Lesson 5: Re-Visioning Your Story

Pantser or Planner it makes no difference when you are knee deep in re-visioning your story. The first draft is to get the story down on paper. How you choose to write the story MAKES NO DIFFERENCE. It's the second draft, the revision, that matters. This is where you take that diamond in the rough and cut away everything that gets in the way of your reader seeing the shining gem inside. For in the final analysis your story has to have some kind of structure, some thread of a plot, that will keep your reader engaged.

More than Just a Beginning, Middle, and End

First, let's agree upon a definition of plot. Wait a minute, you say, everyone knows a plot is: a Beginning, a Middle and an End. Some of you may think you'll outwit me by quoting a dictionary, such as the The American Heritage Dictionary, which says plot is "the plan of events or main story in a narrative or drama." I'd argue that plot is more than that.

To paraphrase and meld together definitions by Dwight V. Swain, Donald Maass, and Jessica Page Morrell: plot is a series of scenes where something changes, each scene building intensity and tension, increasing your reader's sense of foreboding, until there is a devastating fear that your focal character may not attain his goal, followed by a release of tension in a satisfying manner. It's a mouthful, I know. But all of those things are part of plot.

Then there is the issue of subplots. For the purposes of this post, we'll use the same definition for subplots with a little less intensity and tension. And we could go into plot patterns such as the quest, the chase, the coming-of-age stories, and so on. From there we can go into genre specific plot patterns or we could get to the nitty-gritty of plot: scene and scene structure.

But this post is not intended to teach you how-to-plot, that's a whole series of posts in and of itself. If you need to learn more about what plot is, how-to-plot, the various patterns of plot, etc., I highly recommend Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. If you need to know how to construct an effective scene Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain is the book for you. And to learn more about story arc, read Robert McKee's Story. In fact, I recommend you read a whole slew of books about plot. Just as with all the other parts of a story, the how-tos about writing, there is no ONE RIGHT WAY. It doesn't exist. However, if you read a bunch of different books about plot, you will find the way that works for you in the particular story you are writing.

Your Assignment

What we are talking about today is how to evaluate your plot, how to see the holes, and the common mistakes that sink manuscripts. This week you will be analyzing your story based on your story sentence and your scene sentences that you wrote in the first Re-Visioning Your Story post. You did write those sentences, didn't you? You will also need your notes about goals, character, and conflict. Plus you'll need a black or blue ink pen, a colored pen or felt-tipped marker (any color other than black or blue), paper to write on, and your manuscript. Got them? Good. Then, clear off your desk or your dining room table and let's get to work.

First re-read your story sentence. Your story sentence represents your main plot. Now, re-read your scene sentences. Go ahead, I'll wait. *hums to self*

Having just read your sentences, you are going to categorize your sentences according to plot and subplot by putting a 'P' or an 'S' after the sentence. By using a colored pen or felt-tipped marker, you will be able to easily spot these indicators when you need to. If you have more than one subplot, just indicate it by a number (S-1; S-2, S-3 . . . ). Some scenes can do double-duty by advancing both the plot and and subplot. Mark your sentences accordingly.

Divide one sheet of paper into columns titled scene number, plot, subplot, and ???. (Make as many columns as you need.) You will be listing the situation, action and reaction for each scene under the appropriate column. The example I'm using below is from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Plot Spreadsheet

If you have situations or actions and reactions that you cannot label as plot or subplot, list them in the column marked ???. Flashbacks, information dumps, and low tension or non-action scenes should be listed in the ??? column also.

According to Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel, "The most common flaw I see in manuscripts from beginners and midcareer novelists alike is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest." He lists things like: thinking while driving from one place to another, taking a shower, fixing a cup of tea or coffee, love scenes, and exposition as being predictably low tension.

When you have finished evaluating all of your scene sentences, look at the columns. Which one has the most S-A-R units? If it's the plot column, then you've done a reasonable job of keeping your story focused. If it's one of the subplot columns or the ??? column, then you've some work to do in your near-future. (Hint: the general rule of thumb is no more than 3-4 subplots.)

Next, study each column, one at a time, asking yourself the following questions.

    ·Do your characters take action? (Hint: if not, your story is not making forward motion.)
    ·Is there action that has taken place off-stage? (Hint: if it has, you may need to add a scene.)
    ·Is there missing action that has to be explained in a flashback, info dump, or by one character to another? (Hint: long flashbacks are 'deal-killers' according to agent-author, Jessica Page Morrell.)
    ·Does someone other than your protagonist or antagonist take the action? (Hint: These two should do most of the action.)
    ·Is the action, or reaction, predictable? (Hint: if it is, your reader is probably bored.)
    ·Is there any other action, or reaction, your character could have or should have taken? (Hint: you don’t want the reader shouting, 'call the police, stupid!')
    ·Does the action, or reaction, lead naturally to the next situation-action-reaction unit? (Hint: if it feels forced or like a sudden left turn to you, it will to the reader.)
    ·Does the action drive your protagonist closer to or father from his goal? (Hint: there should be some scenes that bring him closer, but more that drive him farther from his goal.)
    ·Does the action, or reaction, place your protagonist under increasing pressure? (Hint: if anything worse could have happened to your character, it probably should have.)
    ·Does the action and reaction match one another in tone or emotional effect? (Hint: having your detective kissing his girl while standing next to the corpse is probably not a good idea.)
    ·Does the action and reaction relate to the story sentence? (Hint: even subplots should reinforce your primary plot or theme.)
    ·Does the action and reaction demonstrate a change? (Hint: at least one or the other should.)
    ·If you took this situation-action-reaction unit out, would the story suffer? (Hint: if it can be taken out without hurting the story, it should be deleted.)
    ·Does the whole of the action-reaction units for the plot increase reader tension and foreboding? (Hint: tension should rise and fall like foot hills leading every higher until you’re in the mountains, before there is a release of tension?)
    ·Does the final action put the protagonist in real jeopardy of not reaching his goal? (Hint: if it doesn’t, you need a different climax.)

Make any notes you need either in your colored-ink pen in the appropriate column or on a separate piece of paper. (Be certain you label your notes on the separate piece of paper with scene number, situation, action or reaction to avoid confusion later.)

How did your plot turn?

"Many beginning writers don't want readers to feel uncertain, and so load the story with predictable events or feature elements in the story that are glaringly obvious to everyone except the characters in the story. Suspense comes from a reader worrying about characters under pressure as the writer delays outcomes.' (Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us by Jessica Page Morrell)

So, did you put the pressure on your characters? Did you find you had too many subplots? How many low tension scenes did you have? Didn't have any? Brag about it in the comments below.

Next week we'll discuss time and place.

ETA: Additional posts on Re-visioning Your Story

    Lesson 1: Re-Visioning Your Story

    Lesson 2: : Are Your Character’s Goals Golden?

    Lesson 3: Twist the Knife Slowly

    Lesson 4: Do Your Characters Play Well with Others?

    Lesson 5: above

    Lesson 6: Is There a Time and Place in Your Story?

    Lesson 7: From the End to the Beginning

    Lesson 8: Putting the Pieces Together