Friday, January 28, 2011

Novel Revision part 3: Tension

Two weeks ago I started this Novel Revision sequence by posting a Plot Arc Exercise. Last week, I explored how you could start analyzing your outline for conflict. Those questions focused on the overall plot arc, and also looked at the presence or absence of conflict in every section.

This week, go back to your Plot Arc Exercise outline and look at each scene or chapter in more detail. You may have identified some chapters where you had no conflict. But chances are you have some conflict in most chapters. But is it enough? And is it the right conflict?

Perhaps you have chapters where you have conflict in your subplots, but not your main plot. Perhaps your main character is facing a challenge, but it's not directly related to his primary goal or problem. You may choose to keep some of those scenes, but ideally, the story should never lose sight of the main character’s primary goal or problem. Subplots should be tied into the main plot. Extra conflicts should relate to the main conflict. These questions will help you identify trouble spots.

Analyze plot arc for Tension:

  • Does each scene fulfill the synopsis goal?

  • Does each scene advance plot, reveal character, or ideally both?

  • Do your characters have a goal in each scene, such as a shorter term goal that helps lead to the final resolution of the problem?

  • Does your MC attempt to make progress toward his/her primary goal in every chapter, or are some chapters only subplot? If you have chapters of only subplot, can you weave them into other chapters with plot, or add plot progression within those chapters?

  • Can you make the stakes higher for any scenes?

  • Mark plot twists. Do you have several surprises/reversals? If not, can you add some?

  • Is the antagonist actively thwarting the hero throughout the book?

  • Does the tension rise over time, with the situation worsening? Can you increase the complications, so at each step, more is at stake, there’s greater risk or a better reward?

EXAMPLE: The middle grade boy novel I mentioned last week at one point had an opening chapter where Jesse had an accident in the woods. I was trying to open with an action scene, but unfortunately it didn't relate to the main plot. I ultimately decided it was better to cut that scene and get to the main plot problem more quickly.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Novel Revision part 2: Conflict

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.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Novel Revision

One of the biggest challenges of revision is to keep the whole, overall plot arc and character arc in your mind while you're looking at individual pages. I developed a Plot Arc Exercise for a workshop I taught on novel revision. This is a powerful tool for seeing where you may have holes to fill in your manuscript, where you can cut boring parts, and where you need to make changes.

It's a lengthy process, so I'll be going over it for the next several weeks. If you have a manuscript ready for revision, dive right in! Otherwise, make a note of where to find this for when you are ready to revise. 

Note: this exercise is also great for analyzing an outline before you ever start writing. I believe that by writing a detailed outline of my most recent work in progress, and analyzing it using this exercise, I saved about two drafts worth of revision. Not everyone works from outlines, but if you do, give this a try.

  • Write a one or two sentence synopsis for your manuscript. 

  • Define your goal. For example, you might want to entertain boys who are reluctant readers, write a beautiful literary novel of the kind that wins major awards, explore a social problem and ways to address it, or write a quick, fun beach read.

  • Define your theme. It's all right if you aren't sure yet, but start narrowing your focus. Are you trying to say something about family? Romantic relationships? Taking risks? Finding the courage inside yourself? (I'll address theme in more detail in future posts.)

  • For every chapter (or scene, if you write long chapters with multiple scenes), write a sentence or two describing what happens. Note the number of pages in that chapter or scene. Leave three or four blank lines in between each chapter, for your notes.

  • For each scene/chapter, list the emotions you’ve portrayed. Underline or highlight the major emotion.

  • Look at your subplots – use a different color for each one and make a note of what happens in each chapter where they appear.

EXAMPLE: Here's an example from adult novel I recently finished:

Synopsis: When Joanna finds the clue that will lead her to a cave full of treasures lost in the American southwest for over a century, she's pulled into a world of action and danger beyond anything she's imagined in her quiet life.

Goal: to write an action-packed romantic suspense novel full of outdoor adventures in the New Mexico landscape, with a strong thread of romance.

Theme: You don't know what you are capable of -- or what you really want -- until you take chances.

Chapter 1: 10 pages
Joanna has found a clue to the treasure that will prove her historical theories. She calls Camie and makes plans to meet. She's on her bicycle when a black vehicle roars out of a side street and runs her off the road.
Excitement, joy, anxiety, terror.

Chapter 2, scene one: 5 pages
Joanna, semi-conscious, feels hands on her and hears vague voices, then the sound of an engine driving away. When she manages to open her eyes, she's alone.
Pain, confusion, determination.
(No subplots yet.)

It takes a while to write this kind of synopsis, so I'm going to stop here for now. Next week, I'll explore how to analyze your plot synopsis for conflict!


Blockbuster Plots for Writers suggests that "Stories can either be character-driven or action-driven…. The goal in writing a compelling story that brings pleasure to the reader or audience is to have a balance between character and action.” You can take their test to determine whether your manuscript is stronger with “Character Emotional Development” or “Dramatic Action.” That gives you guidance into where you need to spend your initial revision time.

See my post “Plotting Questionnaire” from 4/16