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?
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).