Monday, July 15, 2013

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Charting the Novel Story Arc

This post first published on June 30, 2009 and and it's become a tool I use regularly when editing manuscripts for authors. It's proven to be an enormously useful way to help determine if a story begins with enough of a bang, where the plot sags in the middle, and if the ending needs a bit more tension before the satisfying conclusion. Thanks to Pat Stoltey for contributing one of our most popular posts! ~ Dani


Once I have a complete draft of a novel, and before I begin the detailed self-editing process, I want to evaluate the story arc to determine whether I need to add, delete, or revise sections of the manuscript. If this is done before the line-by-line edit, then I won’t waste time on sections that might be completely rewritten, or even eliminated.

The story arc is described by Shon Bacon as: “a set up, obstacles for the main character to overcome, and a resolution.” For additional information on what the story arc is and how to fix problems, read these posts from The Blood-Red Pencil: Prop Up Your Sagging Plot Middles by Heidi Thomas and Plumpers by Dani Greer. For an excellent description of the essential elements of the Three Act Structure, see Alex Sokoloff’s Top Ten Things I Know About Editing.

This is a painful part of the self-editing process for many writers, so I’d like to use the numerical ranking system to evaluate patient pain as a measure of tension and/or suspense in a novel. Zero will indicate no tension/excitement. Ten is the measure for “edge of your seat” suspense.

Mystery/thriller, fantasy/sci-fi, romance, or any other fictional form will have a story arc. There is no reader appeal unless the main characters want something, need to overcome obstacles to reach their goals, and eventually succeed or fail in their quests. The challenge is to maintain a pace in this obstacle/resolution process that keeps the reader engaged until the end of the story.

Ranking and charting can be done at a macro-level, where chapters or sections are evaluated. At a micro-level, the excitement of each page or scene may be measured. Whichever you choose, when you are finished, chart the results (you can even do a fancy bar graph, if you like). Does your story look something like this?

1-2-2-3-7-10-10-1-1-1-1-1-3-3-10-3-10-1-1-1-1

If so, better read that post on sagging middles and work on the over-long (and probably boring) resolution.

To complicate the process, if you have one or more sub-plots within the greater story, you might want to chart the sub-plots as a separate exercise. This is helpful, for instance, in novels of romantic suspense where you might have obstacles for the lovers that are separate from the intrigue in which one or both might be entangled.

Regardless of how general or how detailed you want to make this exercise, you’ll find it a useful tool in identifying problems with story and pacing. If you do this first, the rest of the self-editing tasks will be much easier.


Patricia Stoltey
is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting Colorado authors, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revision and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).

24 comments :

  1. Interesting concept to rank each segment of the story. I like that. Thanks for the idea.

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  2. Unique idea. Thanks! Now to apply it...

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  3. I'd never considered a numeric quantification. Great idea, the graph is kind of a cool idea as well. Thanks for these suggestions, Patricia.

    In applying this technique, do you find that your gut, writer’s instinct kept you on course, or have you found you needed to do serious overhauls?

    Best regards, Galen
    Imagineering Fiction Blog

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  4. I'd like to see another post as to how you actually assign the numbers. How do you determine the criteria for each cahapter/section?

    Do you have a photo of a charted story arc we can see - so we know what it should look like?

    Great post! I think this would be good to add to the editors arsenal of tools.

    Dani
    http://blogbooktours.blogspot.com

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  5. I have a hard time shutting off the "general editor" switch when doing a first read-through, and trying to just focus on the arc might be a tough prospect! Still, it makes sense that if whole passages may well end up on the cutting room floor, why waste time editing them? Might have to give this a try.

    --Lisa
    http://authorlisalogan.blogspot.com

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  6. Hi to all, thanks for stopping by.

    Galen, I tend to write less rather than more, so my problem is sometimes too much tension and not enough time in between action scenes to let the reader take a break. On manuscripts I've critiqued for others, especially fantasy novels, the problem is often repetition (as in battle scenes all sounding alike so that each repetition is ranked lower than the first), or overlong descriptions of the fantasy world (or festival activities within that world, for instance).

    Dani, the assignment of numbers is subjective, especially when the author is ranking his own work. One of the criteria I use is sentence structure. Short sentences in action scenes get a higher rank than long sentences and long paragraphs. Another factor is the danger level for the protagonist (or victim) in mysteries or thrillers. The greater the threat, the higher the ranking.

    On completed novels I dump the revisions and editing stuff when I'm finished. However, I'm working on a book now that will lend itself well to charting. I'll do that for a future post (and even take a photo of the graphed results along the way).

    Patricia
    href=http://patriciastoltey.blogspot.com

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  7. Yes, and talk a bit about the "resting places" we need to stay in the story. It sounds a lot like places in a painting that give us visual relief from other tension points. Sometimes we forget those "spaces" are as important as sections that are full of action. Sort of negative space for the brain.

    Dani

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  8. This has ben immensly useful. Thank you.

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  9. Some teachers tell you to think of your book as a roller coaster ride. There are low, easy parts and high, thrilling sections - and some inbetween. You let the reader catch her breath, then take her for a ride, then repeat.

    Helen
    Straight From Hel

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  10. Helen, That's a great way to look at it. Can't you imagine ranking the climbing tension as the cars chug uphill, that high tension moment at the top and the thrill ride down, and then the lull before the cars start up again? That lull, by the way, is when we run to the kitchen for a fresh glass of iced tea.

    Patricia
    href=http://patriciastoltey.blogspot.com

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  11. Very good points made here. I, too, had never thought of the numerical ranking, but it sure makes sense.

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  13. Terrific post - I've never read an article with the concept explained so well. I'm eager to apply the numerical ranking to my own novels and see how they stack up.

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  14. Pantser or Plotter, either way you need to make sure you middles aren't muddled. Critique partners are invaluable in this regard.

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  15. I'm guessing that a rating that looks like this is not a good sign:

    1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-10-1-1-1

    Not that I would know about a manuscript that charts like this ... I was just wondering.

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  16. This one was definitely worth a repeat. Who says writing a book isn't a real (or full-time) job? Thank you for sharing it again, Dani. The reminder comes at a great time for me.

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  17. This really is an amazing tool, Linda. I'm using it today as well. :)

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  18. Wow, Christopher, I want to know what happened at the end of your story. Someone definitely woke up with a start! The question is - why? :D

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  19. Replies
    1. Hi Pat - thanks for popping in! :)

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  20. Interesting concept to chart your scenes. Helen, I like the analogy of the roller coaster too.

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  21. There is an outlining software called Y-writer that lets you enter values for several different scene metrics(action, tension, and your own custom metrics) and creates a lovely line graph. I believe Scrivener might do this as well.

    Thanks for the great post!
    -Conrad Zero

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  22. @Susan...

    As with the Doc, my mentor, I follow your writings and opinions religiously. My first novel is good, and after eight edits its almost Ivory soap on the Punctuation meter. But no one has yet to give suggestions on the seat of the pants meter. I love your theory. I use a more graph approach--Chapter 7 sucks... etc. I will switch to your approach. Funny... I know what a 10 is. While writing my short for the 750 Writers, I had to stop three times. My heart was racing too fast. After a Nitro pill, I had to cut it back from 2800 to 1000 words. It's a 6 or 7 now, because I can't edit. I think all 10's would hurt the reader too. I will eventually come up with a theory that lets the reader catch a breath now and then--but doesn't lose them.

    Great blog.

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  23. Lesson one... do not type into a blog first. All will be lost. Use a word doc, so when the blog comes back and say... thanks for wasting your time typing. But I need you to sign in first. ALL IS LOST.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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