What is Developmental Editing?
Updated: Jun 19
Crafting your novel means putting together all the pieces of a literary jigsaw puzzle so readers see the picture you want them to see. At its heart, developmental editing is a (rather invasive) look into the core of your story and how well you've executed the requirements of storytelling to carry your reader through the narrative. But when done well, a thorough developmental edit helps you nail key storytelling basics to keep your readers immersed, invested, and turning pages.
Resolving the Big Picture
The big picture must be properly developed for two reasons: reading comprehension and reader satisfaction. Regardless of genre, tropes, and intended audiences structure, every novel you pick up has three things in common: structure, character, and plot
Story structure is the framework around your literary jigsaw puzzle, the order into which you organize the events in your story to create a beginning, middle, and end. Whether you use the three-act structure, the hero's journey, or something else, every novel has a structure. Without structure, you run the risk of wandering and losing reader interest, which is exactly the thing you don't want if you're trying to sell novels.
If the world is the thing you care about the most and your protagonist travels to a strange land, sees all the interested things, and is transformed by the peculiar world, your story must be driven by place. Your story begins when your protagonist enters the place, conflicts arise when your protagonist tries to leave, and the story ends when your protag either leaves or chooses to stay.
But if your story is a novel about learning new information, it is an idea story driven by questions or a mystery. Your story begins when a character has a question, conflicts occur when they cannot answer the question, and the story ends when the protag finally has the answer.
In a character story, the novel centers around the transformation of the character's role within their community and typically focuses on who your protag is rather than what they do. The story is driven by angst and starts with a shift in identity. Conflicts arise to keep the protag from changing, and the story ends when the protag solidifies their self-definition.
And if you've written a story about a major, life-changing event or a series of events where the narrative is driven by action, your story begins when the world has been disrupted or is otherwise in a state of disorder, conflicts keep the protag from restoring order, and ends when either a new status quo is reached or the previous status quo is restored.
Now, if you start your novel as an idea story but end your novel as a character story without getting around to solving the mystery, you've lost your reader and have likely guaranteed yourself a not-so-great review of your novel.
Developmental edits, therefore, must look at the structure of your novel, or the flow of information, who knows what, and when they learn (or reveal their knowledge), as well as the pace and rhythm of that flow, to ensure that the story you started writing is the story you finished at the end.
Character in this context is the protag, or the main character most important to your novel. To be important, your protag must have three things: a want, a goal, and a need.
Your character must want something they don't have yet, be it a promotion, a date, peace of mind, or something else. And to secure their want, the protag will have a goal.
The goal will be something your protag works to achieve to obtain the thing they want and helps create the plot of your novel.
And the protag's need is a handy little device you will use to hinder your protag's progress toward their goal and works double time as the lesson your protag must learn. The need is often a hidden trauma or personality dysfunction that, when addressed or repaired, helps the protag realize their true power in whatever shape that takes for your novel.
Plot refers to the sequence of events within the greater narrative, and it's a great cause-and-consequence organization of what happens to (because of or in spite of) the character and what they do to the world, usually presented in chronological order. Whether you're writing a tragedy, a comedy, or another type, every story has a plot of some kind. Without a plot, there's nothing for your character to do, nothing for them to learn, and nowhere for them to grow.
Now, you may be saying to yourself, "But Fal, I read To The Lighthouse, which has almost no plot at all. I mean, the characters literally just plan to go to a lighthouse!" You're absolutely right. But even novels like To The Lighthouse still have a basic plot, though it is secondary to philosophical introspection, which is the real purpose of the work. But I digress...
Story plot provides the premise on which you will write your novel's blurb, that whet-the-appetite paragraph on the back cover. And you must deliver on the premise of the story or risk losing your readers. So what are the basics of plot?
The set up includes a look at the state of normalcy for your protag, or your status quo. Without knowing what "normal" looks like, readers won't understand (or care about) the need for change.
The inciting incident is the first event your protag encounters and is the one that catapults them into the story. This will be a big change for your protag.
The call-to-action derived from your inciting incident will mean your protag must make a choice (choice #1). Regardless of when it happens, the character's choice should be an active one.
Then you get to the rollercoaster ride that is exploration of the new world after accepting the call to action, the trajectory of which is dependent upon the climax (we'll get there in a few). If your climax is a high point, show the low. If the climax is a low point, show the high.
After exploration, you'll arrive at your midpoint, aptly named, given that it is literally the midpoint of your novel. In these pages, your character will reach their highest or lowest point thus far, but this is usually a falsification. After all, readers still have the back half of the novel to read.
After the midpoint, your protag needs an opposing moment. If your midpoint is high, bring your protag crashing down. If the midpoint is low, give your protag time to start looking up. Let your protag come to a conclusion based on everything they know and have learned up to this point.
Then, your protag will need to make a choice (choice #2). Your protag is going to clear their head and make a plan for success. Now, this is typically the kind of plan that is difficult to carry out. But keep in mind, your protag is at a time when they have little to lose.
And finally you'll get to the finale, the moment when your story ends, for better or worse. This could be the protag's long-awaited battle scene (hello, King Koopa) or a more personal moment of realization of a long-awaited truth (Stella, meet Groove).
Now, your plot can be as basic as "they planned to go to a lighthouse and then they went" or as involved as Frodo's journey to Mordor, fraught with giant spiders and sea monsters, but the plot must relate to your protag's goal and want.
A developmental edit analyzes and addresses structure, character, and plot as three basic big-picture elements, and these elements are all interrelated. And while there are a lot of other considerations, such as world building, pacing, and tone, getting these basics right will give you the creative freedom and flexibility to experiment with the other stuff.
If you've read to the end and find yourself asking, "Fal, when can I start developmentally editing my novel?" I have good news.
You can grab your copy of Editing Fiction and Memoir: Stepping Stones for Successful Self-Edits to get started.