In the last post in our revision series (The Best Way To Revise Your Novel), we discussed how the best way to revise your novel is to break it into pieces and revise each individual piece at separate times.
Today we’re going to cover one of the most intimidating pieces: plot.
I like to start my revisions with plot because plot involves the actual events of your story. Once you nail down what’s actually happening in your story, it feels a lot less daunting to make sure that within that story:
- Your characters are growing
- Your worldbuilding is vivid and
- Your prose is gripping
When you revise your plot first, you chew off one of the biggest pieces. So are you ready to chew?
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What is Plot?
Before we talk about how to fix plot, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what plot is.
Below is my favorite description of plot.
This is my favorite description of plot because it involves all the pieces we need to think about critically as a writer.
When you’re in the first draft, your job is to just get to the end. But when you’re revising, your job is to fix everything between the first and last page so that you’re telling the best story possible.
When it comes to plot, you can dig into the best version of your story by establishing three guide posts:
- Your Character’s Goal
- Your Character’s Endpoint
- Your Character’s Conflicts
Your Revision Guide Post
If you’ve taken my free plot course, Your Page-Turning Plot, then you know that the best plots can be broken up into sequences. (If you haven’t taken the course, do it now! It’s free and it has my best advice on how to plot your novel.)
In each sequence, the protagonist is trying to move towards her goal and a conflict is introduced that the protagonist must overcome.
This series of conflicts is what makes up your plot.
A good series of conflicts is crucial to a story because without it, “stuff” is just happening to your character and no one likes to read about “stuff.”
Part of revising the plot of your novel is making sure that every part of your story is moving the story forward and a great way to figure out what parts of your story are working and what parts need to be re-worked, is by identifying the three plot guide posts I outline below.
Characters make up the heart of every story, but goals make up the heart of every character.
A character with a goal is automatically a story about someone struggling to reach that goal and fighting opponents who try and keep them from that goal. For this post, we’ll use The Hunger Games as our main example. In that book, Katniss’s goal is to stay alive.
When you go back to revise your plot, the first thing you need to hone in on is your character’s goal. Ask yourself:
- What is my protagonist’s goal?
- Was the goal the same at the start of the story? Did it ever change?
- Does my story track my protagonist trying to achieve her goal or does it get lost in between?
- Is this the best goal for my story?
Your entire plot revision is going to revolve around your character’s goal, so at the start you want to make sure your character’s goal is clearly outlined and that it’s the best goal for your story.
If you find your character has one goal for the first half of the story and another goal for the second half, that’s a sign that you’re not starting with the right goal (or perhaps you’ve written two books in one). The best, most cohesive stories have the same goal throughout the entire story, so in revising you want to aim for that.
You also want to make sure there’s natural conflict to your character’s goal. If not much stands in between your protagonist and her goal, then it’s not hard enough. Your character goal has to be complicated enough to generate 300-400 pages of conflict.
If you outline your character’s goal from your first draft and find that your goal is:
- Clearly defined
- Doesn’t switch at any point throughout the story
- Generates enough conflict to last the entire story
Then you’ve nailed your first guide post down!
But if you don’t have a protagonist goal from the first draft that meets all those criteria, then your first step in revising your plot is going to be coming up with a goal that satisfies all three of those criteria.
Don’t freak out if you’re in that boat because that’s what revision is about: discovering what your story’s missing and adding it.
Your first guide post is your character’s goal. Your final guidepost is your character’s endpoint.
Knowing where your character starts and ends makes it a lot easier to figure out what happens in between those points.
Let’s look at The Hunger Games.
Katniss's Goal: Stay alive
Katniss's Endpoint: Stays alive and manages to keep Peeta alive
The plot of The Hunger Games is all the conflict that happens in between the introduction of Katniss’s goal and the endpoint.
When revising the plot of your novel, you want to clearly outline your endpoint because having the endpoint in mind is going to make it easy to tell whether or not each conflict in your story is moving you towards your endpoint or not.
You want to have these clear guide posts in mind when you’re editing, so take this time to outline what your protagonist’s endpoint is now.
Okay, now it’s time to start tackling everything that happens in between your character’s goal and endpoint.
Remember, your story is going to come from the introduction of conflict and the way your character overcomes that conflict, so it’s important to be able to clearly identify your story’s conflict (or lack of conflict).
Your first step is to see what conflict guide posts already exist in your novel.
Common types of story conflict are obstacles created by:
- Other Characters (Antagonist, Secondary Opponents)
- External Events outside any character’s control (for example natural disasters, deadlines, etc.)
- The Protagonist (usually as a result of the character’s flaw)
If you don’t have an outline for your first draft, take this time to skim through your novel and identify the current conflicts you already have in place. Those will become your conflict guide posts.
If we did this exercise with The Hunger Games it would look roughly like:
Katniss’s Goal: Stay alive
Conflict 1: Opening Ceremonies – Katniss must make as much of an impression as possible to get aid and stay alive in the games.
Conflict 2: Katniss must fight off the career tributes to stay alive
Conflict 3: Katniss and Rue must destroy the Career Tribute’s supplies to stay alive
Conflict 4: …
Katniss's Endpoint: Stays alive and manages to keep Peeta alive
When you pick apart a story like the Hunger Games, you’re going to clearly see these conflict sequences and guide posts because it’s a final draft.
It might not be as easy to see in your current draft, but that’s okay. Just figure out what guide posts you do have in place so you can work around that.
Once you have your identifiable guide posts from above, it’s time to start figuring out what parts of your plot:
- Need to be added
- Need to be cut
- Need to be combined
The best way to identify this is to look at how you go from guide post to guide post. Every time you move to a new part of the story, you should be able to clearly see how that moves your protagonist towards his/her endpoint.
The easiest way to check for forward story momentum is to use the “and then, therefore, but” plotting rule.
This is a popular plotting technique, so you may have heard about it before but essentially:
- If you can connect two scenes/sequences in your story with “but” and “therefore,” then your story has natural conflict and forward momentum
- If you can only connect two scenes/sequences with “and then,” then “stuff” is just happening to your character and it’s not moving your protagonist towards your endpoint (“therefore” it needs to be cut or reworked).
Now this is a tedious process, but it can be really helpful in turning your story into an actual plot and knowing what scenes you need to add, remove, and combine.
I’ll take you through an example of this exercise works with Katniss.
Conflict 2: Katniss gets trapped in a tree by the career tributes, BUT Rue shows her a trackerjacker nest, THEREFORE Katniss drops the trackerjacker nest on her opponents and escapes. BUT Katniss is stung and hallucinates, THEREFORE Rue helps heal her, THEREFORE they partner up to take out the Career Tribute’s supplies.
Which brings us to Conflict 3: …
Get the idea?
Throughout this process, you will essentially create a synopsis for your revised plot which will serve as an outline when you go through and edit the events of your story.
By the end, you want to be able to have a worksheet that clearly outlines your:
- Character Goal
- Character Endpoint
- Revised Conflicts in between
To help you out with this process, I created a worksheet so click below to get it!
If you're a subscriber:
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That’s it for how to revise your plot! In our next post we’ll talk about how to tackle character revisions.