At first glance, the advice ‘before you revise, know your story’ seems like silly advice. Of course you know the story, you just finished writing it! But despite the thought, the sweat, the sleepless nights mulling over scenes and characters, do you really know your story?
It’s like baking a cake. You choose every ingredient carefully. The vanilla flavouring is not an imitation extract – you’ve sourced the beans, scraped them out, pulverised them to get an even distribution of the flavouring in the batter, but not so much that you’ve destroyed the essence – or have you? Have you done too much or too little? You’ve chosen every ingredient carefully, mixed, chosen the pan, and baked it all with the skills you’ve learned to date. But, is it the perfect cake? You don’t know until you step back, see if it’s lumpy, lopsided, and taste it to know if it’s too dry or too moist.
How do you get to know your story?
- Let it sit for a bit, two or three weeks. Like a cake, it needs to cool before the true flavours come out.
- Write, in one sentence, what the story is about. For example: the story is about a girl learning the true meaning of inner strength while challenging an evil king who has oppressed the people. This line about your story will be part of your pitch.
- Change the about sentence into a question. The climax must answer this question. If it does not, then there is a story problem which needs to be addressed. When a girl challenges an evil king who has oppressed the people, will she learn the true meaning of inner strength?
- Create a chart with the following headings, Scene #, Page, One-Liner Description, Scene Type, and POV. You may choose to add other columns such as Notes for the problems you discover but note them only and don’t be tempted to fix them yet for you may have to change or delete the scenes.Even if your story is organized into chapters, I recommend the chart be created at the scene level. For example, Chapter 4 might have five scenes. Number each of them and note the page number. This is important because every scene must pull its weight as it must somehow address the About Statement. If it does not, then it must either be changed to do so or eliminated.The One-Liner Description will not only tell you what the scene is about, but when this exercise is completed, you’ll have created an outline (many editors want this done). The outline will show you the shape of the plot and will point out gaps in logic or progression.
Knowing the SCENE TYPE helps us understand story pacing and story balance. Depending on who you read, there are anywhere from four to twenty or more scene types. I like to keep it simple by focussing on exposition, dialogue, action, and reflection. These are the four elements I want to keep balanced in a story. Is there is too much reflection and not enough action, or too much action and not enough dialogue? Examining scene types addresses issues such as the boring sections which may have too much exposition or reflection. Too many of those in a row can slow pacing and kill momentum. Too many action scenes in a row can cause reader fatigue and be unrealistic as characters need to stop and reflect, even for a moment whether it’s internally or in dialogue with someone.
- Forget the About Statement and Question you wrote in Steps 1 and 2. Write new ones based on the outline. Are they the same as what you originally thought? If they aren’t that isn’t necessarily a problem if you decide that this theme is what you want the story to be about.This exercise allows a writer to understand the story’s theme. That was the goal of the About Statement. The Question tells us very quickly if the climax and its resolution answer the theme’s concern. If they do not, or don’t do it satisfactorily, then there is a story telling problem which needs to be addressed.If you discover that the theme or About Statement has changed then you can either:
1) accept the change and make sure all scenes address the new theme in some manner; or
2) pinpoint the scenes which derailed the story theme, and rewrite with a view to making sure characters, actions and plot points address the desired theme.
Knowing your story and addressing plot, pacing and thematic issues will save you grief and many hours of work because there’s no point in line editing or scene editing if the scene needs to be eliminated or changed. Plus, your beta readers will love you. Beta readers will point out structural issues and problems this exercise has easily identified or they may know that there is a problem but don’t understand it. This process allows you to address the bigger issues ahead of time so that your beta readers can address other details, such as character inconsistencies, which are more helpful to your editing process. Make the best use of beta readers by giving them a structurally sound manuscript.
So, get to know your story because the rewards of doing so will be recognized and lauded by beta readers, editors and agents.