Whenever someone asks me to review their writing, I try to be thorough and look at it from many levels. Yesterday, we looked at how I approach writing from the 30,000- and 5,000-foot levels. Below, we dig deeper.
The view from 1,000 feet: Now that I’ve identified the major structural and thematic issues and determined there is a reason to keep reading, I go back to the beginning and really start to peel things apart.
If I have a thing for character—and I do—I might follow an individual character through the story to see if I can reverse engineer the writer’s profile of that character. I am making this sound much more formal than it really is. Basically, what do I know about the character and are his or her actions and reactions consistent with that knowledge given: (a) where that character is now in the story; and (b) where he or she is trying to get or accomplish?
From the plot perspective, I begin to look at individual scenes and ask if the interplay between characters makes sense for their relationship and respective goals within the scene. For that matter, does each character in a scene have a clear goal?
How have the characters within the scene changed from one end of it to the other? Did one start with the upper hand and that power shift somewhere through the scene to the other character? This last point is not a necessity, but is merely one way a scene can experience reversal.
Likewise, is the scene clear with one predominant purpose or has the writer tried to accomplish too much too quickly, muddying the scene and leaving the reader uncertain as to what refers to what?
At a slightly broader level, how do the scenes play against each other? Are there smooth or logical segues from one scene to another, and if not, does the hard plot swing work? Does the scene in question set up a future one or pay off a previous one, and has it done this job effectively?
The view from 200 feet: Now I really start to get into the weeds, looking at paragraphs and individual lines. From the narrative perspective, does the reader have all the information he or she needs to make sense of the story? Does the scenery or environment serve almost as another character at this point, representing a source of conflict or support for your characters? Again, this last point isn’t necessary, but can be quite effective such as in movies like The Perfect Storm.
Alternatively, has the writer massively over-written the narrative, demonstrating his or her superhuman vocabulary and/or visual imagination at the expense of the story and poor befuddled reader? As a personal aside, this is my greatest sin as a writer…but then you probably already knew that. Can I recommend any broad strokes edits (not copy edits) to help reduce the clutter and maintain the flow for the reader?
If it’s a screenplay, does the writer interrupt the reader too often with small directorial nods to the actors? For example, during a particularly heated scene of dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist, is the writer constantly reminding the actors to furrow their brows or shrug? I try to determine whether these narrative directions are absolutely necessary to get the idea of the scene across.
The problem here is that the regular intrusion of direction takes the reader out of the moment, disrupting the story and the emotional power of the characters. The senses, if only at the mental level, are forced to trip back and forth between things like subtle movements and emotive energy. Thus, in even the most action- or tension-packed scenes, too much narrative can sap the energy of the scene such that the read becomes plodding. By removing these superfluous lines, the reading speeds up and the energy of the scene is renewed.
This brings us to dialogue, which is easily my greatest challenge in screenwriting. I think novel writing gives you a bit more leeway with dialogue but I am less familiar with the medium from a writing perspective.
When I review dialogue, I try to sense how natural the dialogue feels…perhaps even reading it aloud, if I am not certain. Are these sentences that real characters would say and are the lines apt for the character who is saying them? From what I have surmised about the character, would he or she use those particular words in that way or to that purpose? Is the character saying exactly what he or she is thinking (on-the-nose) or is there some sense of subtext, whether known to the character or not?
Similarly, is the dialogue as tight as it could be, saying only what needs to be said and in the best way? Now, please note, I did not say or mean to imply in the shortest way, with the fewest words. People rarely keep their sentences to a minimum, but rather when caught up in the heat of the moment, tend to spew a bit more than necessary. There is a cadence to an individual’s speech patterns, so each of the characters should have their own cadences.
In a conversation between two or more characters, is the subject and banter clear or am I left with some uncertainty about what line corresponds as a response to what previous line or thought. To map it out somewhat mathematically, it might read something like A then A’, B then B’, C then C’, etc., rather than ABC then A’, D then B’C’, etc., where each of the letters and its prime counterpart represent a thought and its response or reaction. By the same token, however, I have to be alert and sensitive to cases where it is perfectly natural for that character to blurt out a series of thoughts and the resulting confusion may be consistent with the plot.
Splashdown: Only once all of that has been settled, do I get to the cosmetic aspects of story review. This is where I might recommend copy edits and what have you to ensure the screenplay or novel is clean. This can include looking for stylistic inconsistencies (e.g., capitalization) or spelling errors. Personally, this part bores the hell out of me and I know that for every error or inconsistency I find, I have missed two or three others. As a courtesy, however, I will point out those that I do find and hope someone else catches the rest.
I find that by the time we reach splashdown, writers either love me or hate me…and I am okay with that. Although I prefer the former, I understand the latter and don’t take it personally. Putting your work out there for critique and possible criticism is difficult and not just a little nerve wracking. I applaud anyone who does that almost as hard as I applaud them for having written in the first place.
I just hope that, at the end of the day, I have helped the writer improve his or her work.
(Images are the property of their owners and are used here without permission because it’s more impactful.)