What follows is a list of questions authors of fiction and narrative nonfiction can ask themselves while rewriting, to help them clarify their ideas and shape their expression for greater impact. The list can also be useful before the fact and as a guide while writing the first draft.
Start at the base of the pyramid, so to speak. Ask yourself what your book sets out to accomplish and what you want your readers to come away with—what they will learn, think, feel. Then examine each element that contributes to those goals.
Foundation: Why did I write this book? What is its theme, and what am I saying about how people behave? Is there an inherent unity and consistency to all the elements? What was my purpose, and has that been fulfilled? If not, what can I do at a fundamental level to make that clearer and the story more engrossing and entertaining?
Story: Have I begun by posing a challenge or problem that creates conflict for the main characters? Does that get the characters into physical or emotional trouble and allow readers to see how they cope with obstacles? Do their decisions and choices have real emotional consequences? Are the stakes high enough to compel action? Are the circumstances crucial to their survival or happiness? What do the characters want and need, and how do the things that happen to them affect and change them?
Plotting: Does the story start at a high point that is exciting or emotionally gripping? Does the plot move the characters from beginning to end in a plausible way, presenting challenges and crises they will need to overcome by learning something, achieving something, or evolving in some essential way? Is each scene pertinent to the plot or character development, or is it just an event that unnecessarily stalls the story or moves it sideways instead of forward. Do the events of the plot lead the main character(s) to an answer or resolution of some kind?
Character: Is the hero/heroine intrinsically likeable, despite some flaws or contradictions, and/or especially fascinating because of them? Are aspects of the protagonist’s unique history, physicality, and personality presented subtly, through action, or obliquely, through the eyes of others? What is motivating the protagonist’s actions? Is there a logical arc of character development? When characters find themselves in a new situation, do they carry with them the experiences, knowledge, and emotional responses from previous scenes? What do the characters want in each scene and at each moment? Are the choices they make and the actions they take propelled by desire or necessity or fear?
Speech: Am I misusing the dialogue to tell the story or to state the obvious, or is it less overt, as people naturally speak? Do the characters talk about their feelings or around them, as is more typical of conversation? What might each character be hiding or not discussing? How much is revealed by what is not said but is suggested? How distinctive is each character’s speech? Could the reader tell who is talking without any dialogue tags?
POV: Are the scenes and events presented from only one person’s point of view in each chapter or section, so the reader can experience them through him or her? Are there any sections where POV changes inappropriately or jarringly to (or from) the author instead of the character, or from one character to another in the midst of a scene or chapter?
Economy: Does any part of the manuscript get bogged down in exposition, or is the pertinent information delivered over time and as minimally and gracefully as possible? Have I eliminated padding and redundancies, as well as the obvious? Have I used as few words as possible to convey the point, the effect, or the necessary information? Is there any more that can be removed without harming the narrative, anything I could really live without? Is there anything else I can take away that will result in heightened suspense or greater tension for the protagonist and other characters?
Language/diction/literary style: Have I crafted each sentence for the greatest impact while remaining true to my voice and the voices of the characters? Have I minimized the use of cliché? Are the word choices highly specific, sensory, interesting, and emotionally evocative? Do they communicate exactly what I mean to convey, or could they be more precise? What is the essential rhythm of the narrative as a whole?
Here’s a tip: If you’re struggling over any or all of these issues, put the manuscript away for a few days and let everything percolate in your subconscious. You’ll come back to it fresh, and in the interim you may come up with a number of great ideas, having gotten away from the page even briefly.
Here’s an additional tip: These days, many books provide the raw materials for films and television shows…including literary novels and even some nonfiction. To achieve greater punch and emotional satisfaction for contemporary audiences, it can be helpful to learn and then keep in mind the elements of a good screenplay when rewriting. Fill your manuscript with vivid imagery and dramatic action and reaction (physical or emotional). Then watch and hear the narrative unfold in your mind’s eye as you revise. Even if your book never becomes the basis of a script, this exercise can serve to make it more vibrant and compelling.