Developmental Editing and the Narrative Process

Of all the roles in the publishing world, developmental editing (DE) is easily the most difficult, the most complicated, and the most satisfying. Developmental editing is not simply editing; it requires the artistic abilities of a writer, the keen eyes of a reader, and a passionate, zealous love for storytelling. Oh, and the tact and civility of a diplomat.

Developmental editing is all about the narrative, which is why it’s my passion. Unlike copyediting, which is governed by style guides (no thanks) and grammar rules (yuck), developmental editing relies more on an editor’s sense of what works and what doesn’t. There’s a near-endless list of things to examine, critique, and fix. For example, for any given manuscript, an editor will analyze the characters, setting, dialogue, events, action, subplots, and the narrative itself as whole. Every piece of the narrative is deconstructed and analyzed for faults.

This is no small undertaking. There are no rules for how to approach a developmental edit. A set of what be described as best practices governs our editors. While DE can often be overwhelming, the lack of guidelines is part of what makes it so enjoyable. Even in the same genre, two manuscripts can require radically different approaches. Developmental editors must be flexible, and they have to approach each manuscript as a unique challenge.

The author is also part of this challenge. In copyediting, editors can use dictionaries, style guides, and grammar guides to support their editorial choices. Developmental editors don’t have these luxuries.

Let’s say a developmental editor notices that a specific character is underdeveloped. The DE might suggest providing more backstory or giving the character more action. These suggestions are fairly easy for authors to digest because the editor is implying with their suggestion that the character has value. Despite the character’s flaws, they still provide some value to the overall narrative. There’s still hope.

However, things get complicated when a DE suggests killing off a major character, reframing the plot, or changing the narrative’s entire focus. There are no implications here; the suggestion explicitly tells the author that this aspect of the narrative is so severely flawed that it negatively impacts the author’s storytelling abilities. In books that are well written and well edited, readers rarely see these problems, and that’s because the developmental editing process often reveals narrative-breaking issues.

Once an editor has identified such a problem, they have to develop solutions and find a way to gently present that information to the author. It’s a delicate dance that balances the harsh reality of the situation with the author’s feelings and desires for their narrative. It requires solid evidence, a convincing argument, and all the tact an editor can muster.

To further explain why developmental editors are drawn to their work, I asked a few of my fellow editors to share their insights:

Alison Cantrell: For me, editing is an intermediary between the writer and the reader. I’m very much a behind-the-scenes kind of person, and developmental editing allows me to do this kind of work while still making a meaningful impact. My role as a developmental editor may be “invisible,” but I still find it satisfying to know I’ve both helped the writer succeed in making their piece the best it can be and took part in crafting a wonderful reading experience for those who will eventually pick up the book.

Lisa Hein: My job as a developmental editor is to enter the project with a fresh eye, identify the true core of the story, and guide the author toward the best possible version of that manuscript. Since I’ve been on the artist side myself, I understand that everyone has a different creative process; I enjoy the challenge of discerning how to cater my tone to an author’s personality and unique working style. With that said, the simple answer to why developmental editing is close to my heart boils down to this: I love stories.

Developmental editors get to tinker with literary Lego, develop complex relationships with authors, and directly impact the narrative’s creation and final result. Every project is a unique challenge with unique rewards, and there’s simply nothing else quite like it.

Finding Unique Narratives in the Digital Realm

Here’s a common and unfortunate scenario that every reader is familiar with: You’ve accepted a book’s premise and you’re hooked. You’ve bonded with the characters and watched them grow and change during their arduous journey. The protagonist is about to accomplish their goal. It’s that pivotal moment, and just when you think it’s going to happen, they do something stupid that ruins everything. You curse the character, the author, and the book, and then immediately begin to wonder what could have been. The all-too-familiar “what-if” questions flood your mind.
Remembered fondly by anyone who grew up in the 1980s or 1990s, the Choose Your Own Adventure series gave readers the opportunity to rectify this issue. The branching narrative structure gave readers specific moments in which they could choose the protagonist’s actions. These decisions ultimately determined the protagonist’s success or failure (read: death). While an enjoyable romp for children, the series had nothing to offer adults.

Obviously, Carmen Sandiego is to blame for this

Visual novels can be loosely seen as a digital and interactive version of that narrative style. The level of interactivity in visual novels can vary, and, depending on the title, some might be more accurately classified as video games. The line between the two is often blurry and debatable, but visual novels often possess the same qualities (complex narratives, extensive character development, etc.) that readers of physical novels enjoy.
The only consideration for new visual novel readers is the interactivity, which can vary wildly between titles. Some are strictly narrative affairs: the reader makes basic decisions for the protagonist when given a set of options. Others include this mechanic but also add puzzles directly connected to the narrative. As an example, when presented with a locked door in the former, a reader might have to choose between breaking down the door or finding the key. The interactivity is limited to making text-based choices (break the door or look for the key). In the latter, the reader might have to find and interact with a Scooby Doo–style lever to open it.
For those who are interactivity shy, a good starting point is 80 Days. Based on Verne’s classic novel, 80 Days allows readers to chart their own world-trotting adventure while also managing finances and supplies. Its structure encourages experimentation and multiple readings, and the 750,000 word count is sure to keep even the most avid readers busy. For something totally different, try the generally lighthearted courtroom antics of the Ace Attorney series. As spiky-haired lawyer Phoenix Wright, readers are tasked with interviewing clients, investigating crime scenes, and calling out testimonial contradictions. It’s like Law and Order, but without the sadness and gore.
As a final example, I suggest my personal favorite: the Zero Escape series. Each game features a group of seemingly unrelated strangers who are forced into unimaginable circumstances. The games are structured with long narrative sections (with dialogue choices) and escape-the-room type puzzles. Each game contains a massive serpentine sci-fi narrative with qualities reminiscent of Asimov and Vonnegut. It’s a dark, disturbing tale full of ethical dilemmas and violent deaths, and a total absence of hope. It’s a narrative that simply could not be told in a physical medium.

The only door is also locked. Better think fast.

Much like the indie scene in book publishing, many indie visual novel writers and developers are continuing to push the boundaries of traditional narratives and subject matter. In Marcel Weyer’s This is Where I Want to Die, readers experience the final moments of a man’s life as he tries to remember what happened to him before he dies. Date Nighto’s We Know the Devil features three main characters, but the reader is forced to work through the religious and LGBT-themed narrative in pairs.
While interactivity provides readers with multiple ways to experience a narrative, it also creates tension within the narrative and between the narrative and the reader. If a character in a novel dies, they die; that’s the only option available. If a character in a visual novel dies, that death could be on your hands depending on the choices you made. And make no mistake—the best endings aren’t always the happiest.
It would be easy to write off visual novels because of their technological medium, but anyone who can use a computer, operate an iPad, or—better yet—program a VCR can read one. Don’t miss out on an entirely different narrative experience simply because the medium isn’t paper. A minimal amount of interactivity and narrative control is surprisingly effective at creating new reading experiences.