As already mentioned, if you are one of those who write a super detailed outline before even starting writing the manuscript, it's very difficult for there to be gaps or inconsistencies. If, on the other hand, you start writing without a precise idea, or something in between (like me), it's good to focus on the big picture and ask yourself the following questions:
- can you summarize your story in one sentence? For example: A hobbit must destroy a powerful ring that everyone desires, to avoid the ruin of free peoples.
- Have the questions that arise during the reading, large or small, found a satisfactory answer or is there something missing?
- Does every event told flow logically or is there some hole?
- Do the threads of the various plots intertwine in the finale? If not, is it necessary to keep that secondary plot which is an end in itself? (Yes, in case it gives depth to the narrative; no, if it's just there to be a filler.)
- Are the twists well spread throughout the narrative? Are they predictable? Does the engine that drives the narrative gradually intensify over the course of the book or are there moments of stasis?
- Are the beginning and the end satisfying in terms of stakes and story arc? Is the plot compelling and believable?
- Are there obvious gaps in the research (done before or during writing) related to character/theme/worldbuilding development?
- Is the theme of the story clearly developed through the conflict of the characters and what they want? Is it resolved with the last chapter? (Even if it's a series, it's good to close a narrative arc. Just think of the HP books: despite having a thread that connects them all—defeating Voldemort—each book has a plot of its own: the school year that starts and finishes, with all the adventures in between.)
The characters are closely linked to the plot, whether the story is from their point of view or from someone else's: if they are flat, or if they lack the right motivations, for sure the whole story will suffer. For each character, main or secondary, you have to ask yourself several things:
- are the motivations that push Character X (protagonist and/or antagonist) to move forward, even if they have everything and everyone against, strong enough and understandable?
- At the end of the story, does Character X experience a growth (or the opposite) from the person they were at the beginning, or do they remain flat?
- How do secondary characters help keep the story going? Do they, like the protagonists, have a narrative arc that closes at the end of the book and makes them grow?
- Is secondary Character Y relevant to the story? Do they motivate the main character? Do they move the plot? If you delete them, does the narrative suffer a serious loss or do the facts continue smoothly? (If the answer is the latter, think about eliminating them—unless there is an obvious narrative arc that develops the story parallel to the main one; in this case I recommend keeping it, because it makes the world and the characters that move around the protagonist real and tangible.)
- The opposite can also happen, as with my book in progress (which I will talk about in the future), that is, I felt like one or more characters were missing in order to give a greater meaning to the story; in this case why should they be added? What is their purpose and what are their motivations? How does the narrative change?
- Do the characters, main or otherwise, have clear and realistic traits, strengths and weaknesses? Are they always credible and consistent with themselves, with their past and with the obstacles they find?
- In case of many characters, were they introduced too quickly? Or did the narration dwell too much on each new appearance without spreading information here and there?
- Character X, Y, and Z behave consistently throughout the book or do they do and say things that go against their ideals?
The choice of the narrator (or narrators) is fundamental and there should be no doubt about which one it is (except for me, who, for a few days, tried to rewrite everything from the third singular to the first person, and then retrace my steps *facepalm*). What you need to focus on in rereading is that it stays consistent and clear throughout the narrative, or that it undergoes a transformation along with the character if it makes sense for the story. Usually I keep only one point of view, but in case there is more than one it's good to ask if it's the right one for that scene/chapter.
Below is a lost of things I usually check, in addition to what has been said until now:
- are there elements of foreshadowing in the course of the narrative? If so, are they sneaky and effective enough not to spoil the plot? (I love putting them here and there. It's one of my favorite things. Mwahaha!)
- Is the language too poetic and pompous and doesn't contribute to the story? (Purple prose)
- The "show, don't tell" is important to immerse the reader in the scene; have you used it? (If so, please: don't abuse it. Like all things, too much mangles).
Let's move on to the voice of the characters, that is to the dialogues: when two or more characters interact I want them to do it with a purpose, that is to give relevant information to the plot, to move it forward or backward. Each dialogue must have a real reason to exist, even if only to describe the characters still little known, through their way of speaking, their ideals, their job, their biggest fear. I recommend, though: do not force these information during a dialogue, but let them develop in a natural way. Don't infodump your reader because you don't know where else you can say it.
When we are dealing with different, and perhaps numerous, characters, it's normal that each of them is recognizable by their own voice. Let's think of the people around us: they use interleaves, they speak quickly or very slowly, they stammer, or they grunt, they use colorful language or they say holy cow. Defining a voice for each character is essential to give them dimension. Another very important thing: the dialogues must reflect the time and place in which the events take place: a person in the Victorian era cannot speak like someone who lives in London in 2021, so keep an eye out for some exclamations or idioms that may have escaped to your attention.
I go too far in the descriptions of places and customs and of everything that makes a world of fiction real; it's my weakness and I'm aware of it (all Professor Tolkien's fault), so I know that in the revision phase it's one of those things that I have to cut as far as possible. But be careful not to do the opposite: as with all things, you have to balance them. In principle, in addition to any cuts, I always ask myself:
- besides sight, have all the senses been used to describe the environment in which the events take place? (It's very important to tease the sense of smell, hearing, touch—and even taste if possible. Maybe not all together, but at least one of them beyond sight.)
- as for the dialogues, is everything that involves worldbuilding (from manners, objects, methods of transport, politics, etc.) consistent with the place and time in which the events take place?
- If you modified the setting and the time, would the plot change significantly? How can you strengthen worldbuilding so that it's also relevant to the storyline?
- Are time and places clearly defined in each chapter or scene?
Chapters and scenes must have a narrative arc just like the book itself, that is, a captivating beginning, a central part that develops problems and seeks solutions, and an ending that closes the circle but that makes the readers ask other questions, encouraging them to turn the page.
The most important chapter, perhaps, is the first, because it's the one that makes a reader want to keep reading or not and raises questions like: who are these characters? What is their greatest desire? (or it has the opposite effect if written wrong, that is, it doesn't capture the attention at all).
For each chapter (and consequently for each scene, if there is more than one in a chapter) you have to ask yourself:
- does the first scene grab attention and start at the right time? Or does it begin in a moment of stasis in which nothing happens? (It's important that you start in the middle of the action, and not with the main character waking up in the morning and making breakfast—unless that's vitally important. With this I do not necessarily mean that the first scene must contain a shooting or the immediate arrival of the bad guy: but it must ask questions, intrigue, move the protagonist out of his/her comfort zone, what will push him/her for the rest of the narrative.)
- Does this chapter/scene move the story forward? How is it contributing to the storyline? Does it need to be there, or would it change nothing if it were cut? What if it moves? What is the weakest part and why? How can it be strengthened?
- How are the tone and rhythm (which we will discuss in the next tab)? Are they suitable for the scenes and mood of the situation?
- Is there a good connection between one chapter and another (or between one scene and another)? Does it flow well or is it too abrupt?
Watch out for the length of the chapters: I have a bad habit of writing a very long chapter and the next is half of the previous one. Try to keep a length that is appropriate to the narrative and more or less consistent across all book.
For this part of the revision, all the suggestions related to the plot are valid, i.e. on twists, foreshadowing, any gaps, etc.
This is just a short note to remember to always check, over and over again, that the chronology has a logical sense: I'm not only talking about the order in which the facts occur (since one could make time jumps from one chapter to another, such as in The Night Circus). I am also referring to the consistency with historical dates, or that the time taken by a carriage to cross a kilometer of off-road has been well calculated, and so on.
In the case of a fantasy you have to be careful to keep the chronological system of the world coherent (in case you have changed the way the seasons follow each other, or the number of hours in a day, and so on). But even if you set your book in a different hemisphere than yours.
Last but not least, it's good to check that the narration runs smoothly in case there are time jumps and that these are well highlighted. If chapters or scenes have been moved during plot editing, make sure you have also changed everything related to the chronology if necessary (maybe it mentions a meeting from last Tuesday, but in reality it means the Tuesday that is yet to arrive).
Here goes everything that could have escaped us: eyes that change color from one chapter to another; characters who appear in the scene without first introducing them (or who shouldn't appear in that scene at all); secondary character names that change along with eye color (a-ehm).
But also characters who appear at the beginning and then vanish throughout the book, only to appear at the end, including the secondary plots. It happened to me with the protagonist's sister; I had to write extra chapters because of her. In my defense, she was pretty flat and maybe that's why she just disappeared; taking her back helped me make her more three-dimensional and useful.
The rhythm of the narrative must follow the course of the plot, that is: the closer you get to the action and the climax, the faster the pace must be. This does not mean that you cannot alternate between slow and fast, depending on the plot; or that a fast pace cannot be stopped by a slower one to catch one's breath. It always depends on how you balance everything.
When I have to work on the rhythm I have actually already started the stylistic editing part: the longer the sentences, the slower the rhythm; conversely, more concise sentences encourage a faster reading (and therefore a sequence of events).
Introspection also helps slow down the pace, just as dialogue revives it.
It's the final part, that of the decorations at home! It's the moment when you examine sentence by sentence, word by word, and try to make reading easier, eliminate repetitions, use the right words to evoke a certain feeling, etc. You have to ask yourself if each sentence is necessary, if it adds something more to the story, if it can be improved. It's also the time when you need to standardize your writing style (be it sarcastic, melancholy, romantic, etc.). Be careful not to use too many metaphors and similarities already heard and avoid too poetic languages (unless the time and the book requires it).
The very last thing to do is correct any grammatical and syntax errors. After all this work, change the manuscript font and increase its size: it will help you spot errors faster. As with the structure of the book and the macro areas to be reviewed, highlight all those words that are repeated often and make sure they are well balanced both within a chapter and a page (if you use Scrivener, you can also use a function that counts the most used words).
The Word spelling-checker can help a lot, but it doesn't see some typos, so you have to be very, very careful. I've heard that reading aloud helps a lot — I'll have to try it... when I'm alone in the house.