Through the last couple months, we’ve compared the causation that underlies narrative structure to a massive domino rally, filled with twists, turns, and dramatic moments set into motion through the tipping of a single domino. This is how narrative works: Each plot beat following the inciting incident is the effect of what precedes it and the cause of what follows.
But what happens when you need to make changes?
You will, of course. There’s no such thing as a perfect first draft. You may want to clarify the character arc of your protagonist, or resolve an improbable, illogical plot development. Or you may want to show more clearly the obstacles responsible for our understanding of conflict and tension. You may have to rewrite the climax completely.
But a domino rally is hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of pieces placed precisely and painstakingly one after the other. How do you rearrange anything without screwing up everything? If every domino is essential, then doesn’t changing one inevitably change the whole?
It does—and that’s the challenge and the point of revision. Change is good. But it is a problem to lose sight of narrative structure in the course of your revisions. So in this third installment in our series on cause and effect, we’ll address implementing revisions without endangering your narrative structure through three important considerations.
[Missed the first part of this series? Start here.]
Identify the Inciting Incident
We know from the first article in this series that the single domino that sets the rest into motion is our inciting incident. Recently in the course of my book editing, I worked with an author who, in an early draft, had a perfectly well-defined inciting incident: the moment the protagonist met her idol. Everything that followed had its basis in developing that relationship.
But during her revision, she felt a need to provide more context for each character. She wanted to show how the status quo eventually disrupted by the inciting incident came to be. She wanted to define the relationships between the protagonist and other characters so that readers could understand how the inciting incident affects them.
When I saw the revised draft, the inciting incident didn’t appear until a third of the way through the novel. And that means the story didn’t begin until a third of the way through the novel.
What happened? The author lost track of the inciting incident, and in so doing forgot what story she wanted to tell.
This is surprisingly easy to do, especially given how often a revision can and should entail major changes. When you add material without regard to narrative structure, you run the risk of throwing off your story’s balance. This is especially risky with the inciting incident. When you devote more pages to the status quo, you delay the inciting incident and wind up with too much opening exposition.
In light of that, it’s important to keep in mind that even basically well-constructed scenes can be exposition when they precede the actual start of the narrative (for an excellent guide to story openings, check out Les Edgerton’s Hooked). So even when things are happening, if those things are not the story, they don’t resolve our issues with narrative structure. That’s why you need to ensure that whatever changes you make, you’re still clear on how your story begins and maintain the causal connection between inciting incident and the start of rising action.
Don’t Add. Build.
But it’s not only the connection between inciting incident and rising action we need to maintain. We also want to keep in mind what we discussed in the last installment of this series: the danger of effect without cause and cause without effect.
It’s not uncommon in the course of writing and revising to determine that the story you’ve written simply isn’t exciting enough. If it doesn’t grab you, it probably isn’t going to grab the reader. So you add more. More explosions…car chases…more of whatever fits your story.
But we know by now that energy and excitement don’t come from action alone. Energy and excitement are built through the causation of a narrative. If you simply add plot beats to the story, inevitably you’re going to disrupt the chain of cause and effect. And even if the chain of cause and effect is not disrupted, if the plot carries on as if those new beats were never added at all, then we will have cause without effect. And that still weakens the narrative by slowing the progression of the story.
So, take the time to determine how preceding events in the manuscript lead to your new plot idea. Consider what ramifications the new plot beat has on what follows it. You’re not throwing rocks onto a pile. You’re building a house.
The Earlier the Setup, the Better the Payoff
We’ve learned that most everything that happens in a novel should emerge naturally through the process of cause and effect. But sometimes that chain can be a little too obvious. It all depends on how near to the payoff (effect) we establish the setup (cause).
Suppose the scenario of a protagonist meeting her idol was not the inciting incident, but rather a major plot point later in the novel. If this idol, and the protagonist’s desire to meet her, were mentioned only, say, five pages earlier, then the moment it happens may emerge naturally through the chain of cause and effect, but it still won’t be very impactful. And the development will be obvious and predictable. If the protagonist has been dreaming of this through the entire novel, though, the scene becomes a lot more meaningful.
Setup and payoff is long-distance cause and effect. It’s a seed planted in the fall that bears fruit in the spring. The best twists and the most affecting revelations are the results of details and plot points placed carefully through the natural progression of a narrative structure. So, if you’re looking to strengthen your major plot points or craft new ones, consider what changes you can make early in the novel to add more meaning to your later developments.
Revision and Narrative Structure
Certainly, problems can emerge if you revise without structure in mind. It’s important to remember that, when well-guided and carefully considered, revision makes narrative structure stronger. In other words, don’t be afraid of rearranging your dominoes! But don’t set out to rearrange all those dominoes unless, or until, you have a plan to make it better.
As a book editor, I almost always recommend outlining as part of the revision process. It’s a great way to nail down exactly what you want to do and ensure that you keep track of all your plot beats, inciting incident and setup included, en route to building a better narrative structure.
In the fourth and final installment of our series on cause and effect, we’ll discuss the role conflict and tension plays in narrative structure. For now, though, let’s talk about revision. How do you approach the revision process? Share your best tips in the Comments section below!
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.