This stretch was all building my to-do list.
Why not just dive in on page 1 and start fixing things? Because if I spend time perfecting page 1 and then figure out on page 237 the story would be better if the whole first scene was deleted, I wasted time putting a lot of bows on trash. (This is the same reason I don’t bother with complete sentences, much less pretty ones, in the first draft. It would have been much more painful to toss the entire first act several months into the writing process if it had looked more like finished copy, and holding onto it would have been a disaster.) It’s much more efficient to build the to-do list and find all the things I don’t need to waste time on before I start doing the necessary work.
This isn’t even the Make It Pretty stage, which comes last. This is all functional, things without which the story wouldn’t work even if the prose absolutely sang. There are a thousand plot-specific notes that would be meaningless out of context, but here are some of the global considerations that stand independently:
Characteristically, the first thing Heroine is going to do upon entering every setting is threat assessment and find the exits. That’s the lens through which she describes the environment.
People aren’t just standing around waiting for Heroine to show up and give them a reason for living. What are they doing? How do they respond to the interruption? Can heroine be roped into this ongoing activity to supply action to a talky scene?
As often as possible, make the physical activity in a scene show off a skill that will be useful later.
Find the contrast in every interaction. There’s a temptation here to force binary traits on characters for the sake of drama, but you have to find a contrast that already exists. For example, Heroine and one other character are pretty similar within the context of their own antagonistic relationship. Rather than force the other character to be, say, seductive in order to create contrast with Heroine, who does not have the time or energy, we focus on Heroine having to fend for herself while the other character has a twin who will always back her up and how that difference affects their respective approaches to their confrontation. And then, for kicks, we throw in the twin, who is less like Heroine but easily establishes rapport with her (because of Heroine’s similarity to the other twin?) but also will side with her sister if it comes to bloodshed, regardless of whether Heroine is in the right. “Contrast” isn’t for the sake of cheap conflict; it’s to establish the situational power dynamics, which should almost always, in at least a small way, disadvantage the protagonist.
How do other characters illustrate the theme? Succeeding/failing at it or in various stages of working through it. This doesn’t have to be every character, but at the very least, the antagonist should serve as a warning this is what Heroine could become and Hero should be struggling with it so they can help each other and grow together.
Look for ways to have multiple factors create a consequence. This is so difficult, it’s optional, but if I can find one linear cause-and-effect that can be converted to a three-part puzzle, I will feel extremely accomplished.
Set up wrong expectations as often as possible. This is also difficult to do without authorial dishonesty. Done well, it has to come from characterization: the character setting the expectation has a million reasons to believe a certain outcome will occur but doesn’t know XYZ that’s been brewing the background is going to explode and screw up the best-laid plans. This is a baby version of the three-part puzzle, slightly easier to pull off. If I get two of these with one of those, I’ll be absolutely insufferable.
Manufacture ticking clocks to create the illusion lengthy data-mining conversations are actually being abbreviated. The aforementioned busyness Heroine interrupts with her arrival is helpful here. “Can’t talk long, gotta take the poison off the heat before it boils or it’ll turn bitter” creates a time limit, even if it’s false.
Every character has a personal agenda and cares about Heroine’s problem only to the extent it can be used to their own ends. Even if the scene doesn’t call for that other agenda to be acted upon, know what it is and look for ways it can influence the interaction (e.g., if her problem isn’t useful to them, what’s the incentive to help? would they benefit from leading her astray?). I used an otherwise helpful character’s competing agenda to make an underserved motivation into a chronic source of worry for Heroine!
How is the external conflict forcing Heroine to deal with her emotional conflict at each milestone?
Sacrifice shows the sincerity of change. Show her refusing to make a version of the climactic sacrifice often enough that readers will recognize the significance of the change.
Talk about something other than the plot at least once in most scenes to develop emotional stakes. This is another one that shouldn’t be haphazardly forced for the sake of itself, but if you look for opportunities in the existing dialogue, you can turn little asides into bonding experiences.
Every time Heroine has a goal, what will she lose if she fails? “Everything will stay the same as if I did nothing” is not sufficient motivation to put her life on the line. There must always be a reason she doesn’t quit this sucky job. Make it hurt if she does.
Any time a scene goal is successfully achieved, cast doubt on the permanent nature of that success. Will the loser take revenge? Was it a trap all along? Where is the shit in search of a fan?
If the fantasy plot is in a lull, hit the romance plot harder.
Show the negative side of her personal goal so she questions what she really wants at least once before redirecting her energy toward fulfilling her need somewhere around the midpoint.
Reversible behaviors can be used to externally show internal change. If every time X emotion is triggered, a character does Y, readers will notice the significance when X emotion is triggered and that character responds differently. THIS CAN GET GIMMICKY. Heroine is too well-trained in stealth and subterfuge to have such a tell, but she’d notice if Hero has one. And maybe the Mega Villain is too certain of superiority to care what Heroine thinks she discerns because she’s too insignificant to do anything about it.
List of all the people/places/things I need to make up names for. (It’s so long. *sob*) Someday, when I think my mood cannot possibly get any worse, I’ll force myself to perform that most hated chore. I did one Naming Day before I started writing so I could refer to the principal characters by name. I’m not fond of several of those names now, but every time I consider adding them to the new list, my tune changes to “No, It’s Great, I Love That Name.”
Speaking of tunes, I’ve been listening to fantasy video game bard compilations for inspiration because I, a fool, set up Heroine singing a spit-in-the-eye-of-the-gods song when she’s pretty sure she’s going to die and somebody has to write that song. I thought I learned with the last book that SONGWRITING IS NOT IN MY SKILLSET, but the most malicious part of my brain insists anything that might be accompanied by a lute is a completely different situation. I’m punting that task as far into the future as possible, as well. I’ll know immediately if someone invents time travel because Future Me will appear and murder me while screaming a terrible spit-in-the-eye-of-the-gods song to the tune of the Spongebob Squarepants theme.
And finally, there’s a big note about making people different shapes, sizes, colors, ages, perceived genders, sexualities, visible disabilities, economic classes, and a bunch of other values because if you’re not intentionally including, you’re intentionally excluding, and I have a big enough cast to include everybody I can think of more than once. I have a table of characters in order of appearance so I can see at a glance what areas I’m neglecting and if I’m clumping traits together in a way that implies something about a group of people because what we are NOT going to do is invent new stereotypes.
And that’s the end of the Broad, Sweeping Strokes Phase of revision. Next, I start rewriting and implementing as many changes as possible into the next draft.