Identifying story patterns

As developmental editors, our goal is to help authors figure out how to revise their stories to make them better. To do this, we are essentially comparing the work in front of us to some ideal in our heads.

That ideal should not be “how I would have written this” but should be instead an informed opinion about how novels in this genre work and how this particular manuscript can be helped to become closer to ideal. We also need to take into account what the author is trying to achieve; what is the author trying to do, what would be the author’s ideal? We are trying to let the manuscript itself show us how to edit it.

In crude terms, we can say that an ideal romance has a happily ever after. If there’s no happily ever after, the story is not a romance. Therefore, if you’re editing a romance, and there’s no happily ever after, your “this is not ideal!” red flag goes off, and you make a suggestion to the author that this problem be addressed in the revision.

But beyond the most obvious of conventions, what makes up the ideal in our heads? Literature grows out of other literature. Because of this, when we read, we recognize allusions to other works (whether those allusions are deliberate or not). These allusions form patterns and parallels.

Literary meaning is created not just by the author but by the reader. Readers look for these patterns, which go beyond genre but nonetheless help the reader understand the story. The character who makes a deal with the devil is one such pattern; whether that pattern produces a tragedy or a comedy depends on the outcome and what the author wants to say about deals and the devil.

Readers are looking for the familiar at the same time they are looking for the strange and new. Readers respond to stories on an emotional level first and foremost. Most writers, and particularly genre writers, are trying to appeal to this emotional level.

That’s what the plot (what happens in the story) and the characters (the people it happens to) are about.

But developmental editors are looking for other elements as well. We are looking for patterns: where have I seen this situation before? What other fictional character does this one remind me of? Where did the effect come from and can it be strengthened by tinkering with the text?

In other words, we’re distancing ourselves from what we might call the affective level of the text (the emotional response it evokes) to look beyond for structures and patterns. We can use this information to help us create an effective edit.

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