Conflict: Twist the Knife Slowly

Conflict: Week 3 of Re-visioning Your Story

Violence is not Conflict. It is not action. It is not bickering, or worry, or dreams, or traveling. Unfortunately, many seasoned and novice writers mistake one or all of those things for conflict.

Why is conflict so difficult for the writer? Because human beings naturally shy away from conflict. It’s uncomfortable and sometimes outright dangerous. But conflict is essential to storytelling for as Robert McKee says in his book, Story, “Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.”:

So, you ask, if conflict is not action, violence, bickering, etc., is conflict an obstacle? Well, yes and no. An obstacle can present your character with something he must overcome, but if it does not present a dilemma, your reader may not care.


In How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating Tales by Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, the authors give what I believe is the best definition of conflict I’ve ever read. “The idea of conflict can be reduced to the word no.” Someone or something is saying no to your character.

Yet, compelling conflict is more than someone saying no. It’s more than an obstacle; it’s something that creates a dilemma. A dilemma arises when a character desperately wants or needs something and must make a choice between two actions he’d rather not do in order to fulfill his desire.

Types of Conflict

Many how-to-write books tell you that there are five Basic Conflicts: man against society, man against man, man against himself, and man against nature. Editor, Jessica Page Morrell, slices up conflict a little more finely in her book, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us. Ms. Morrell includes four more in her list of Basic Conflicts: man against the supernatural, man against fate, man against machine, and man against God. Labels like these are helpful to some. Perhaps these labels smack a little too much of English Lit class to you. You wonder how labeling the conflict in your story as man against society helps you as a writer. It is a tool. Figuring out which basic conflict fits your story boils it down to its essence. You then use that to take the measure of every way in which you express the conflict in your story. If each of your conflicts fit into that same Basic Conflict, congratulations, you have built a consistent goal and conflict structure for your story.

In addition to the Basic Conflicts, there are two Conflict Types that are important to understand. These are Inner Conflict and External or Outer Conflict. When a character experiences an Inner Conflict her beliefs, attitudes, habits, and values are challenged to the point that she will change. External Conflicts are those that can be seen, felt, or heard. The most satisfying, engaging full-length novels have protagonists who face both Inner and External Conflicts.

Every Scene a Conflict

You know that a story is constructed with scenes and you’ve likely developed a definition of what a scene is. For the purpose of this discussion we’ll use Dwight V. Swain’s definition. A scene is “a blow-by-blow account of somebody’s time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition.” Mr. Swain goes on to say that a scene’s structure includes a goal, a conflict, and a disaster. (We’ll talk more about disaster in another post.)

Every scene must have a conflict. And conflict must be sharp, like a knife. The more intensely your character wants something, the more intensely someone or something says no, the more your reader will care. But it’s a balancing act. If every scene contains a conflict of the same intensity your story becomes melodrama or worse, boring. How do you keep conflict sharp but not melodramatic? Include conflicts that are of varying importance. Make your character choose which goals and conflicts he will act upon. These choices will reveal your character’s beliefs, values, attitudes, and habits piece-by-piece to your reader.

Your Assignment

This week you will read your manuscript again. As you read, take notes about the conflict as it is written on the page. Write only in your revision notebook or file. When you write a note about a particular issue, it will be helpful to include the manuscript page number in your notes. Do not edit your manuscript. Editing will come in due time. For now, you are deconstructing your story so that the work of revision will be more efficient and effective.

You Know the Knife’s Too Dull When

  • Your character is worrying.
  • Your character is arguing. An argument is not conflict unless there is an ultimatum issued or choice made.
  • Your character had a dream. Conflict in a dream is not immediate.
  • Your character does not have a clear goal.
  • Your character is not desperate to accomplish his goal.
  • Your character’s goal is not introduced early enough in the scene (or story).
  • No one opposes your character.
  • Your character does not have a choice to make.
  • All the choices your character makes are of the same intensity.
  • There is an easy way out for your character.
  • Your character does not act on getting his goal (make a choice).
  • The action (conflict) takes place ‘offstage.’
  • Your character does not care deeply about the outcome of this act.
  • There are no consequences to your character’s actopms.
  • There is no doubt as to whether the character will get what he wants.
  • What the character wants or needs is not consistent with her overall story goal.

To Sharpen the Knife of Conflict

  • Give your character clearly defined goals.
  • Make your character’s goal be the key to his happiness (at least in his eyes).
  • Give your character a dilemma involving the two types of conflict: Inner and External.
  • Give your character tough choices that define and reveal who he is.
  • Make certain the conflict forces your character to take action.
  • Make the choices, the action, your character takes be clear choices that lead to more difficult choices.
  • Give him choices that are equally bad.
  • Decide what is the worst possible thing that can happen to your character, and make it worse.
  • Show precisely how hard this is for your character.
  • Make your character change or make a sacrifice in order to fulfill his goal.
  • Make the first goal and conflict of the story related to the final goal and conflict of the story.
  • Make the conflict of your story appropriate for your target reader.

Recommended Reading

If you are still having difficulty with understanding or evaluating conflict in a story, I recommend you read Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of a Selling Writer and Robert McKee’s Story.

Thanks for spending time with me. I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’d love to hear about your story. What Basic Conflict is your story about? What are your character’s Inner and External Conflicts?

ETA: Additional posts on Re-visioning Your Story

Lesson 1:Re-Visioning Your Story

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

Lesson 3: above

Lesson 4: Do Your Characters Play Well with Others?

Lesson 5: As the Plot Turns

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

Putting the Pieces Together

Part 8: Revisioning Your Story

Wow.  It’s been a long haul, but you’ve analyzed your story for seven long lessons, from Character Goals to Plot Twists to the End and the Beginning. Now it’s time for putting the pieces together.  Finally, it’s time to fix it.  What?  You’re worried that you can’t fix it or that fixing it will destroy what you loved about it?  Take a deep breath.  You’ve done your homework, right?  No reason to worry.  You have all the tools you need to shine it up and fall in love with it all over again.

Jigsaw Puzzle Pieces

What You’ll Need

For this lesson, you will need all of your notes from the previous seven lessons, a pen and paper, lots of it,  music, snacks and fluids, a three-ring binder or other organizing notebook, and uninterrupted time.  You see we’ve been working on preparing your mind, your muse if you prefer.  And now, you’re going to tell your muse that it’s time to work.


Gather all of your notes and your manuscript.  You will need a large stack of paper and several pens (you don’t want to run out of ink in the middle of inspiration, do you?)  Lay in some easy to eat, healthy snacks and lots of water.  You need to stay hydrated and keep your blood sugar up in order to be your most creative and productive.


For many people, music helps focus them as they write.  If you are one of those people, select a song or two that inspires you to write.  Be sure it’s something you can listen to over and over.  Perhaps you are one who prefers white noise or no noise, please feel free to surround yourself with an environment that makes you productive as a writer.

My favorite revisioning music includes Escala performing Palladio by Karl Jenkins.


Plan at least one whole day, if possible, that you will be completely uninterrupted.  Yes, I know some of you have small children or others who depend on you for care.  If you can’t get a whole day, you can’t.  Do the best that you can.  Make it the longest uninterrupted time period you can.

The Day Before

Prepare your writing space.  Put your supplies where they are handy.  Your notes in front of you and the paper and pens off to the side.

Read your notes and scene cards.  Read them One Time Only.  I mean it.  You’re feeding your muse one last time. Find the story sentence you created for your story.  Does it still say what you want your story to be about?  If it does write it across the top of your first sheet of paper.  Do not write anything else.  If your mind/muse keeps bringing up ideas, tell it ‘that might be a good idea, keep working on it.’ And put it out of your mind for today.  Put your notes and your manuscript away.  You will not look at them again for a while.  Get a good night’s sleep.

Revisioning Day

This is the day you’ve dedicated to completing the revisioning of your story.  You’ve got your pen and paper, you fluids and snacks laid in, your notes in front of you, your music or white noise or silence going.  Now is the time.  Without looking at your notes, begin writing the outline of your story.  Do not say no to any idea that flows onto your paper.  Write fast.  Do not worry about whether this outline is the same as your original.  Just write.  Ideally, you will finish your outline in one day.  If you don’t, that’s all right, keep the interruptions to a minimum until you are finished. (For those of you who find handwriting difficult, do what is comfortable for you. This should be a pleasure, not painful.)

The New Outline

Written fast, the new outline will have some surprises for you.  You may have thought of new scenes that sharpen the conflict or focus of your story.  You may have some plot holes.  Now you can compare your new outline with your scene cards.  Study the two with an editorial eye.  Decide which scenes will build the conflict, the story you’ve been dreaming of.   Make certain the conflict builds, the pace builds, and your character faces a choice.  Write new scene cards, matching your new outline.  Does your story sentence still apply?  If not, write a revised story sentence.

Your Project Bible

Once you have your revised outline, you need to create your Project Bible.  Revising a novel is a long process.  This is going to be your reference while you do your rewrite.  It will help keep you organized and keep your details consistent.

clippings from sample project bible
Images from Lynette’s Project Bible

Your Project Bible will have sections in it for each major character, for each location where your characters interact, any research or photos that you need to keep facts straight, and a timeline.

Character Section

In each character’s section, you will list physical attributes, habits, clothing preferences, pet’s names, backstory, and maybe even a family tree.

Location Section

In each location section, you will have a layout map of the location so that you can move your characters to that location consistently.  In your layout use pictures or descriptions so you know what interiors look like from color to number and types of furniture, to where the squeak in the floor is.  If it’s an outdoor location you may need to include a topographical map, lists, and photos of the flora and fauna that are indigenous to the area.  Don’t forget to include all five senses in this section.

Research Section

Your research section will have the research you’ve done that keeps your story authentic.  You may also want some of your favorite writing books on hand. Books like Story, Writing the Breakout Novel, or even Techniques of the Selling Writer can be handy inspiration or instruction.


Finally, your timeline section will have the timeline of your story and your story world.  This may need to include the actual, historical timeline if you’re writing a historical novel.  If you are writing a science fiction novel your Project Bible may need to include a section on science, religion, planets, or space travel vehicles. Add things to your Project Bible as you rewrite your novel and discover new details, characters, or locations.

It’s Time!

With your new outline, your new scene cards and your new Project notebook beside you, it’s time to begin the rewrite.  Rewriting your novel will be an experience of joy and frustration, but trust the process.  And no matter what, finish the rewrite.  You will learn something about your writing, your writing process, and yourself that will be sure to be invaluable to you in your career.


If you haven’t been following this series.  Please check out the first six 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: As the Plot Turns

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

Lesson 7: From the End to the Beginning

Thank You and Good Luck

And it’s the end of this series of posts.  Thank you so much for hanging in there with me.  And please, let me know if this has been helpful to you.  Even if you don’t finish your rewrite for a year, stop by, tell me how it went.  I’m rooting for you!

Do you use a revision process? Where is it similar and dissimilar from this one?

From the End to the Beginning

Part 7: Re-visioning Your Story     Why from the End to the Beginning? Many writers spend a significant amount of time crafting the beginning of their story. They know the beginning of a story is critical. If you don’t hook your reader, the story will go unread. But did you realize the ending is just as important?
From the End to the Beginning,

No amount of convincing characters, intricate or thrilling plot, nor vivid story world construction can overcome a poorly crafted story end. And a failed ending of your story will cause an agent, editor, or reader to put down the book never to pick up another of your stories. But a great ending will reward your reader with an emotional payoff. Hooked, he’ll eagerly seek out more of your stories. So how do you construct a great ending? In revision.

First, in order to craft a perfect ending, you must understand the key components of the ending of a story: the crisis, the climax, and the resolution.


The crisis is the pivotal moment of your story. Your protagonist’s choices and actions have led her to this point where she must make a final, irrevocable choice. “At the point of crisis,” Bob Mayer says in The Fiction Writer’s Toolkit, “the protagonist is forced to make a choice whether or not she wants to attempt to restore the balance that was disturbed by the inciting incident.” She is boxed into a corner and there are only two, specific, concrete actions she can take from here. And she must make a choice.

Robert McKee calls the crisis “the story’s Obligatory Scene. From the Inciting incident on, the audience has been anticipating with growing vividness the scene in which the protagonist will be face- to face with the most focused, powerful forces of antagonism in his existence.” In other words, the antagonistic force must appear to be overwhelming. The protagonist, and thus the reader, must feel the antagonist will win.

In order for the crisis to work, the choice with which your protagonist is faced must be of utmost importance to the character at that moment. He must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice (whatever he thinks that may be) in order to attempt to achieve the object of his desire.

“The Crisis must be a true dilemma,” according to Robert McKee in Story, “a choice between two irreconcilable goods, the lesser of two evils, or the two at once that places the protagonist under the maximum pressure of his life.” In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain suggests this should be a choice that forces the character to act in accordance with or against a principle he has held dear up to this point. He says “to make a choice between self-interest and principle is difficult for any of us, in any situation, at any time. ” Once the choice is made, the crisis leads directly to the climax.


All the choices your protagonist has made up to this point have built increasing tension in your reader. The climax delivers the goods in a big, explosive scene. The protagonist having made his choice succeeds in reaching his goal, realizes he wants something else or fails to reach his goal. In his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass says, “Climaxes are both inner and outer, both plot specific and emotionally charged. The payoff needs to fully plumb the depths in both ways if it is to satisfy. ”

The best climax pulls together subplots as well as main plot into a final deciding action. Dwight V. Swain reminds us in Techniques of the Selling Writer, why this act is important: “In adherence to or abandonment of principle, your focal character proves ultimately and beyond all doubt what he deserves. ” And while the reader’s tension is released by the climax, if the story ends with the climax, the reader feels the ending too abrupt. He struggles to guess the meaning of the ending. He has no sense of closure. You, the author, must provide closure with the third component of the ending, the Resolution.

The Pot of Gold at the end of the Rainbow


The resolution explains that the crisis is over and the effect of the final decision and action has upon the principle characters. It gives a sense of closure by highlighting the emotional impact of the final action. This can be accomplished through the viewpoint of your protagonist or a narrator. And in the best stories, the reader has an aha moment when she realizes that this is the ending the protagonist had been working toward since the beginning. However, if the resolution details every character’s emotional reaction, the ending of your story will drag. It will lack the impact it needs. Keep it short. Give it resonance through a powerful phrase, gesture, or setting that the reader remembers from the beginning. The resolution is the reader’s payoff for reading the story. Make it count.


Part One

Now that you know the three key components of a great story ending. Read the endings of five novels that you love. Examine the crisis, climax, and resolution of each novel. What elements do they have in common?

Part Two

So now it’s time to read the ending, and only the ending of your story and answer the questions below. Remember, take notes. Do not try to fix any of the problems or concerns you identify.

  • Is the action on the page or did everything happen off stage?
  • Have you wrung every bit of tension out of it that you can?
  • Did you pull your punches at the end or did you make it difficult for your protagonist?
  • Were there ‘well, duh’ choices your protagonist should have made? Your reader will know and think less of your character.
  • Does the reader have to guess the ending?
  • Do you have a ‘Hollywood’ ending, a la the hero finishes hacking the bad guys to death and the heroine rush to embrace him in a steamy kiss with the sunset/sunrise in the background? Ewww!
  • Does someone other than the protagonist save the day, or have him wake and realize it was all a dream?
  • Was tension maintained to the last possible moment?
  • Did you force your protagonist to make a choice?
  • Is the choice worth the cost to the protagonist?
  • Did you build up his desire or need as he moves through the story so the reader believes the protagonist would go to all that trouble?
  • Did your protagonist translate his choice into two concrete, specific, alternative actions?
  • Was it a choice between an ‘easy way’ and a way that would lead to disaster or sacrifice?
  • Is the alternative to the easy way out disastrous for your protagonist?
  • Did you keep the ending in doubt by making failure look likely?
  • Are there any loose ends or subplots that haven’t been already resolved?
  • Was your character rewarded or punished based on his choice?
  • Has poetic justice been served?
  • Did you focus the emotional fulfillment into a punch line?

Part Three

And now that you know your ending, re-read the beginning of your story.

  • Does the ending answer the question posed in the beginning of your story?
  • Have you planted clues for the ending in the beginning of your story?
  • Is the mood and tone of your beginning echoed in your ending?
  • Finally, are themes, motifs, or phrases from the beginning echoed in the ending?

From the ending to the beginning doesn’t measure up in your first draft? Don’t worry. You now know where the weak spots are. And you’re subconscious is already working on the solutions!


The final post in the Revisioning Your Story series: Preparing for the Rewrite

You’ve made my day by just by reading my post. And I am thrilled and honored when you take the time and care to comment below. Thank you!

If you haven’t been following this series. Please check out the first six posts on Re-visioning Your Story:

Is There a Time and Place in Your Story?

Setting: Week 6 of Re-visioning Your Story

There’s a time and place for . . . time and place in your story. When and where your story takes place gives the reader a reference point, or as Dwight V. Swain calls it, ” a standard for your reader.” Getting the time and place right makes a difference like the difference between Sleeping Beauty’s castle and Windsor castle.

When revising your manuscript, you’ll want to be certain to read through at least once while focusing on how you reveal the story’s setting. Perhaps you think you don’t need to because “my story takes place in the real world, in a real city, in a real home/office/park.” Whether your story’s world is based in reality or made-up purely from your imagination, your choice of details revealed and withheld in your manuscript can support or destroy your reader’s suspension of disbelief. (And I’m assuming you want to do everything you can to support your reader in this regard.)

Setting is a huge topic. In Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, Jessica Page Morrell calls setting details “a literary Leatherman.” And she gives a long list of things from politics to technology and everything in between that are setting details. Robert McKee says in his book, Story, “a story’s setting sharply defines and confines it’s possibilites.” He also defines setting as four-dimensional: including the story’s place in time (the past, the future, etc.); the time it takes from the beginning of your story to its end; where your story takes place, and the story’s position on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And Dwight V. Swain remind us of three key points in Techniques of the Selling Writer: “your reader has never been there; it’s a sensory world; it’s an objective world.” Finally, I repeat: it is the details you have put in your manuscript that builds a convincing, or not so convincing world.

Re-Read Your Manuscript

Remember, you will be reading your manuscript but you will not correct a single typo or word. When you read through your manuscript you need to have your favorite writing implement, your revision notebook, and five colored highlighters. You are going to read through your manuscript and list each different physical location in which action takes place on a different page of your notebook.

Be specific. Write: the living room of character A’s house; the kitchen of character A’s house; the front yard of character A’s house; not just ‘the house.’ Beneath the location list the words you used to describe this location. If you character moves within this location you may want to draw a sketch of the layout of the room.

First, go through your novel scene-by-scene. For each scene (and transition when applicable) you are going to list:








The Story’s Setting

When you have finished identifying the parts of setting you have in your story, review your notes and think about the story as a whole. Fill in the same information, but this time do it for the story as a whole.

Historical time:






Analyze Setting in Scenes

When you have finished listing these things, it is time to analyze the effectiveness of your each scene. Donald Maass said “use the world as a vital force in which the characters move,” in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel. You agree? Of course, but do you know how you determine if you’ve shown your story world as a vital force? Ask questions. Question every bit of the information you’ve gathered in your notebook.

  • Historical time
    ·Does the historical time period add conflicts, obstacles, mood or character to your story?
    ·Is there a different time period that would increase the conflicts or obstacles?
  • Date
    ·What does the date and day of the week add to the scene?
    ·Would a different time of day, or day of the week, improve the conflict, tension, or mood?
    ·Would more or less time increase the tension?
  • Time
    ·What does the time of day add to this scene? Think about what makes dawn different from sunset or mid-afternoon different from suppertime?
    ·Is there a different time of day that would increase obstacles, conflict, or mood?
  • Duration
    According to Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer, “There are two kinds of time in this world: chronometrical and emotional. One you measure with a watch; the other with the human heart.”
    ·In chronologic time, how long does the scene last?
    ·Does the amount of action and dialog you have on the page match this duration?
    ·Have you timed yourself as you read the dialog out loud? Or figured what the actual travel time for the distance would be, using the same method of conveyance?
    ·In emotional time, how long does the scene last? Remember Einstein said, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute, and it’s longer than an hour.” So how long does it feel to your character?
  • Location:
    ·Where does the scene take place?
    ·Is there someplace else that this scene could take place that would increase the conflict, tension, obstacles, or mood?
    ·How many different locations do you have in your entire story? Why?
    ·How do your characters feel about the location? Is it homey and comfortable or a place assoicated with painful memories? What does he love about it? What does he hate about it?
  • Details:

In Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us,, Jessica Page Morrell points out that “description does not equal inventory.”
·Does your descriptions of setting sound like a listing of inventory?
·Do the first three things your viewpoint notices give a firm, overall grasp of the location?
·What does your viewpoint character feel about this location or time?
·How many more details did you give for this location?
·Does the number of details you’ve given match the importance of the location or time?
·Can you change the impact of the setting (location or time) by decreasing or the number of details?
Jessica also reminds us “don’t use categories (cats, boxer shorts, restaurants) use specifics: Siamese , plaid boxer shorts, or Sushi restaurant.”
·Are there other details that would better evoke the mood, theme, visual image?

  • Senses:
    ·Is there more than two colors on each page? If there are two or fewer colors on the page, you might want to add more.

Prepping the Muse

Whew! That was a lot of work in a full length novel. By now, your muse is probably chomping at the bit, impatient to be re-writing. Write notes in your revision notebook. This week you are still prepping the muse. Next week, you will restructure your story.
images from copyright free photos dot org dot uk

Which of the part(s) of setting did you excel at in your manuscript?
Which part(s) did you discover were weaker?

I love hearing from you, but whether you comment or not, thank you for spending time with me.

ETA: Additional posts on Re-visioning Your Story

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: As the Plot Turns

Lesson 6: above

Lesson 7: From the End to the Beginning

Lesson 8: Putting the Pieces Together

As the Plot Turns

As the plot turns, so turns your story. Pantser or Planner, HOW you choose to write the story MAKES NO DIFFERENCE. Fine tune the plot in the second draft, the revision. The first draft is to get the story down on paper. It’s the revisioning 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. In the final analysis, for your story has to have some kind of structure, some thread of a plot, that will keep your reader engaged.

Lesson 5: Re-Visioning Your Story

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 American Heritage Dictionary, which says the 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 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.

As the Plot Turns, Plot Spreadsheet for revising your novel.

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 mid-career 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 some action that has taken place off-stage? (Hint: if it has, you may need to add a scene.)

· Is there some 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.)

· Should your character have taken any other action, or reaction? (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.)

· Is your protagonist driven closer to or further from his goal with each action and/or reaction? (Hint: there should be some scenes that bring him closer, but more scenes that drive him further 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.)

· Is the action and reaction related 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 foothills leading every higher until you’re in the mountains before there is a release of tension?)

· Is the protagonist in real jeopardy of not reaching his goal during the final action? (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 how your plot turns 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