How to revise… You are ready to begin your book revision. You’re armed with markers, your slasher knife, the duct tape (See: Plot Your Revision to get yourself ready). Be sure, at some point in the revision process (the earlier the better) to take a step back and measure the strength of your story. If you are a plotter/outliner, be sure to think through these steps at the beginning, but even so, do a re-check at the revision stage. Some of these writing tips might seem obvious, but do a pass and make sure you hit all the marks. It’s easy to lose sight of the big elements in all those beautiful words you’ve worked so hard to write! Any of the following will cause story-strength fail. Fix them (if needed) and your story will engage and compel the reader, holding on to them through the end of your book and beyond. Now on to how to revise in six steps.
How to Revise for Story Strength in Six Steps
1. Check for No Problem
Does your protagonist have a problem? Does he have a goal? Does he want something but can’t get it? What is wrong in your protagonist’s world? If your answer is no, no, no and nothing, then dig deeper. Do the arithmetic! No story problem + no protagonist goal = no story.
2. Get To The Story
Do we get into the problem at the beginning of the story, or do we meander? Do we meet everyone in the protagonist’s life and see where he lives, what he has for breakfast, where he goes to work, roll around inside his head until we know his entire background? Yes, there is something to be said about introducing the ordinary world, but you can foreshadow your story problem from page one. Author Kim Edwards uses a quiet snowfall in The Memory Keeper’s Daughter that spells trouble. Thanks to foreshadowing, the reader feels trouble. Suspense. Your story is about a protagonist with a problem. Introduce them both before your reader gets bored with no story and goes onto the next book. (Hint: I usually end up starting my book around Chapter Three of my first draft.)
3. Got Conflict?
What is the conflict in the story? Is there dilemma inside the characters and conflict apparent—internal and external—in scenes? Is there friction between characters and trouble on every page? There should be. We read to see people deal with difficult situations, triumph over adversity, watch them learn (oftentimes painful) lessons. Without conflict, watching someone go through life is as uninteresting as the relative at Thanksgiving dinner who yammers on about themselves with no point. Is conflict pain from a hangnail? Nope, make sure the internal and external conflict is tied closely to the story problem and comes from the characters and who they are, what they believe in. Get conflict! Make sure it’s story-important. Escalate it. Although you might be tempted, don’t fix it. In your fictional universe, do exactly what you don’t do in real life. Make it worse.
4. No Such Things as Easy Solutions
So you are good on tip number 3…lots of conflict but it is solved by outside forces. And the solution is readily available. Two problems here—conflict should not be solved quickly or easily (or if it does the solution should make matters worse!) and if someone other than the protagonist is solving things, you have a passive, weak protagonist and a passive, weak story. Your protagonist must, must, must be actively engaged in solving the story problem(s) especially the resolution and climax. Enable your protagonist! Give his story back to him. And throw impossible challenges his way.
5. Make a Scene
Make sure your scenes are in your book for a reason. Scenes move the story forward and the characters in it (especially your scene point-of-view character) have an immediate goal that relates to the story goal or problem. (Notice how many times you need a goal in the mix?) Characters in scenes get their immediate goal (that hopefully spells trouble in the overall story) or they don’t, but either way the story moves forward. (For more on scenes see the Scenes: Anything but Basic series.)
6. Don’t Cheat Your Reader!
Cheap surprises and concealed information making up the plot twists will annoy a reader. Worse yet, your reader might throw your book against the wall. Don’t let that happen. As you write, you will come across surprising moments, and that’s the best part of writing. When your story takes over and surprises you. Just be sure you go back and set events up properly and play fair with the reader.
I hope these tips on how to revise are helpful. Now get revising!
Kathy Steffen is an award-winning novelist and author of the “Spirit of the River Series:” “First, There is a River,” “Jasper Mountain,” and “Theater of Illusion,” available online and in bookstores everywhere. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, “Between the Lines.” She writes from a log home in the woods of southwestern Wisconsin that she shares with her husband and three cats. Find out more at www.kathysteffen.com.
Great hints, especially number 4, and especially the part about letting your protagonist get out there and protag. I read a manuscript for a friend once, a paranormal romance, in which the heroine’s boyfriend actually solved the mystery. When I pointed that out as a weakness, she didn’t get it at all. Also, I reviewed a YA novel in which the protagonist slept through the crucial conversation and decisions, all made by other people, that resolved the story. The author castigated me because his socio-political aims were so noble, I apparently should overlook bad story construction. But like you said: if your hero doesn’t save the day, why are you telling a story about this person in the first place?
Oh, I so agree with this. All of it. I keep telling newbies that they need to get to the end the first time and then their revisions will make or break the story. It is so necessary to be able to step back from your MS and really see and understand its problems. Great list of questions to help do that!
Liz Lincoln Steiner
Perfect timing – I’m in the middle of massive revisions. I’m bookmarking this and will definitely refer back to it.
Thanks Alex, great insights! Hard to believe someone would resist excellent advice like yours. But some people hate to change something big in their writing…although that’s exactly how you write a good book! For me, writing and solid story-structure comes in the revision stage.
Thanks Ann, and you are exactly right. Whack the first draft out, then fix everything:)
Me too Liz–I’m hitting revisions and rewrites now. I got the idea for this blog as I’m looking at the big issues in my book and figuring out how to fix them. In fact, my protagonist doesn’t solve the problem…so lots of work for me on the end. Good luck with your revisions.
This is good stuff to think about even before revision — as in when you’re writing a scene even.
Excellent point, Shannon! Thanks!
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