Friday, June 17, 2011

Editing the big stuff: Plot

The second draft is the ideal time to scrutinize your plot and make necessary changes.

I find this to be the toughest part of editing because it often involves cutting huge chunks and rewriting. Rewrites are necessary to the process of crafting a good book, so grumble if you must, but find a way to get over it and do the work.

Now is the time to ask yourself questions like this:

What if instead of accomplishing his/her goal, my main character fails. Can I find any kind of happiness in this ending? A problem with many books is that the endings are too predictable. Failure must be an option if you want to keep your readers guessing.

Is life too easy for my main character? Can you make your character's journey worse? If so - do it. Take away friends, health, money, any kind of advantage.

Can my main character face additional problems? Your character might not have enough to do. If the overall problem is solving a mystery, great. They need other things pressing on their time. Maybe they have an ailing parent or friend who they're helping. Maybe they're doing a community service project. Maybe they have a car that's giving them troubles. Don't be afraid to create extra plot lines and weave them in.

Can I make unexpected connections? I talked about this in May's newsletter (click here to sign up for the Go Teen Writers monthly(ish) newsletter). One of the best experiences when you're reading is a plot twist that throws you for a loop. One of the ways you can create this in your manuscripts is to create an unexpected connection between two characters, or a character and a setting, or a setting and a situation. Here's a way to achieve this:

Get some index cards. Write down 10 or so characters from your novel, a handful of settings, and a few situations or plot lines from your novel. One per index card. For example, one card might say "Jamie" another card "Jamie's work" and a situation "Rose's birthday party."

Mix them all up, then lay them writing-side down on the floor, like you're playing a memory game. Then pick up two or three cards. They will likely have very little or possibly nothing to do with each other ... but ask yourself if there's a way to connect these things. Can you connect Jamie's old boyfriend to Rose's party somehow? Maybe she meets someone who once dated him. Or maybe when she's there, she finds out he's getting married. When I do this exercise, I always walk away with a handful of plot twists to implement. (This is adapted from Donald Maass's fabulous book, Writing the Breakout Novel workbook.)

During first drafts, we tend to make obvious choices. Or at least I do. That's fine, but don't let yourself settle for an okay story when you could instead write a great story.

Have a wonderful weekend everyone!


  1. Oh, I still need to do this exercise! Okay, definitely my Saturday Activity. That'd be tomorrow. :D

  2. I could totally work on my plot line. Though when it comes to being to easy on my character I think everything bad that could happen to her has happened.

    Alyson ☺

  3. Good timing with this post, because I'm smack in the middle of revising. Like you said, deleting and rewriting. It hurts.

  4. Thanks for the post! I agree that your second draft is the BEST time to revise your plot. I'm going a little crazy with mine at the mo.

    One author said you should never compromise your plot for your fantastic writing, and I think that's the hardest part of editing. There was this...uh, brilliant conversation I wrote but I had to take it out because it no longer fit with the story. I almost cried :D

    - Ellyn

  5. I love this post and I'm going to have to try that exercise, too. What you said about "obvious choices" hits home, too. Throwing in some unexpected things and letting the characters throw a wench in my plans is something I struggle with, especially with being new to outlining.

    Ellyn, that has happened to me, too! I actually save those scenes in another document called "Deleted Scenes." It makes it less painful knowing I have it in case I want to put it back in (which I have never done) or use it for something else (which I almost always do).

  6. I'm in the editing part of my second draft so all these posts have been real helpful. I've never done second draft editing so I'm sort of stumbling along.
    I was going to try to figure out an outline and try to strengthen my foundation (plots, characters etc) but I have a hard time doing it without actually writing scenes and stuff...
    I'm definitely not much of an outliner.

  7. It's definitely hard to cut those scenes you love and/or worked hard on. In the last manuscript I edited, I added a major plot line toward the end of the process. It altered the ending, but it took me a VERY long time to admit that I needed to just scrap my original ending and do the rewrites.

    Like Rachelle suggested, I save anything big that gets cut. Makes it less painful. Plus, it's there if I ever decided it needs to be added back in.

    And Sananora, I feel your pain. I'm not much of an outliner either.

  8. Great post! Stephanie, your posts are always so helpful!

  9. Just don't forget to not make it TOO silly. Too many woes on a journey are repetitive and add too much tasteless fat to what would otherwise be a good book!

  10. I haven't finished writing my first, first draft, but I thought up something that really helps with unexpected plot changes; think of something that could, *not* happened. like making the character everyone though was dead from chapter one come alive again. This also is pretty good when your stuck for good ideas

  11. Well thankfully I'm an outliner and this was in the planning stage, but I did have to cut out and change a huge part of my WIP. It was one of my original ideas, and I think that's what made it so hard to let go. But eventually I learned to just suck it up and I know the plot will be so much better for it! It's a relief when you k ow you've made the right decision ;) lol