Last week I gave an exercise for analyzing your manuscript's plot arc, either from an outline or a finished draft. If you missed that, start with the first Novel Revision post. Then move on to this questionnaire for analyzing conflict. In upcoming weeks, we'll also look at tension, Subplots/secondary characters, theme and more.
Analyze plot arc for Conflict:
- Using your outline, put a check mark by each chapter/scene synopsis if there is conflict in that chapter. For chapters where there is not – can you cut those, interweave with other chapters, or add new conflict?
- What is the main character’s flaw? Do you use this throughout the story to add complications and make challenges more difficult? Should the character make a bad decision or lose hope at one or more points?
- Is the main conflict resolved at the climax, and is the climax at the end of the book?
- Where do we learn the stakes? What are they? Do you have positive stakes (what the MC will get if he succeeds), negative stakes (what the MC will suffer if he fails), or both? Could the penalty for failure be worse? Your MC should not be able to walk away without penalty.
- What’s the timeframe? Can you tighten it? Can you add a “ticking clock,” where the MC has limited time to succeed?
EXAMPLE: This is an excerpt from a pre-revision synopsis of a middle grade boy novel my agent has submitted to editors.
Chapter 1: Jesse's family is getting breakfast, with teasing, nagging and grumbles. Simon read an article in the local weekly about a bank robbery a few towns away. The bank robbers are still on the loose. Jesse heads out for a hike, telling himself he is happier alone, but really missing the times he used to hike with Dad.
Chapter 2: Jesse is hiking, annoyed with his family. He sees tracks – three sets of footprints going up, only one coming down – and follows them curiously. He finds Maria and Rick, struggling to make a fire.
Chapter 3: Jesse helps. Maria is bubbly and wants to learn all about woodcraft, but makes an odd comment about how she's not allowed to have a knife. Rick is fidgety and tries to nudge Jesse on his way. They claim they are they are alone, but Jesse sees signs of a third person, in addition to the footprints. Shaw returns, startling them all.
ANALYSIS: Reviewing this using the questions above, I realized that while I had some tension and mystery, I didn't have a strong conflict in the first three chapters. I shortened the beginning, getting Jesse out onto the hiking trail by page 3. Then I added some bloodstains to the mysterious tracks, to give a greater sense that something could be wrong, and increased the suspicious behavior of the pair he meets in the woods. I also found other gaps in the outline where I didn't have enough conflict. I made sure the stakes were high enough, and that Jesse's internal flaw was contributing to his situation.
In this case, I had to do most of the work at the beginning of the novel. The middle had plenty of action and my climax was strong. Chances are, you'll discover some weak spots in your outline/ manuscript, but you'll probably also discover that you have strong sections that are working well.
Dear Editor has a list of questions to ask after writing a piece, to determine whether you're ready for polishing or need to do more major revising.