time. The protagonist should have to make decisions and overcome obstacles, even if only those inside themselves, like the shy person needing to intrude on a stranger and actually ask a favor of them. This can be harder and more wrenching than fighting monsters, especially if the stranger turns them down, and the protagonist has to try a second time to convince them.
2) The beginning or Act 2 is slow.
Sometimes there’s no way for events to be as exciting immediately after the pirate raid. The writer still needs to keep tension up, and your suggestions may be just the thing they couldn’t see. It may also be that it contains too much backstory and background, and this needs to be spread out farther or presented more interestingly. This could be Act 1 simply being too long. The writer needs to get out of set-up and into complications and failures.
3) The beginning is too hectic.
Some people think they should open with sex and violence, but until we have an alter-ego we care about, sex is boring to the person who isn’t here just for porn (OWWW does not do pure erotica, either, even when it has a speculative setting), and scenes with lots of people, especially strangers without names, running around screaming, killing, and carrying on is not involving–quite the opposite. It’s even worse when all twenty-five of them are given names and relationships and we’re expected to keep them straight. At that point, most readers are lost in a dizzy muddle, and the writer, who knows these people like his own family, should have it pointed out that most readers just don’t care enough yet.
4) The middle wanders or sags.
There’s a reason writers call it the “soggy middle.” After the fun of the set-up, many people do mentally aim themselves at a three-act straight climb to the climax, often a short-story habit. Trying to do that in novel length generally results in a lot of dithering and time-wasting, and the lack of false/minor climax makes it seem interminable. It can also result in a Perils of Pauline flight from one trap to another, all at a high level of action, but without the scenes actually changing anything. These are just action delays, like Plot Coupons. Try to locate the False Climax or Minor Climax and suggest a better build and fall pattern.
5) The climax can’t be located.
This can result from there being too many climax-like scenes or else from the ending just fizzling, a weak climax. Likely problems: passive protagonist who does not resolve anything itself, too many protagonists who each have to have their own climax, deus ex machina, simply ending the story line without resolving anything. A classic fizzle is The Andromeda Strain where the whole lot of characters accomplish nothing whatsoever in all those pages of running around: at the end, the virus they could not beat conveniently mutates into harmlessness.
Often, people writing a series of novels forget that each needs to be fairly stand-alone, because the readers who will make it a success have to wait a year between volumes. At the very least, each needs to have its own plot arc, that builds the series arc. Otherwise, it’s just a “place holder” like Episode V in Star Wars,’ which, for all the jumping around, lacks a climax and is simply a string of act 2 complications.
6) The climax is at the wrong place.
This can be because the minor climax is emotionally or thematically stronger than the supposed major climax, or simply be that the climax is set too early and the last third of the book is an epic denouement. Writers become confused on this because they aren’t clear on what constitutes “resolution” for their protagonist. This can naturally result from being unclear on who the protagonist is, for starters, or what the issue of the story is. It may because the author is confusing the climax with a “coda kick.” This is part of the denouement where a loose end is resolved in an unexpected appearance and sudden violence, right when you thought everything was smooth sailing. If they were taught “the climax is the last big exciting thing before the end,” they may confuse it with a coda kick.
You also need to double-check that you, the critter, know what the climax is in more than the Hero’s Journey template. There are a dozen SF templates, besides those used in other genres. (See the following section on Templates.)
Things NOT required for a plot some simple-minded teacher may have drummed into you.
–Characters are not required to grow and change. Sorry, it’s nice but only optional.
–Characters need not “come to realize” important life lessons. Ditto. It’s not necessary to draw morals for a novel to exist. This is a fossil of “problem fiction” and trying to redeem fiction from “immoral lying” into “morally improving tales.” Some people are just here to give you a week of involving entertainment.
–Neither science fiction nor fantasy require that the Existence of Reality or even merely the Fate of the World be at stake. Wonderful novels are written about the fates of individuals or families. The other can be hyperbole that fails to pump up a lack of real tension or pace.
Templates are one aspect of plotting rarely discussed. These are common plot structures embodying archetypical story forms known from the earliest levels of folklore, epic, and legend. Only a few are modern, and are so distinctive that they are rarely used.
The Hero’s Journey is an exaggeration of the Lone Hero template into formula. This is only one of many, but the best known thanks to the book and everyone, especially in Hollywood, trying to cram all stories onto that one template.
Templates can seriously effect how a novel is structured, because the climax consists of different things in different template families. For example, the Mystery/Revelation climax is always when the Hidden Thing is revealed to the protagonist and reader. Delaying this can mess with the structure a bit, unless the protagonist isn’t the POV. Consider how, nowadays, it is rare for the Detective to say, “Trust me, Sergeant. We have to rush to the warehouse and arrest who’s there” while somehow having kept the information away from the reader. This seems to have been an old way of putting the explanation after the revelation by writers who didn’t realize that the climax wasn’t arresting the criminal, or even revealing him, but getting the revelation of what happened. Nowadays the Detective is more likely to go into the climax with a fistful of misinformation that the criminal will correct while being cornered or apparently about to escape. At that point, where The Truth is Known, you have the climax of all Mystery/Revelation stories.
This is completely different than the template of the Confrontation template where the climax is defeating the enemy and neutralizing/destroying him, whether or not his identity has always been known. Both differ from the Redemption template where the climax is the life-reversing epiphany of the protagonist.
Unfortunately, no one has written a book of all the templates, but if they did, it would be a fat one: scores of templates like Redemption, Tragic Flaw, Voyages Extraordinares, Romeo & Juliet (which could be called Pyramus & Thisbe), even the Seven Samurai template, possibly the newest. Polti’s book of the 36 plots is not a book of templates, but of plot situations that might be handled very differently depending on which template they’re used with.
Science fiction has a number of unique templates that are often best revealed in their earliest forms before people tried to disguise them: Science Bites (most mad scientist stories, like Frankenstein’), its opposite, Science Saves, as well as Future War, Last Man, Long Sleeper, End of the World, etc. It can sometimes be a trick to distinguish a use of something like time travel, whether it’s just a mechanism to put the protagonist in a Revelation or Future War or Motley Crew story, or part of an actual Time Travel template where the recursiveness of time travel and attempts to change events are involved. For example, Well’s ‘The Time Machine’ is a Revelation template where the time-travel is a mechanism: he does virtually nothing we would recognize as playing with time.
If you have an idea of the template a story is on, you can suggest changes to the plot that strengthen the template without insisting on formula, because that generally makes a stronger story. Hooking into archetypes does that in the human mind. It may also clue you to why the story isn’t working at some points.
Characters should be consistent, but that doesn’t mean they should be simple.
Primarily, characters should not behave out of character ONLY when it advances the plot. The villain should not be careless or merciful or unselfish at only the point where it does the protagonist enormous good.
All characters should be motivated in their actions. It doesn’t have to be deep angsty motivations of revenge or expiation: it can seem like a sure cure for boredom or that irritating impending decision they’ll have to make if they don’t leave town first. Always, though, the motivation must seem to come out of the personality and mentality of the character as the author has Shown it.
The motivations must not be “author motivation”; that is, the author needs the character to behave like this right now or the clever but fragile plot won’t work. This usually results in characters being Stupid on Cue, Blind or Deaf on Cue, Incurious on Cue, &c. The classic chestnut of this is the young man who sees his sweetheart kissing another man and swears never to talk to her again, rather than first asking “Who was that man I saw you kissing?” This is Stupid on Cue, so that he can be heart-broken and join the Foreign Legion and only meet her again right before the Climax and find out that was her uncle or cousin. (She shouldn’t be kissing a close relative that hotly, or the protagonist should be even more worried about her, but in the days when this is popular any little virginal peck counted as being untrue because, apparently, no one ever kissed hot.)
Revision at this level will be hard work for the writer. If the plot is too dependent on author motivation for the characters’ actions, the writer is going to have to build some convincing characters who would have plausible reasons for doing those things, or re-engineer the plot from the ground up. At that point, it’s pretty much a case of writing a new story. But they get to keep the world-building!
Not everyone is a perfect societal model of their culture. Hardly anyone is. But whatever their culture is, it should definitely have some molding effect on its products, whether in what they accept of the culture or what they rebel against. Otherwise, why have them come from that culture? Again, it is usually for author convenience (“I need a closet pacifist among the barbarians who’ll let them go”) or because it’s Your Friends in Funny Clothes being their normal 21st-century selves inside barbarian suits or elf suits or alien suits.
Character consistency does not mean that characters should never change their opinions, feelings, or alliances. Friends may have their fallings out. Allies become apathetic, and enemies suddenly realize they had better ally against something worse coming after them both. These must be motivated, in line with the known personality, but change certainly can happen. The white knight of the party may depart in a huff when she feels the others are taking a dishonorable course, or the timid character’s nerve may finally crack. Real people have flaws, and these should be played upon by the author to increase the tension (see Tension below). The whole purpose of the story may be to show how events can lead the protagonist, decision by decision, into a complete about-face on some issues they started with.
A character changing because someone lectures them about a Better Way is annoying and implausible. It turns the novel into a tract promoting the Better Way. C. J. Cherryh has a lovely article on where this fossil started in 19th C lit. Characters plausibly change because they have been exposed to events, persons, and other sources of new information, and have made decisions based on that. This may be “I’ll quit acting like a bigot/braggart/bully because it’s really to my advantage to change in this society I’m in now.” It doesn’t have to be for noble reasons or on an elevated level. Acting nicer to get laid or a better job is common.
The personalities of main characters should be Shown, not Told. The latter is especially bad when we are Told one thing about the character but what’s Shown in action is opposite to the Tell. This completely shoots down any belief in what the writer has to say. This is usually a result of the writer not being able to portray the character the way it’s Told, or else not realizing that the characters is coming across very differently. Simply, some people don’t yet realize that it is not enough to Tell the reader to make it so: the character also has to act that way, not thereafter act whichever way feels good that minute. Telling a personality mainly works for minor characters with limited functions.
Also, anything Told but not Shown about a character is padding. The only part of the character’s personality and history that matter to the story is that which affects the story by affecting the other characters. If Absol plays the viol but music, let alone a viol, never shows up in the story, that viol-playing doesn’t matter. Strike out the viol jokes as padding. Now, if his addiction to viol-playing gives away their camp sometime or gets them dinner when they’re starving or soothes the dragon, it’s relevant.
One common flaw is an excess of characters. In busy, populated situations, the protagonist can interact with a lot of major characters, and one expects them to have more than one friend unless isolation is one of their traits or problems. In many cases, though, the critter doing a high-level should look at the function of secondary characters and see if some could be combined into one character. If they aren’t twins doing twin-tricks, does the story really need both brothers, or can one be dropped to simplify the number of people the reader has to remember?
For example, JRRT introduces Glorfindel only for the function of rescuing Frodo and using the enchanted river to disembody the Ringwraiths. The movie gave that function to Arwen, taking her out of the shadows of a barely-mentioned “mead of honor” for Aragorn. JRRT could have used it as a means to introduce Legolas early.
Equally, the function of the bartender to impart information could be given to the landlady, who is also an information source, just by having the protagonist be invited in for a beer when they meet in the hall, rather than the protagonist going across the street for said brew. If this makes the landlady too chummy, the bartender can be the neighborhood gossip and the landlady eliminated, if she has no other function.
Characterization also needs to be consistent with age BUT this can be highly subjective, depending on where you live, how you grew up, and what you see of children around you. Then you need to remember that childhood is culturally influenced, beyond the physical and neurological. Comparing a modern suburban American twelve-year-old to, say, two hundred years ago, middle-class British child, the modern child is sexually precocious to an extreme degree and yet in terms of education, responsibility, and work ethic pretty backward. Equally, as a critter, you may just have to accept that in some cultures twelve-year-olds fight duels to the death with swords and fourteen-year-olds get married as a matter of course, or nine-year-old girls marry thirty-year-old men and grow up under the thumb of their mother-in-law. It’s not just Your Friends in Funny Clothes in every story, and there’s an observable strong tendency for many critters to try to force 21st century attitudes or political correctness on imaginary societies because they apparently haven’t learned that their criteria are not universal norms (pretty bizarre, in fact).
Equally, you shouldn’t impose your taste in characters on what the author wants, though you might suggest moving into or out of the grey. Figure out if the author is trying to do dark or grey characters, or has merely given a white knight some inappropriate traits. Some writers almost always have a Paladin in the spotlight, while some placidly and purposely feature bandits, connivers, and less admirable types. You should make suggestions, instead, for making unapproachable protagonists sympathetic and pure ones more humanly flawed, as necessary, without making them more good or more grey than the author seems to want.
This is how the story is put together on a level below that of the overall plot, such as scene and POV.
Scenes are natural: the unit of storytellers and dramatists, the change in characters or place or time. Chapters are unnatural, the invention of writers, especially those of the 19th century writing to be serialized. Chapters and scenes may coincide, especially if the writer thinks they should. Chapters may change in the middle of scenes, if the writer thinks that works better. Chapters may contain two or more scenes.
A scene should have a reason for being in the plot, not just “to show character” or give background or a tour. A classic of a padding scene sabotaging a novel: Luck in the Shadows, after all the worry and terror of getting Whatsisface to the Wizard’s College, Alec just goes for a stroll so we can be given the layout, rather than continuing to watch by his patron’s side. in a complete disruption of tension and pace.
Every event the writer takes the trouble to Show should advance or hinder the protagonist’s progress, whether they know it or not. It may be so that later someone they meet there helps or harms them, because they knew them from there. Otherwise, it can be summarized or skipped over. A writer who is shaky on who the protagonist is can have a lot of scenes that are part of someone else’s story.
Any scene needs its own arc of tension, from questions to answers, or maybe lies, from challenge to conflict, or conflict to submission, but not always to resolution. Many scenes can end equivocally, or even be broken off without resolution by an interruption: this is plausible, depending on where the author put it, because we have all had conversations or work interrupted. But they should have a sense of building which is greatly helped by their being necessary, not filler. Any scene that is flat is probably filler and needs to be cut: nothing is moving forward or backward there, only marking time. The information it contains needs to be moved elsewhere, is all. Otherwise, it needs to be given conflict for drama, and not just rehashing the same old rivalry.
Many writers make scenes and chapters identical, even if that means some chapters are 20 pages and some are half a page long.
Some authors are taught to write in chapters with specific patterns. When well done, this is okay, but when only passably done, let alone badly, this repetition of structure and rhythm gets to be like Chinese water torture for the reader. It’s intrusive and puts the author in the reader’s face, shoving them out of immersion in the story (always bad). These patterns are nice in theory, but in practice they rarely work.
One of these is “Scene and Sequel” which consists of Goal-Conflict-Disaster followed by Reaction-Dilemma-Decision. This requires that no chapter ever start with something that surprises the protagonist (does not seem related to their goal), that every chapter end with them failing to reach their goal, even their interim one, and always decide right then what they are going to do about it rather than let it ride until maybe more information comes in or the sun comes up or Gandalf arrives with the extra Rohirrim he promised. It also means no chapter can be short or indecisive or interrupted, or if it covers a big event it can’t be split into smaller units. Randy Ingermanson’s time-travel novel, Transgression, suffers from a mild case of this, but the dripping faucet of obviously artificial structure gets maddening in the sequel, Premonition. One problem with this structure is that it can make it very easy to close the book at the end of a chapter. It is not conducive to getting called “a page-turner.”
An opposing school of chapterization can be called the cliffhanger: you chop the chapter at a point of suspense or tension. If using the multi-character thriller model, you leave the protagonist aeronef on a speeding crash course for the magnetic mountain and jump to where a main character is facing a cage of man-eating whatevers. Just as she may or may not be killed, you jump to the protagonist bailing out of the doomed aeronef. That chapter ends with Our Hero tumbling down an unsuspected hole, as we jump to another main character in the lab discovering the secret formula right before the lab blows up/ninjas invade/&c. … See? Cliffhangers. The Perils of Pauline is alive and well in techno-thrillers. If done too blatantly, this, too, gets intrusive.
A modified cliffhanger, used to highlight plot points, puts the chapter break at the same point, but the first page of the next chapter continues the scene.
Some authors will mix the types, because they feel it makes the story flow right. This, and the scene=chapter, are the least formulaic.
One structure we rarely see any more is the framed story. This is where the author heard this story from a mysterious person or found a strange manuscript. One of the few modern examples is The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock, but he was purposely invoking the feeling of Edwardian science fiction. However, frames can have other uses, and the writer you are critting may have thought of one. Simply ask yourself if it’s working, if it’s enhancing the story or is integral (as when the main story and the frame interlace their plots and the frame isn’t just at the front and back), or if it’s a weight and distraction that could be dropped.
Point of View slants a story considerably, so that choosing its variant is like choosing what media you’re creating a picture in, whether woodblock printing or oil painting. This, too, is part of structure.
The default POV in the industry is third-person limited, one character, the protagonist. It’s hard to get faulted for this. Editors and readers prefer it. Second most popular is a 3rd ltd shifting between main characters, so the reader can see events as they happen and have knowledge the characters don’t (this can build ironic tension).
Your third choice is first-person limited, the classic “I” of mystery fiction that lets you limit information to what one person has, though this makes the personality of the Narrator critical to the story, as their voice and personality filters everything they report. Some readers hate 1st POV, because they usually don’t like being the Narrator or listening to them tell this long story. 1st POV is not more immediate, but a trifle distancing for most readers. Rather than sinking into immersion and becoming the Narrator, they feel they are reading someone’s journal or “story about my adventure.”
Very rarely, you will now find works published where the shift in POV is between 3rd ltd and 1st POV. This reads like an outside editor took someone’s first-person narrative and wove in what was happening elsewhere that they couldn’t know about.
Anything besides this (and including the last) is oddball, and may or may not work. Oddball for oddball’s sake is bad, because once again it’s intruding the author who is supposed to be invisible.
Consider the POV used in all scenes. In some stories, this must always be the person who knows the least, in order to keep up mystery. However, barring that, the best character for POV is the one who is going through the most internally at that time, the one who will have the biggest decisions to make in that scene, so that the reader can share that tension and motivation. Just watching it from outside is boring by comparison, unless the character is a scenery-chewer. Maybe especially when the character making the decision then has to overact to make it all dramatic.
The POV character needn’t always be the protagonist. Using others gives an outside view of the protagonist. In some books, the protagonist, while the focus of the story and the trigger of the climax, is never the POV character. This is especially true in 1st POV. The Narrator, for modesty’s sake, is always the humble sidekick reporting on the wonderful actions of Prof. Challenger or Capt. Nemo or Sherlock Holmes. The classic secondary-character as Narrator is, of course, The Great Gatsby. So remember, if a POV character, especially a Narrator, is fairly passive, they may not be the protagonist.
This is more distancing than most modern readers like, but it can work, especially when the protagonist is insufferably self-certain or not going through any changes and the Narrator is easier to sympathize with.
PACING & TENSION
These are not identical, or they wouldn’t have different names. Pacing is the speed at which the story unfolds. Tension can be summed up as how worried the reader is about the success of the protagonist.
One reason to start ‘in media res’, in the middle of the action at or after the DE, is that it creates immediate real tension, no matter the pacing of the story.
Some stories are leisurely and that’s what the writer wants, and some are very hectic. What you may need to point out is when they are too far over the line either way. Depending on the intended market, writers can get away with more or less lagniappe (see Lin Carter, ‘Imaginary Worlds’). The success of Harry Potter has highlighted that not every story needs to be stripped to the bone. On the other hand, if the writer is shooting for the hard sf fan who is also into thrillers, it may need to get ripped down. Some readers like lots of spectacle and some couldn’t care less what color capes the soldiers have unless a cape out of place is a clue. Those who also like cozy mysteries won’t mind in the least that the author stops in at the kitchens or forge for a bit of how-to. Romance scenes are another choice option–summarize or detail–depending on the target audience.
Pacing can be improved without losing any scenes by the simple business of making the writing less passive. Passive is slower in a bad way. It is designed to distance the reader, as well, which is rarely wanted. Too hectic can be modulated, not with passivity, but usually with more detail and scene-setting. Often it feels rushed because the characters are acting against a blank screen. A couple of sentences or paragraphs here and there can make a big difference.
If a section seems to drag, however, it may be because the tension has dropped off. Tension tends to pull the reader forward through the story. The same scene seems to speed up if it’s directly relevant to the major tension threads. This is the problem with Bead Plotting, where the writer introduces one problem, solves it, introduces another, solves it, &c. The tension comes up, then drops off too completely, even when there’s an underlying problem on which the beads are strung. Plot Coupons are often an example of Bead Plotting, too, though not all Bead Plotting is Plot Coupons. (Don’t you love writer’s jargon?)
This can be a tricky balancing act. If the writer has too much tension built up on some subject and then puts in a scene that does not address it, that tension can pull the reader into skipping right over the scene. If we figure the Hero is pretty much not going to be killed in the battle because there’s still so many pages left to go, we can wind up skimming it to see if anyone who matters gets killed or captured, wanting to find out if the important thing, the tension thread, gets advanced or retarded on the other side of the battle. This is a common problem in the latter half of Fletcher Pratt’s ‘The Well of the Unicorn.’
Contributing to that is that Pratt, a notable military historian, has flat worn out the average reader on detailed battles. You have to be really into them to stick out this many. All contests, whether battles, races, chess games, song-fights, duels, or what you like, can wear out the average, not eat-up, reader. Part of balancing pacing is to pick the most important ones to detail and give the others more in summary. If one of these contests is the climax, major or minor, it has to stay, so that may be two. One in detail is necessary early on, perhaps short or a practice, to acquaint the ignorant reader with what’s happening. After that, they had better contain strong plot pivots. Help the writer see which ones can be slighted, because after all the detail work they will all be too dear to seem choppable.
Basically, does one thing follow from the other or are cause and effect either scrambled or not paired up at all?
This also covers annoying bits like the door that swings inward in chapter one and will only swing outward in chapter two when that traps the characters. One only needs the door to swing outward on page one, just a cosmetic fix. Timing spells around the moon requires closer time-keeping, and may require inserting or removing a week of events somewhere if the writer didn’t keep a calendar.
It may be more important that a character ages or youthens precipitously across the book. Worse when they go back and forth. The author needs to decide on one age and stick to it, only aging as much as the time passage in the story allows for. (This, like the dreaded changing hair color, is actually fairly rare in workshop subs.)
Are the calendar and timeline straight? If the Bad Guys can’t catch up for eight weeks, there needs to be some explanation if they show up in three, even if it doesn’t come out until the last chapter. As well, someone, for the reader, needs to comment that this is impossible, establishing that the writer is making a mystery, not just being sloppy.
These are usually minor niggles, fixed by changing a few words or a line.
Past the cosmetic level, are characters acting on author knowledge rather than any they can have themselves? The writer may have forgotten the scene where they find out, or put it farther down the storyline. (Draftos happen.) Are not just the details, but events that the plot rides on, contradicting the established knowledge of the world without being marked as extraordinary and then later explained, too? If there are no winged dragons, only walking or swimming ones, everyone needs to fall down with astonishment when one flies in, not just suddenly start including a wing of them in the battle plans.
Author motivation at work can create plot holes, and critters need to challenge them. “Why did Soandso not see that happening in front of him? Why didn’t he ask about it?” The writer may have lost a scene that was supposed to establish that, or it may be poor plotting.
Everybody talks about worldbuilding consistency. Most people feel obliged to fill notebooks with maps, gazetteers, conlangs, character lists, monetary systems, and the rest. You can find twenty articles on it on the web, and it seems to be the one item of detailed analysis that even the dedicated line-editors know.
Doing it is hard. Critting it is easy: does anything bug you as being out of place or contradictory? What seems to be glaringly missing from daily life? How much you can get into plausibility often depends on the particular critter’s background and learning.
Much less discussed is the matter of how much–or how little–of these notebooks needs to show up in the book, and when. A gap in worldbuilding can be filled usually in a minute to a week or two. Presentation is more a critter’s business.
The two ends of the spectrum of world presentation, both errors, are “You didn’t tell me that” and the Herman Melville Syndrome.
Certain things the reader needs to know up front, and that is not that the Villain is Eeeevul or that Bad Things Will Happen. The genre or template doesn’t matter. What does for all stories is–
Where are we?
Who are we?
Why is this bad?
The setting may be a planet colonized long ago from Earth, Earth in the future or past, an Alternate Earth, or some planet totally unconnected. (In the last case, do avoid using Terran names for people and places, as this would be a big clue that the world is connected to Earth.) It changes how they take things. If it’s connected to Earth, Earth history, &c. applies to some extent–in alternate histories, often greatly up to a certain point. If you don’t clearly say someway that “This isn’t Earth,” the reader can get terribly confused on the geography, and start thinking the writer is messed up, and generally get divorced from the story. Establish this in Chapter One, some way or another. Mention non-Earthy places, two moons (one reason for their popularity), anything like that.
The hardest to pull off is the colony, which may have named places after Earth and will probably preserve their personal names, but a New New Delhi or New Tasmania will be all the clue needed.
Way too many books drag the opening by making the characters nameless. It’s kewl because “They do that in literary stuff.” In litfi, this is one of their ways of keeping the reader at a distance, watching the artiste at work rather than vulgarly identifying with the character, which is exactly what you don’t want. If finding out their identity is supposed to be a surprise (which the cover blurbs will blow before the reader gets to page one, unless it’s only revealed past the halfway point), then use a nickname or alter-ego name. It settles them in. Ditto gender.
If this is the Nameless Villain opening, right there tell them to cut to the chase and just don’t do it from her viewpoint because it’s inviting the reader to think she’s just a really dark protagonist who is going to Learn Better and be redeemed. Unless they know they are on the Horror template, readers strongly tend to identify with the first POV character.
The story also needs to make it clear that whatever is happening is a problem for the character. One writer’s Terrible Fate is another reader’s Gimme Dat, unless they establish the protagonist situation. (Obviously, being killed or enslaved or mangled falls into the Universal Bad.)
Throughout the story, information about the world necessary to the plot needs to be placed before or as it is needed. (See Act 2 in Plotting, above.) After that, it’s as much as required to settle the reader into this milieu and give the right atmosphere.
The Herman Melville Syndrome is also known as “I did my research and now you’re going to suffer for it.” (The Turkey City Lexicon) If you’ve ever read Moby Dick by Melville, you understand: those interminable digressions for pages on the background of the whale fishery. This used to be the norm for writing, as no one could figure any other way to inform the Gentle Reader of details of background they probably wouldn’t know. Also, reading a long digressive book had no competition for attention: no movies, no radio, no TV, no video games, no internet. Even Tolkien wrote in a pre-TV age where he only had to fight off radio shows or a trip to the movies.
The invention of the modern way of presenting a strange world can be attributed to Rudyard Kipling. In his short stories of life in India, he did not want to slow down to info-dump, so he threaded in only the information necessary to the story as the story went along. He also introduced this method to science fiction in “With the Night Mail” and “As Simple as A.B.C.,” which still read well, as a result.
In a novel, there is room for much more information than in a short story, but the author should try to avoid info-dumps. This is where a prologue may work, to Show rather than Tell important background.
Even so, there are worse things than info-dumps, such as the AYKB (As You Know, Bob) or the Dreadful Scene, where one character explains to another all the background, especially when this is stuff the other character mostly knows already. Some authors get it all over with, hold your nose and swallow, with a travelogue opening (CJ Cherryh manages these). Some critters excoriate them, but like a prologue they may be the least bad way to get a reader settled into a complex world.
The criteria for info-dumps should not be, “The author told us something in more than one sentence,” but “The author halted the story pace to make us choke down a bunch of dry stuff,” or even pretty stuff that isn’t relevant this minute to the story arc. If it’s info the reader needs and wants, it will be eagerly gobbled up. That’s why you can often get away with it earlier better than later.
This is where we love the Horse Police, the Auto Accident Police, the Grain Police. Tech errors are where the fantasy world overlaps the real world, and the reality the readers share must win. That is, the magic system need only be self-consistent, as need the invented beasts, especially the magical ones. But when the author brings in a horse, a fire, a bow and arrow, a steam engine, they have to work like real-world horses, fires, archery, and steam tech. Otherwise, the reader questions the author’s authority, and starts to lose the “willing suspension of disbelief” so necessary to enjoying a fy/sf novel. In short, tech errors jerk the knowledgeable reader out of the story, which is always a bad thing.
There’s one kind of tech error anyone can catch: the poorly visualized scene. There is sometimes a problem of lack of clear visualization. Writers may string a bunch of exciting words and images, but that doesn’t necessarily add up to possible actions.
When that means that an important plot event is mis-described (actions jerking back and forth being described as “one fluid motion,” say), it’s cosmetic. Rewrite the sentence.
If it means that the events just can’t happen that way based on the non-speculative parts of the story (human physiology, necessary trajectories, water rising to its own level, &c), the writer is going to have to change what happens to get the same effect, or find a new event entirely. That’s major work.
ALL THE REST:
Style, Grammar, Authorial Quirks, etc. Present Throughout, in General Terms
Style is not above critique.
First, it usually should be somewhat consistent.
Writers almost always change style when switching first-person narrators, or why have different ones? (classic example: ‘Moon of Three Rings’ by Andre Norton) It also reminds the reader in mid-chapter who’s talking.
Writers may change style when they change third-person POV characters, say, between the more lyrical and serious pilot and the analytical but humorous detective. But in that case, it has to be consistent across the character’s POV scenes. They shouldn’t have the 3rd POV standard in some places and written in slang dialect elsewhere when it’s all the same character’s POV.
However, it is more usual to have an overall style of narrative (jerks the reader around less) and only shade it when changing POV.
You can question the appropriateness of the style used for the material and the effect apparently wanted.
You can ask, “Do you really want to write a classic Medievalesque quest in 21st century TV English rather than Standard English?” (See Ursula K. LeGuin on this.) This voice was pioneered in works like Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp’s ‘Incomplete Enchanter’ stories, Poul Andersen’s ‘Three Hearts and Three Lions’, Heinlein’s ‘Glory Road’, and the like, but it’s not the best voice for a work that doesn’t have a protagonist from contemporary Earth. Using it for completely foreign spheres makes it seem less alien and more like Planet of the LARP D&D’ers. it also encourages contemporary reactions, increasing the sense of these being Your Friends in Funny Clothes. Which may be what the author wants, but you need to check in on that.
Humor isn’t necessarily increased by it, either. You just have to ask yourself if the present style is working for or against the novel. Neutral is okay, but working in its favor is better.
On the other hand, writing that is impenetrably forsoothly can be too far the other way, as is most ritten kweer dye-a-lekt (fossil of reading aloud by gaslight, also of showing the Lower Classes and people from Outside Our Group). So can Purple Prose, a hyper-adjectival form perfected in the 1890s. It can feel gushy and over the top. Of course, one person’s Purple Prose is someone else’s proper epic voice, and a very Moderne style may be hideously naked to others. Remember, you are not ordering the author to do anything, merely suggesting that they consider the possibility of a different approach.
Writing errors worth mentioning at this point will be those that repeat, which can include–
POV slithers and head-hopping
Eye Emoting and other POV cheats
Soapboxing: having a character or the narrative stop to deliver the author’s opinion on something in our world, like the evils of capitalism/communism, though it’s different if that’s what the story is about. Still, no one likes a lecture.
Little Did They Know and other author intrusions
Overusing some one word or phrase until it’s intrusive
TARs, WIOS, and other dialogue tagging faults, whether over-tagging or not identifying enough, mis-identifying thoughts or telepathy, &c.
Anachronistic language: the far future may easily speak more formally, but not likely in 30s hard-boiled slang.
Inconsistent dialogue, like the herofy couple that talks TV English in the first two chapters then goes very formal until chapter 20 again, or intermittent dialect.
When rough drafting, just write the damned thing.
As soon as it comes to the workshop, though, it’s in revision. At this time, one thing the writer needs to consider is “Where am I going to mail this thing?” and you can help.
If you haven’t gotten into selling, you may feel uncertain about this. You know more about it than you think: if you’re an SF reader, you =are= the market.
The first step is to figure if this would fly best as adult, Young Adult, or younger juvenile. Usually, in the latter case, the writer will have tried to aim it that way, and you can discuss if the vocabulary and grammatical difficulty are appropriate.
The first two have a fuzzy border. You should have an idea of what the parameters are, not just the age of the protagonist, for a YA, and why this would be better for the story to be so labelled. Age of the protagonist is no criteria for whether a story is for the adult market or not. Neither is sex or not, as the YAs may be going crazy for some fairly sexy stuff (consider the high-school vampire series ‘Twilight’ that just ended off). A couple of “bad words” won’t eliminate it. YA readers are generally more positive about tours that explain more of the world or mildly digressive episodes that are still fun. They are far more accepting of Mary Suish plots and characters than adult editors. Librarians and parents are not who the editors look to for their decisions, but the money-carrying YAs themselves.
Then, figure where you would file this in the subgenres, if any? If that’s one you read much, you can talk about current trends, whether this is trendy or Old School.
After that, just say if it seems like the kind of thing Publisher X is doing. It is better to join a stable of similar authors than try to shoehorn in someplace that may be not publishing this kind of thing, not because they can’t get it, but because they don’t want it. Just say, “This is the kind of thing Baen/Luna does a lot of stuff like.” or “Tor would probably like this.”
At this point you can whip out the writer’s guidelines, put your heads together, and see what might need to be done to make it fit. Some places want little or no graphic sex. Some want lots and lots.
They are just guidelines, not laws, in our field. People keep saying you shouldn’t try to break in with a book over 100k words, and probably a standalone, but we keep seeing first novels that have got to be at least 200k and people getting first deals for 3 books. Not all the time, but often enough that you can’t say it’s even unlikely, let alone impossible.
Baen:”100,000 – 130,000 words Generally we are uncomfortable with manuscripts under 100,000 words.”
DAW: “The average length of the novels we publish varies but is almost never less than 80,000 words.”
Luna: “100,000-150,000 words”
Tor: no limits mentioned
So if 80k is the basement and 100k the usual speed, don’t worry so much that it’s at 200k. Obviously, these guidelines are getting broken once the ms gets asked for. It may also be that the writer is going to try to “sell” this to an agent, and agented works get more wiggle room.
Another level to analyze is when the novel is part of a series. As said before, each volume needs to be free-standing, because they’re published spaced out, and if they don’t give today’s readers a satisfying read, they won’t need to worry about ten or twenty years from now when they can buy the whole thing as a set or not. Rather, think of the reader at the library who stumbles across Book 3 on the shelf when the rest are checked out. The writer needs to encourage them to get hooked on an open-ended but not cliffhanger story that isn’t incomprehensible without the rest.
Is the implied story big enough for a series? Does it really need five volumes, or will two suffice? This is hard to judge from one, and the author ought to sub a smallish series synopsis, same as she would if she were sending the first volume to a publisher. This shows the purpose of each book in the story arc, rather than it a place-holder?