Revision Secrets for a Tighter Plot and Deeper Characters

By Shallee McArthur

I’m not going to lie—I LOVE revising my books. It’s drafting that I have a hard time with. But once I have that bucket of sand from my first draft, I can use revision to start building my castle (to paraphrase Shannon Hale). I’ve tried a ton of different techniques for revising, and I’m here to share a few of my secrets for large-scale revisions of plot and character!

Secret 1: List out all the events in your story

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, once you’ve got a first draft, you’ve got an outline. During my first drafts, I actually give each of my chapters a brief synopsis heading to keep me organized. But whether you do that or not, you can look at each chapter and write a brief sentence about the important events in it. Then, list them out in a separate document. I’m a visual person, so I like to use the free software Freemind to create a mindmap.

Mind Map Example

But you can do this in MS Word, Excel, on sticky notes, or wherever you feel like it. If you have something like Scrivener, this is the same basic thing as your cork board.

Secret 2: Faster, and with More Intensity

Now that you’ve got a summary of all your action, you can see your story as a whole. Make notes on where the pacing slows down, where you need to add or cut, pinpoint any holes, etc. Look at every single scene, and give yourself a George Lucas directorial moment. Tell yourself, as he did the Star Wars actors, “Faster, and with more intensity!”

Is this scene slowing down the story? Cut it. Are you revealing something big primarily through dialogue? Intensify it with action. Does the scene start too early? Start it later. Is there a dramatic moment that you need to linger on to bring out more emotional intensity? Expand it. Is this the direction you want the story to turn, or would it be more intense if you turned left in the middle instead of right?

One scene at a time, make your book faster and more intense.

Secret 3: Re-define Your Character Arc

Sometimes I do this one before steps one and two, or after, or alongside. You characters’ choices drive your plot, right? So this one kind of melds with the others.

Go back to any character sketch/interview/outline you did prior to or during the drafting stage. Look at who you had planned for them to be, and look at who they became in the story. Did they change from that sketch? If they didn’t, should they? Are they who you want them to be? Are they driving the story forward?

I often create another document at this point, for each major character. Using both the original character sketch and the new information I have in the story, I write out the following information.

  1. Who the character is at the beginning.
  2. Who they are at the end.
  3. What obstacle they had to overcome to change.
  4. Their strengths and weaknesses as demonstrated in the story.

With that listed out, I can see if this is the arc I want my character to take—or if there’s even a character arc at all. Did my character change? Does their arc emphasize any themes I want to bring out? Does who they are and who they’re becoming shape the choices they make well enough to drive the plot forward?

Some Final Words

Don’t be afraid of change. Yes, some of this means you’ll change the story in a big way. THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT. If it makes the story better, it’s worth doing, no matter the amount of effort required. Don’t be afraid to slash whole sections of your book and write new ones. You’re not doing interior design, here. If your house/story is falling apart, it needs major structural changes. Knocking out walls, rebuilding foundations. Be bold, and make those things happen.

These secrets may not work for everyone. They’re techniques I use to get the big picture of my story, but there are a lot of things you can do to get that. Whatever technique works for you, let yourself see the big picture, and don’t be afraid to change it.

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Shallee McArthur originally wanted to be a scientist, until she discovered she liked her science best in fictional form. When she’s not writing young adult science fiction and fantasy, she’s attempting to raise her son and daughter as proper geeks. A little part of her heart is devoted to Africa after volunteering twice in Ghana. She has a degree in English from Brigham Young University and lives in Utah with her husband and two children. Her YA sci fi, THE UNHAPPENING OF GENESIS LEE, debuts from Sky Pony Press in November of 2014.

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