Category Archives: Developmental Editing

Evaluating Character

Evaluating Character

Evaluating character helps an editor anticipate audience reaction. Readers love imaginative settings, thrilling plots, and beautiful writing. But they come to stories for characters. Because of that, evaluating character forms one of the central goals of developmental editing. The editor ensures each of your novel’s main cast members (protagonist, antagonist, etc.) is compelling. They also take a look at your minor characters.

The Four Pillars of Character

When I’m evaluating character, I always look for the Four Pillars of Character. What does a character value, what do they want, what’s in their way, and what are they doing about it? In every bestseller I’ve read, the reader can answer those questions shortly after the main character’s introduction. And while the answers to those questions can change over the course of the book, the reader never loses track of them. Much of the character feedback I offer during developmental editing aims at helping authors clarify the answers to those four questions.

Evaluating Character Arcs

During developmental editing, an editor also evaluates character arcs. Editors apply one or more critical frameworks (the Big Lie, the Hero’s Journey, etc.) when doing so. Each checks that a character changes satisfyingly over time. The fantasy hero or heroine might learn to trust their power in order to defeat the villain. The romance heroine might learn to value her feelings to find love. The hard-boiled detective might learn to trust their sidekick in order to catch the murderer. Readers typically enjoy stories in which characters grow in knowledge about themselves (common in literary fiction), about the world (common in dark, gritty fiction of all genres), or in both (common in most other fiction). Character arcs are often most satisfying when they’re intimately related to the plot of a book, and the character can’t succeed at their external goal without changing internally first. A good developmental editor will check for all these things.

Avoiding Stereotypes and Cliches

One of the last, but most important, tasks of the developmental editor when evaluating character is ensuring the author avoids stereotypes and cliches. First-time authors often default to characters similar to ones they know and love. But if that wise old mentor looks, acts, speaks, and dresses exactly like Obi-Wan Kenobi or Gandalf the Grey, readers are likely to want a little more. More importantly, if an author stumbles into repeating racial or gender stereotypes from stories they loved when they were younger, they can accidentally turn off whole swathes of readers. A good editor will catch stereotypes and cliches, and understand when to refer an author to a specialty reader if a book touches controversial ground.

Evaluating character could fill its own whole series of posts, and I’m sure we’ll return to the topic in the future. But for now we’ll move on to Evaluating the Opening.

Evaluating Pacing

Evaluating Pacing

Evaluating pacing helps an editor gauge whether or not a book will bore its readers during developmental editing. That sounds like a fairly straightforward appraisal (Is this book boring? Yes or no?), but in practice it gets complicated. Different genres carry different pacing expectations. An epic fantasy with a slow, setting-heavy opening creates a pleasant sense of grandeur. A political thriller with the same opening is likely dead on arrival. Properly evaluating pacing during developmental editing requires understanding reader expectations, knowing how to manage a tension curve, and spotting missed opportunities.

Reader Expectations for Pacing

When evaluating pacing, I begin by identifying reader expectations. Authors are often taught basic maxims for successful fiction along the lines of “Never let your tension flag,” “Open your book with action,” “End every chapter with a cliffhanger,” etc. The people teaching those maxims often forget to qualify them—they work for some genres, but not others. A cozy mystery doesn’t need to launch with much in the way of action. Most plots needs a few moments of low tension to develop subplots, introduce new characters and settings, and set up twists. And cliffhangers in character-focused contemporary fiction tend to feel laughably forced. Knowing reader expectations for the story’s genre helps you evaluate this story’s pacing, not pacing in relation to an imaginary ideal.

Managing the Tension Curve

Once you’ve identified reader expectations, you should have a general sense of the book’s ideal tension curve. Most narratives begin with low tension, ramp up toward a climactic confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, and then lower tension again during a short denouement.

But not all stories follow the same curve, and even those with similar trajectories can look quite different at the chapter level. If you assign each scene in a novel a tension value between zero and ten (zero meaning no tension, ten meaning imminent risk of death), you’re likely to find that your values don’t increase uniformly. You may go from a five to a nine when the antagonist makes a sudden, dramatic appearance. You may drop from that nine back down to a six again when the protagonist escapes to safety and regroups for another confrontation.

Novels with successful pacing make those changes in ways the reader finds satisfying. Dropping from a tension level of ten to one just a chapter before the climax is going to confuse most readers. Bouncing between eight and ten for the entire first act of a book may burn them out, particularly if you then move into a more standard progression of sixes and nines in the second act. To do a good job of evaluating pacing, an editor maps out a book’s tension curve (either physically or mentally) and compares it to reader expectations in the genre.

Spotting Missed Opportunities

Spotting missed opportunities forms the last step in evaluating pacing during developmental editing. Most problems in a tension curve involve a failure to remind the reader of the danger threatening the protagonist, or a missed opportunity to get the protagonist to a place of temporary safety. I like to use Star Wars as an example. Moments of comparatively low tension are easy to identify, signaled by jokes and musical cues: Artoo and Threepio in the desert after their escape pod crashes, Luke returning to Obi-Wan after the death of his family, the heroes cleaning up after escaping the garbage smasher on the Death Star, the heroes celebrating escaping the Death Star.

In poorly paced stories, the author typically misfires on those moments of safety. Imagine the opening act of Star Wars if the Empire stays right on Artoo and Threepio’s tail. We would lose the chance to meet Luke and develop the protagonist of the story as a character. At the other extreme, imagine if Luke took twenty minutes of screen time to decide what to do after finding his aunt and uncle dead. At some point we’d get fed up and want the story to move along already, no matter how pretty the desert shots were.

When you’re evaluating pacing during developmental editing, you need to learn to spot those missed opportunities. Once you do, you can recommend putting some distance between the protagonist and antagonist where it’s necessary, and kicking them into gear more quickly when they’re taking too long to act.

Next we’ll talk about evaluating character. Or you can return to our developmental editing resources.

Evaluating Structure

Evaluating Structure

Evaluating structure forms the core of many developmental editing approaches. When I talk structure, I mean the overall shape of the story. Is it a romance? Is it a hero’s journey? Is it a heist? The answer matters because it shapes reader expectations. Evaluating structure can be a little difficult to wrap your head around in theory, but it’s usually intuitive in practice. Our minds constantly evaluate structure. It’s a big part of how we decide whether to engage with a story. And it’s an even bigger part of how we decide whether that story is good.

Basic Structure

I highly recommend Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid to learn more about evaluating structure—he presents an interesting, novel, and useful set of tools for thinking about story structure. But after over ten years working with fiction, I’ve noticed that every structure seems to boil down to a single basic formula: a series of escalating confrontations between a protagonist and one or more antagonists. When evaluating structure, I always look for that series of escalating confrontations—if the tension doesn’t escalate, or if there’s no specific protagonist and antagonist, a story has major structural problems, and we need to address them before moving on to higher-order concerns.

Advanced Structure

Within that basic formula, storytellers employ an astonishing variety of advanced structures. A three-act structure creates heightened tension and builds to intense confrontations at specific points in the narrative. A hero’s journey uses twelve (give or take) scenes to create a compelling character arc. A heist involves a protagonist trying to steal something from the antagonist, with escalating confrontations driven by the theft. A thriller means your antagonist tries to kill your protagonist, usually while the protagonist tries to figure out who they are.

Does It Match Up?

When evaluating structure, I focus on how well a story matches the audience’s expectations. Casual readers intuitively understand dozens of advanced structures. Heavy readers know many more. If that sounds unlikely, I suggest an experiment. Pick up a book you haven’t read. Read the first three pages, and pay attention to how that opening shapes your expectations. When a protagonist talks about stealing something in the first chapter? You know it’s a heist. When there’s an unexplained attempt on their life? Thriller. When someone finds a dead body, and the protagonist wonders why? Mystery. We all evaluate structure, unconsciously, every time we read.

Once a reader intuits the structure of a novel, they develop expectations about how it will play out. A heist that wanders away from the theft for twelve chapters leaves a lot of readers frustrated. So does a hero’s journey that leaves out the Dark Night of the Soul, or a thriller in which attempts on the protagonist’s life stop without resolution. At its heart, evaluating structure means uncovering these reader expectations, and then making sure a book fulfills them in an exciting and novel way.

Next we’ll talk about evaluating pacing. You can also return to our developmental editing resources.