Sometimes the idea of holding an entire novel in my head seems overwhelming. If my draft-three novel were a tapestry, I just know there would be a lot of dropped threads and holes! So when I’m reading some of my favorite YA authors, I marvel at how intricately each story thread is woven through. They know just when to go back and let us know how the relationship with that supporting character is going. They know just where to pull an old thread into the scene I’m reading. They leave me breathless… beautiful how they tied that in right there! And, sometimes, they leave me doubtful that in my own story I could ever possibly remember to pull the subtler threads through and tie them in at just the right spots. So, I did what I usually do in these cases. I took my latest favorite –Sara Zarr’s How to Save a Life, and I studied it, closely!
First I took two days to reread the novel. As I read I took notes. For each chapter I jotted down in order the major events. Admittedly, this was a little tedious. I would never want to do this on a first read. But it gave me so much good data to work with, and it made it very easy to flip back through the story and study it. Warning: spoilers ahead!
Second, I reviewed my notes and jotted down what I saw as the major threads. Here’s what I came up with:
Jill Jill & Mandy Mandy
loss of dad baby’s father?/pain from abuse
relationship with mother
Dylan & Ravi Christopher & Kent
who she will be
(relationship with each other)
Then, I literally went back through my notes shading them with colored pencils to color code these threads. Here’s an example of what my notes look like for one of Mandy’s chapters:
Mandy: While buttering toast, Mandy recalls mother’s incessant talking,
her need to breathe, and Robin’s e-mail
She thinks, Maybe I could be a mother.
She tells Dylan about her missing father & her mother
Dylan tells her, Your mom got a lot too = me, Mandy!
Here’s what I learned.
In interviews of some of my favorite authors, they refer to the 13th draft, the 20th, and I’ve thought, What on earth are they going over so many times? After this exercise, I could totally see how it would be VERY useful to take an entire pass over the novel for each thread or character. It really is too much to hold in my head otherwise! What I think I will do is chart the threads in my own manuscript as I did with Sara Zarr’s novel. Then, I will take a day to read through it pretty fast looking at just one of my threads. I will be asking myself questions like:
1) Where do I see opportunities to weave that thread back in,
in order to deepen the story’s meaning?
2) Where do I need to slow down and explore this thread more?
3) Is the development of this thread moving along fast enough?
Then I’m going to go back to he beginning and do it all over again for the next thread, and so on.
Something else I noticed about threads: when I was color coding, there were some events in the story that just couldn’t be considered one thread, no matter how I looked at it. For example, at one point Ravi gets Jill to open up about how she’s doing with the death of her dad and Jill ends up totally insulting him. On the surface, this could look like a Ravi thread. A closer look tells me this is more to do with Jill’s loss of her dad, but it also has a lot to do with the kind of person she wants to be. Those three threads just can’t be separated here. What this taught me: the threads affect each other. If the story is working, at some points the threads become so intertwined that they cannot be extricated from each other. It reminded me that, when I do these passes over my manuscript, I can be looking for opportunities where one thread has an impact on the others. It’s something I knew, but when I tear things apart to see how they work, it’s nice to see the bits naturally returning to the organic whole. It’s nice to know that intertwining threads may be a sign my story is deepening. It’s also a good reminder that sub-plots which don’t affect the central conflict need to go.
I kind of hate the idea of picking apart some of my favorite novels like this, but at the same time it’s like opening up a watch and discovering how the clockworks function inside. The clockworks are their own kind of artistry. In a way, understanding them makes these stories even more beautiful. And the big bonus –it’s helping me fine tune the machinery of my own story!