Editor Notes Sample # 4
Connecting disconnected characters...
Weaving multiple points of view into one cohesive story is always a challenge. The struggle becomes even greater when the stories you're attempting to intertwine feature characters who aren't involved in each others' everyday lives. While it's not impossible, there must be some connecting thread to bind them together—whether that's a setting, an object, an event, or even an obstacle.
NOTE: These samples are only sections of a longer editorial evaluation, and most identifiers (such as character names) have been changed.
I truly enjoyed having the opportunity to read this! What stood out to me most was how well-drawn your characters were in their personalities, worldviews, languages, backgrounds, even appearances. I can see why you devoted so much time to building the history of each fascinating character. I cared deeply about what was going to happen to all of them as a result.
Unfortunately, I became frustrated because ignored so many of your main characters for large chunks of the book. You would get me excited about following one person’s story, and then you would suddenly drop them and move on to someone else. Then, when we’d finally get back to that person’s story, it would be months later, and he/she had gone through dramatic experiences and changes without me. I had to learn about his/her story vicariously through summary rather than going with him/her on the journey.
What little there is of the overall story makes sense (although we don’t get to read much of the actual story, just backstories and summaries), but the novel tries to do too much and doesn’t accomplish what it intends to. This is because you go off on far too many thematic tangents in what amounts to nonfiction essays and opinion pieces stuck into a fictional story. Readers will only get bored when sit your characters on the sidelines to blatantly preach about the themes of your book.
Then, when we finally do get back to what your characters are doing, they’re no longer focused on the happenings in their lives or in the story your telling. Instead, they’re having random conversations about every hot button issue under the sun that is in no way related to their personal stories. Every time that happens, you put your plot in the back seat, you let your character development stagnate, and your dialogue reads more like a lecture than actual conversations. Which is especially frustrating, because we’ve just read a nonfiction lecture on whatever topic you inserted, and now we have to “listen” to the characters rehash these lectures instead of focusing on their personal lives and journeys.
For example, in one chapter, AAA and BBB spend some time in a bar discussing several moral issues, but specifically topic XXX. This feels completely forced because AAA is dispassionately relating a confrontation to BBB that he didn’t actually witness. Because BBB wasn’t there, there are absolutely no stakes involved in this discussion of topic XXX. It just reads as preachy and the discussion feels as if it was forced into the story—because it does nothing to move the plot forward. However, you give CCC a teenage son, who is one of the students involved in this confrontation, and BBB witnesses AAA discussing the incident with CCC at the end of a school day, then it becomes part of the plot and can be discussed organically. This will also add tension, because if BBB approaches AAA and CCC at the tail end of this discussion, then BBB becomes trapped between his love interest and his financial backers on a tough issue that immediately demands that he picks a side.
…Looking at the bigger picture, your novel is missing a driving tension to move the plot forward—because we have no focus, overall goal, or purpose that ties all these disparate stories together. It simply reads like a series of unrelated short stories with no common thread to tie them together, and so it’s disconcerting jump back and forth between their stories. For example, in the early chapters, the novel appears to be focused on the success or failure of BBB’s business venture, and we sense that he’s teetering on the brink of falling from grace. And he does fall from grace, BUT you leave BBB before that happens and return to him after its happens. The result is that we’re only reading his backstory and later a summary of his main story, because you skip over the most interesting parts.
The way you leave BBB and move on to other characters has promise, because it seems like you’re going to create a common thread between all these different people and stories by making them all customers at the same restaurant. At first it seems like the major life events (or at least the important conversations that happen as part of the aftermath of a big event) were all going to happen within the restaurant. And in that moment, the restaurant itself feels like a character we could care about—and how all of the people in the various, unrelated stories we’re following are somehow integral to the restaurant’s survival. But then we leave the restaurant for long stretches, and hear nothing of it—which means its success or failure is not the driving force behind these stories. If it is your intention for the restaurant to be the common thread tying this novel together, it’s not doing the work it needs to do in order to do so.
Instead, we leave BBB and the restaurant to follow random characters going about their everyday lives. But once things start to get interesting for that random character we’re randomly following, we leave them to go follow another random character into the mundaneness of their everyday life. And as interesting as these random characters are, we’re not emotionally invested in them—because we’re already emotionally invested in the abandoned BBB and restaurant. That creates a sense of impatience as we’re reading about these new characters, because we just want to get back to what’s happening with BBB, or the restaurant, or both of them.
Plus, you’ve already pulled the rug out from under us by abandoning characters once their stories heat up. So you lose the reader’s trust. Readers aren’t going to continue to emotionally invest in new characters once they realize that you only stay with characters long enough to share their backstory before moving on.
After a while, I realized that every character had a ZZZ somewhere in their story—so it looked promising that you were going to make that ZZZ object the throughline that tied the stories together. It’s more subtle than the restaurant being the throughline, but it could definitely work if you made the ZZZ a more integral part of each person’s story. However, halfway through the novel, you abandoned having a ZZZ in every story, so that stopped serving as the throughline, (in the same way that the restaurant quit being the throughline when you dropped it from the majority of Act II).
The bottom line is this: if BBB’s success or failure is not the primary focus of this novel, then the other major characters have to come into the story much earlier—and their stories need to unfold simultaneously with BBB’s story. This can be done simply by sprinkling in several shorter chapters in between BBB’s story early on, so that we can actually be with them when the major moments of their stories unfold. For example, TTT pops up late in Act II, we spend several chapters with her, and then she just goes away and her story is never resolved. So it reads like you just stuck her into the story simply to talk about yet another hot button topic, and then abandoned her once you’d made your point.
The same happens with BBB. We’re heavily focused on BBB in Act I and the beginning of Act II, but then he goes away for the majority of Act II. When he finally comes back into the story, we just get a quick summary of what he’s been up to and how he’s changed—when we would much rather have been with him on the journey that changed him.
For example, we’re initially focused on BBB, and his impending fall from grace is well foreshadowed. Then we shift to CCC in the next chapters, and I’m left wondering what she has to do with BBB at all because we’re never told that CCC is actually BBB’s potential financial backer until much later. Then we move on to other characters (some who seem completely unconnected to the overall story), and then spend all that time with TTT on things that have nothing to do with the opening of the novel. By the time we get back to BBB, it’s nine months later and he’s lost his job and wife without us?
…Honestly, even your characters are telling you that the plot is stagnating if you read between the lines. In one chapter, CCC actually has to explain why she ignored the ZZZ for so long—and her explanation isn’t at all convincing. Also DDD comes up with the idea to use the ZZZs to help fix people’s relationships—but then he sits on that idea for months? I believe your characters are trying to tell you that they want to take action instead of sitting around while time passes so that you can lecture on hot button topics and manipulate the timeline to fit the themes you want to cover.
By the way, if the ZZZs are truly the driving force of the novel, then they need feature prominently in the forward motion of the story. You may not realize it yet, but you’re telling us that the ZZZs ARE the throughline—you haven’t given them the emphasis they need in order to serve that purpose.
In my opinion, you’ve started the story too early and spent too long on BBB if he’s not meant to be the lone protagonist in this novel. Your story would be better served if we don’t meet BBB until after he’s lost his wife and fallen from grace. Consider starting off with the introduction of CCC and her interactions with BBB after everything has fallen apart for him. That’s when the ZZZs are introduced and that’s when the story really begins.
The fact that the interaction between CCC and BBB is set within an ensemble scene means that you can also introduce AAA and TTT (and the others) in that scene as well. Even if we don’t actually get to know them or spend time with them in the scene. You can just create a memorable, yet minor, incident for each of them that will let us know that they’re all important characters that we’ll need to care about. In fact, it might be wise to start the next few chapters within this same ensemble scene, just with the POV shifted to each of the important characters.
For example, if chapter one is the confrontation between CCC and BBB after everything has fallen apart, perhaps their disagreement is momentarily interrupted by crashing dishes that AAA has caused by jumping up after TTT spilled a drink on her. Then, in chapter two, we’re with AAA at that moment when she causes the waiter to drop the dishes (we see TTT do it and apologize, but that’s it for TTT in chapter two) and then we focus on the introduction to AAA and her story in chapter two. Then in chapter three, we’re with TTT as she spills the drink and we learn why she spilled it as we get into her story. And perhaps TTT even has a moment that ties back to CCC and BBB’s opening interaction (like she sets the empty glass on their table, which then triggers something else, and so on). In that way, we can connect these seemingly unrelated stories in a way that foreshadows the importance of the ZZZs—and it even allows the restaurant to retain its importance, despite the fact that we’re not going to spend a whole lot of time there. It would even work to only be at the restaurant once in the opening chapters’ ensemble scene, then once again at the end, as as a story frame or as bookends to the stories in between. (However, I think it would be better to have another ensemble scene chapter in the middle of act II.)
…It may help you to reread your novel while keeping my rule of thumb for multiple POV stories in mind. And that multiple POV rule of thumb is this: If we are not going to witness a character change via external conflict or through an inner emotional arc, then we should never see the story unfolding from their perspective. I know there can be exceptions to this in literature, but in general, when you give a character enough importance that we see the story through their eyes, then we want to know the fate of that character and see them change in some real way.
…In summary, we must meet all of the important players who are going to be whipped up into this tornado of luck, faith, and coincidence much earlier. Otherwise you must choose one clear protagonist, who subsequently brings all of these other, vastly different, characters along on his or her personal journey for some tangible reason. You rob fate and luck of its power by asking us to accept that these people come together and these things happen because of a seemingly endless series of coincidences.
…You must also let us actually see and be present for all of the great potential conflict and tension that you’ve set up, but never deliver. With the exception of AAA’s struggle (that we see all too briefly), your characters either avoid conflict and tension, they fail to react to it, or you simply skip over the moments when they experienced it, so we have no idea how they reacted or how it changed them. And when we finally do come back to these characters after they’ve gone through some conflict and tension, they seem rather unemotional about it all.
For example, BBB was betrayed by MMM (although we didn’t get to see it or even meet MMM until the very end), but he barely even acknowledged the betrayal. And DDD actually got shot because of the ZZZ, but he wasn’t at all bitter or angry about that? I expected him to go through at least one of the five stages of grief that many gunshot survivors go through, but he doesn’t (even though getting shot has dramatically and permanently altered his health and his life). Instead, he’s just happily applying himself to physical therapy seemingly without having any inner emotional development to get him to that point.
…Finally, you mentioned that you wanted a thread of yearning to flow through the story. You definitely achieved that, but it didn’t come from any specific characters—which I think is part of the problem. The yearning that you do achieve is that the reader is left yearning to read all the more interesting parts of the stories that you chose to leave out.
…As the story currently stands: We don’t know what any of your characters truly want or need. We don’t know what their obstacles are that are preventing them from achieving their wants and needs. We don’t know what inner or outer changes they need to make to achieve their wants or to get what they need. We don’t even get to see them change. Instead, we just get backstories before you drop the characters out, then summaries of their inner journeys when you reintroduce the characters back into the story—right before something new happens to them. And then we don’t get to see those new things play out because, once the new thing happens, you drop them out of the story again for too long.
…Because we don’t see the important parts of the varying stories unfold (we only hear about them in summary), the majority of the varying stories do not earn their endings.
…Overall, the novel reads like the plot was forced to serve the themes you want to cover, instead of letting the themes serve the plot as it naturally unfolds. By the end of the novel, we’re so close to drowning in heavy-handed lectures that we no longer care about any of the characters—no matter how interesting they are.
You’ve got all of the elements here to create a fantastic story about all of these big themes and hot button topics that you want to cover—but you’ve got to weed out the lectures which just get boring and frankly condescending. Put those themes and topics on the back burner in the next rewrite as you restructure your story to flow naturally. Do this by focusing on the most dramatic moments that happen to your characters and take us through how they react, how these events change them internally, and how it alters their interactions with others, especially the other featured characters. Get up close and personal with your characters in a real way and let us stay with them through the hard parts, and we’ll learn why these themes and topics are important to them. And we’ll be more willing to care about the points you make (subtly!) because we’ll be emotionally invested in the characters who are making your points in small, personal ways that impact the outcomes of their individual stories.