You Have a Question? I Have an Answer: How to Break Up Long Manuscript Using Arcs
“You Have a Question? I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.
Q: Ricki, I’m currently editing my manuscript (it’s YA fantasy), which many people have suggested might be too long. It’s intended to be a series, so I’m trying to figure out if I can split it—but I’m thinking I might be too close to it.
In your post on editing last week, you mentioned the word “arc.” You said if you had two arcs, you could maybe split your manuscript into two. Can you explain this a bit?
A: Thanks for the question!
When I said arc, I was referring to the dramatic arc, or plot. If you already know this is a series, it sounds to me like there must be some over-arching plot and a lot of little sub plots. This is good! It means you have a lot of material to work with, and that will help you in your editing of the first book.
This will probably ring a bell from seventh-grade English, but each story arc is made up of these six basic parts:
- Rising Action/Complications
- Falling Action
For instance, let’s look back at the Harry Potter series (and I’m assuming, if you’re writing YA fantasy, you’ve read Harry Potter. If not, you need to drop everything and read it NOW because you should be using these books as your bible! Also, if you haven’t, *SPOILER ALERT*).
But I digress.
In the HP series, you’ve got the overarching plot of Harry vs. Voldemort; but, in each of the books, J.K. Rowling focuses on something different. Although you get that it’s Harry vs. Voldemort, it’s a different piece of the puzzle each time.
In the first one, you’ve got Harry learning he is a wizard, learning about the existence of Hogwarts/this whole wizard world, and learning about the overarching theme (Voldemort is a bad guy, who seeks to return to power and destroy him).
And while “Harry vs. Voldemort” is the bigger-picture plot, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’s arc/plot in the dramatic-arc breakdown looks something like this:
- Harry’s an orphan
- His aunt & uncle are heinous to him
- Oh yeah—and he’s a wizard
- They learn of the attempted robbery of the Sorceror’s Stone from Gringotts Bank
- This incites talk of why someone would want to steal it (because it has the power to give a wizard what he wants most) as well as who might want to steal it (He Who Must Not Be Named—a.k.a. Voldemort)
- Harry learns from Ron and Hermione that people say Voldemort is planning to return to power
- Harry learns the ropes of coming into his wizardry
- Malfoy’s a pain in the ass & Snape’s not much better
- Voldemort lost his power after killing Harry’s parents and trying to kill Harry, and he’s probably not too thrilled that his attempt on Harry’s life failed
- Harry, Ron, & Hermione suspect Snape is after the Sorceror’s Stone because he hates Harry, and they think he tried to sabotage Harry with a spell during the Quidditch match
- Harry and his friends venture past the three-headed dog guardian of the Sorcerer’s Stone because they believe Snape is going to steal it (the series of challenges they face on the way to the stone, etc.)
- Harry finds Professor Quirrell is about to steal the SS—not Snape—and it’s because he serves Voldemort
- Voldy is feeding off Quirrell’s energy, and he wants the SS so he can restore his power and come back to life—ya know, without residing in the back of Quirrell’s head
- Quirrell/Voldemort tries to take the stone from Harry, but Q/V burns up when he touches him
- Harry’s in the hospital
- Dumbledore tells Harry that Voldemort is likely to return—and he’s probably pissed at Harry
- Harry goes back to his aunt/uncle’s for the summer
- Even though they’re awful, he’s happier because he knows he has Hogwarts and a whole wizarding world of his own to look forward to in the fall.
My suggestion would be to read (or reread) Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets.
You said yourself you’re too close to your book right now to know what to cut, and this can be a good break. But it’s not just a break from your book—it’s research.
Read those two books and study J.K. Rowling’s use of exposition—how she sprinkles it in. She really does make each book capable of being a stand-alone, but they each fit into the overarching plot—and that’s what you’ll want to do as well.
I would also suggest, for the sake of your own series, plot out Chamber of Secrets (and maybe even more of the HPs—even if you use Wikipedia summaries for the rest of the series) in the same way I just did above. This will get you accustomed to figuring out how to break down stories this way—and that will be key in breaking apart your own.
Once you get away from your book and immerse yourself in this task, you’ll have a fresh pair of eyes for the trimming and tightening—I promise!
I hope this helps!