Practically every how-to-write book I’ve ever read (and I have read quite a few) breaks down “writing fiction” into a bunch of different areas – plot, characterization, structure, dialog, theme, etc. – and then examines each area separately, usually at the level of sentences or paragraphs. This misses two significant factors: first, that everything in writing has both a micro-level, sentence-by-sentence and paragraph-by-paragraph effect, and a macro-level overall effect, and everything really needs to work on both levels rather than only on one, and second, that all these bits and pieces and levels have to work together to form a pleasing and balanced whole.
Take dialog, for instance. There are lots of micro-level things that are important – giving each character his/her own speech pattern and voice, for instance, or polishing particular characters’ witty repartee. Recently, though, I read a novel where there was no dialog but witty repartee; nobody ever said anything as simple witty repartee; nobody ever said anything as simple as “Pass the coffee” without adding some clever comment, which was immediately topped by whoever happened to have the coffee pot. As individual conversations, they sparkled, but as an entire novel, it got really wearing. Even Oscar Wilde includes lines that are, in themselves, pedestrian (“Where have you been since last Thursday?” “In the country.” “What on earth do you do there?”) but that set up for the next clever line (“When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people.”)
People focus on the micro level mainly because it is where writing starts. It is fundamental. Nobody sits down and *blooph* there’s a chapter; even if they are very, very clear on everything that happens in the chapter, they still type it in one letter, one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time. The macro levels are built up from stacks and stacks of micro levels, the way a wall is built from stacks and stacks of bricks. The assumption is that if you get the little stuff right, the bigger levels will take care of themselves.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work this way, because what is needed to make things work in the overall story, at the book level, are not always things that are obvious when all one ever looks at is the micro level. Like the book full of witty repartee, in which no one could explain a simple plot point without three pages of back-and-forth snarking, things that work one scene or paragraph at a time may not work when you string a bunch of scenes or paragraphs together.
Another example: a while back, I read a Romance novel that was curiously flat. The prose was quite readable; the characters were likeable; the dialog was realistic and varied; the characters encountered an appropriate number of obstacles on their way to the altar.
The trouble, when I got to analyzing it, was that there was very little tension, and the reason there was very little tension was that every time an obstacle cropped up, the couple dealt with it completely. On a scene-by-scene basis, this worked fine, but dealing so completely with each and every obstacle left the overall story with no development. The characters started out at emotional level 1, got up to level 3 due to an obstacle, and then dropped back to level 1 when they dealt with the obstacle. So every time they hit a new problem, they were starting from the same emotional point…and there is a limit to how much an author can crank up the tension/emotional level in one problem-solution cycle.
In other words, the author had been paying attention to the scenes and making sure that the loose ends from each plot-incident were tied off, but they’d lost sight of the effect that such a complete wrap-up of each incident ended up having on the story as a whole.
The tricky bit with the macro level is that for a lot of aspects of a story, it is difficult to see until you have the whole thing there to look at. Plot is commonly seen as an exception to this, but that’s only true for writers who plan their plot in advance and stick to their plan. For the rest of us, the overall shape of the plot is something that needs to be looked at when it is all there, and it isn’t all there until the book is finished.
Plot is a bit easier to examine on the macro level than some other things (dialog, theme, characterization, worldbuilding), mainly because part of marketing a novel is producing a plot outline, which forces the writer to condense the plot line into five to ten pages and then to examine those pages to be sure they make sense. For things like characterization and dialog and pacing and so on, there isn’t a built-in marketing tool that makes the writer examine things at a macro level whether they want to or not.
This means the writer has to find some other way of checking whether everything works on the macro level, and whether it all works together. This is one of the reasons so many writing books advise writers to let their work “cool off” for a few weeks or months once it’s finished, and then try to read it as if they’ve never seen it before. This can be really useful, as long as the writer doesn’t get bogged down in fixing the micro-level writing (which happens far too frequently), and as long as the writer doesn’t have too many personal blind spots for macro-level problems (a writer who really doesn’t much care about increasing tension/emotion is unlikely to spot the fact that his/her novel is emotionally flat, just as one who is only interested in the characters’ emotional angst is unlikely to spot problems with balance in exposition or worldbuilding).
Beta-readers can be a useful shortcut for spotting macro-level problems, if you a) can find good, reliable betas, and b) are the sort of writer who is OK with showing your not-completely-finished-and-polished work to other people. If you can’t and you aren’t, you will have to go the slower route of teaching yourself to look at all the aspects of fiction on the macro level when the work is finished.