Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A writer’s checklist

with 10 comments

Atul Gawande

Recently, I picked up a copy of Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, which makes the case that in fields involving many routine but complicated steps—aviation, surgery—error rates can be reduced and efficiency increased by means of a simple checklist. His argument is compelling: as the complexity of a procedure rises, we’re more likely to overlook the things we know by heart, which includes fiction as much as anything else. Since I’m currently working on a difficult rewrite, I thought it might be useful to put together a checklist of the principles I try to follow when revising a story, and particularly in cutting it, ticking off boxes as I looked over each chapter in turn. Here’s the checklist I’ve been using this week:

1. Eliminate redundancies. In a rough draft, you’ll often find that you’ve got two beats in a spot where one will do. This is often because you’ve spent the first pass feeling your way into a story, trying one thing and then another, repeating lines of dialogue or moments of introspection to hit upon just the right combination of words. Usually, one of these efforts will stand out as stronger than the rest. Cutting the vestigial attempts that survived into the current manuscript and keeping just the one essential beat you need to convey the idea will save valuable space, and the result will be more powerful by virtue of being more focused. (For a movie that occasionally keeps three moments when might have been more effective, see The Wolf of Wall Street.)

2. Cut the first and last paragraphs of every chapter. This is the Rambo rule that I’ve discussed here more than once, since I first encountered it in a book on writing by First Blood author David Morrell. In your first draft, you’ll often spend a lot of time ramping into a scene and then easing out of it again, and the middle section is what you want to preserve. Along with being aware of this in theory, I’ve found that it helps to actually cut the first and last paragraphs on the screen, even if you’re pretty sure that you’ll need them. If you decide to preserve them after all, it’s easy to click “Undo,” but sometimes you’ll find—when you see it in black and white—that the result works just fine on its own.

3. Open in medias res. Much of the ramping up I’ve mentioned above consists of setting the scene: if the characters wander into a park or museum, you naturally want to spend a paragraph on their surroundings. This kind of description has its place, but it rarely belongs at the beginning of a chapter, which ought to be concerned with the who rather than the where. On television, you’ll often see a device in which the first image after the commercial break is of a closeup of a character, pulling back only later to an establishing shot, and it’s a trick worth imitating. Open on dialogue and action, and once the scene is moving, you can insert some descriptive or transitional material to indicate where we are and how we got here.

Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential

4. Overlap elements of the narrative. My favorite example here is Exley’s wristwatch in the film version of L.A. Confidential, which cleverly combines three small character beats into a single scene by starting each one slightly before the previous one has finished. This has the effect of stitching together the components more tightly, and it also saves time. Most chapters in a novel can be reduced to a list of moments that occur in succession, and it’s helpful to look for places where the action can be compressed by placing the start of one moment slightly before the end of the one before.

5. Cut all transitional material. Like Kurosawa, I’m well aware that many books and movies spend all too much time getting characters into and out of rooms, walking from place to place, and generally moving from one location in the story to the next. Even with that knowledge, though, I find that my first drafts still include countless paragraphs about characters in elevators, cars, and doorways. Nearly all of this can be cut, and even if there’s material here that you want to preserve, you’ll find that it often sits more comfortably in the heart of the scene itself, once the characters have arrived at wherever it is they’re going.

6. Parcel out information. In his useful book The Eye is Quicker, which provided my quote of the day, the film editor and teacher Richard D. Pepperman points out that information in a movie can be delivered in three different ways: to the audience first, to the character first, or to the audience and character simultaneously. The first is good for suspense, the second for anticipation, the last for surprise, and each one has its merits. Novels, too, spend a lot of time delivering information to the reader, and it’s worth reviewing the units of each scene—plot points, character moments—to see if they can be delayed or telegraphed.

7. Look for asymmetry. When you’re writing a scene for the first time, it’s easy to be seduced by symmetrical structures: it’s nice to have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and that little tripod can be invaluable when it comes to roughing out the events. From the reader’s perspective, however, it’s sometimes best to upset the balance: an individual scene can be mostly buildup, mostly climax, or mostly denouement, and that variation in rhythm lends interest to the narrative as a whole. If a chapter reads too neatly in itself, it won’t mesh well with its neighbors, so it helps to look for cuts that nudge it in one direction or the other.

10 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Great checklist! Thanks Alec!

    Samantha Rajaram

    May 20, 2014 at 9:50 am

  2. Thanks, Samantha! Hope you find it useful.

    nevalalee

    May 20, 2014 at 10:24 am

  3. Great advice – thanks. May I re-blog for my Wednesday re-blog feature?

    mandyevebarnett

    May 20, 2014 at 12:12 pm

  4. Absolutely—thanks!

    nevalalee

    May 20, 2014 at 12:36 pm

  5. I like it. A surgical approach to writing. This is a bookmark post for sure!

    menomama3

    May 20, 2014 at 6:57 pm

  6. Nice—glad to hear it!

    nevalalee

    May 20, 2014 at 7:00 pm

  7. This is a great checklist! Number 2 makes me a bit uneasy which just indicates I need to try it.

    Karoly G Molina

    May 21, 2014 at 4:10 am

  8. Fantastic advice – I will re-blog on my regular Wednesday feature today…

    mandyevebarnett

    May 21, 2014 at 9:36 am

  9. Great checklist!

    ernestortizwritesnow001

    May 21, 2014 at 9:29 pm

  10. Thanks, everyone!

    @Karoly: It makes me nervous, too. (Just to be clear, I don’t advocate cutting the first and last paragraphs of every chapter—just trying it out with each one to see if it helps.)

    nevalalee

    May 21, 2014 at 9:50 pm


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: