By Melanie Van Peenen
Perhaps Rudolf Clausius was wrong about entropy, or disorder, being the natural state of the universe. For something to be as chaotic as this felt… overwhelming.
To call the crime scene disordered would be an understatement. In all your years of detective work, you’ve never encountered anything as mindlessly cluttered or impossibly difficult to decipher—and you’ve tackled some pretty tough cases. That job in the winter of ‘19? You didn’t sleep for weeks, and that was nothing compared to this. But there’s no use in stalling. You briefly scan the room, releasing an exhaustive sigh as you anticipate the daunting task ahead, and crouch down to inspect the evidence.
Was this… a subplot? A deflated soccer ball is among the many items haphazardly strewn throughout the room. With a sharp click of your pen, you begin scrawling in the margins of your notebook.
(S1, L3: Given the conflict about the speaker and their soccer team in this first
stanza, I thought the story was going in a completely different direction. To make
the piece feel more cohesive, I would recommend resolving this later on.)
A figure is splayed across the ground like a discarded toy. You can’t help but feel a pang
of pity and think: what a shame, they had so much potential.
(S2, L1: I noticed that George plays a significant part in the first stanza, but he isn’t
mentioned elsewhere. Was this intentional? I personally felt that he was crucial to
the speaker’s development—perhaps he could be incorporated in the following
Editing pieces with an evident lack of planning can be a challenging task. If the story is incoherent and disjointed, you might feel like Sherlock Holmes trying to piece together a puzzling crime scene. Fortunately, there are several ways to make sense of a piece like this and provide constructive feedback to the writer.
Trying to understand the plot
When editing a poorly planned piece, it’s necessary to identify exactly where the plot went off the rails. This can often pose a challenge, depending on how disconnected or convoluted the story is. Perhaps the plot pitfalls are blatantly obvious, or maybe you’re on your fourth read-through, twelfth cup of coffee, and third all-nighter, but still don’t know where to begin. If the story is especially disjointed, it might be helpful to write out a flowchart or bullet-point list of the important plot elements. Before diving into detailed criticism, try outlining the narrative progression to guide you as you write your commentary. You can also ask yourself: what is the writer trying to express? Does the theme of the passage change or stay the same? Does the story follow a standard chronological structure, or does it jump forwards and backwards in time? Mapping out the plot to the best of your abilities will ultimately enhance the quality and specificity of your commentary. There is, of course, no expectation to be perfect in your analysis of the plot, but the writer will appreciate an editor who makes the effort to understand their vision.
It’s also good to keep in mind how different narrative structures can impact the coherence of the story. Certain formulas—the narrative arc, the Hero’s Journey—have proven to be reliable methods of storytelling. If the piece you are editing follows a more conventional structure, it may be easier to pinpoint what aspects of the story are missing or don’t make sense. However, not all good stories have to adhere to a traditional formula. If the piece follows a nonlinear format, evaluate each scene to determine what it contributes to the overarching theme or goal of the text. While a logical narrative isn’t required to be linear, each scene should make sense within the context of the story.
Plot devices and characters
Occasionally, characters suffer from—or are the cause of—a messy plot. If the piece focuses on the story or perspective of a certain character, it might be worth investigating if and how they develop throughout the text. The character’s motivations and the consequences of their actions often propel the plot forward; as author Kurt Vonnegut explains, “every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Perhaps the plot simply isn’t supporting the character’s evolution; do they experience a sudden and inexplicable change in personality? Does a specific action or line of dialogue take the narrative in an illogical direction? Taking note of the character’s start and end point in the story can be a helpful way of visualizing their development (or lack thereof), which will help you make suggestions for improvement in your specific and general commentary.
Similarly, if you recognize a recurring motif or plot point, make a note of where it appears within the story and how it contributes to the narrative progression. Maybe there is a subplot or underlying conflict that is introduced but never developed. Or, an important object or limitation in the story’s world inexplicably disappears—all of which might be worth mentioning in your specific commentary. Inconsistent devices like these often make for easy plot holes that the writer may have overlooked.
Sometimes it can be difficult for the writer to remove themselves from their work and look at it from the lens of someone who has never read it before. After all, the writer has already filled in the gaps of their story—they know it inside and out, even if some of these ideas don’t translate into the written work. It is especially important to explicate your impression of the text so that the writer can understand the reader’s perspective and evaluate whether or not it aligns with the message they intended to convey in their story. Did your feelings about the text change throughout your reading? What is your main takeaway from the story?
It’s also helpful to provide clear suggestions for improvement along with your criticism. For instance, what steps can the writer take to patch up a plot hole or refocus a disorganized scene? Without specific recommendations to point them in the right direction, the writer may feel lost or discouraged. Additionally, when offering suggestions, it’s crucial to have a respectful attitude towards the writer and their work, especially if you don’t entirely understand their vision. Posing specific questions or inquiring about the writer’s intentions is a great way to encourage the writer to take a closer look at the text.
Melanie Van Peenen is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.