Editing Challenge Day 4: Imagining the Story Arc

risingactiongraphThis is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

All right, we’re ready to actually enter the world of editing, now that we have the right attitude. (What is the attitude? It’s the calm confidence that others need to edit too, and that editing is part of the process). So where do we begin? What’s the first step?

If you’ve got a short story whose first draft is tentatively completed, it can feel like you’re holding a piece of Swiss cheese. There’s a structure there, but it’s full of holes. When I complete a first draft, I’m often already aware of some missing pieces, whether it’s scenes or much-needed character development, but I think it’s important to push through to the end and follow the story’s momentum. So just look away from those Swiss cheese bits; for now, we’re going to tackle the overall story arc.

Remember, you are not bound irrevocably to the story arc as you originally envisioned it. Maybe you knew the story had to end with a character getting on a train and choosing to end her marriage. That was what you needed to know to finish your first draft — but now that you’ve gotten there, is it really the right choice for the story?

Have you printed out a copy of your story? Some of my fellow writers print the story two-up to a page so they can visualize the entire thing even more easily; today, we really are thinking about the big picture, and you need to be able to hold the whole story’s trajectory in your head. Take a moment and jot down the big three or four plot points on the top of the first page in colored marker or pen. Keep it as simple as you can: if you find yourself needing more than four or five points, or needing to explain why one plot point follows from another, than the story is already too complex. That’s a good thing to notice.

Ask yourself if the first plot point is really a plot point. I see this as a common mistake in a lot of story drafts; we save the actions and choices for the second half of the story, and the first half is more or less buildup or background. We need the story to have a balanced plot, moving and changing and growing throughout. Think of your story’s plot as a seesaw. Is the seesaw heavily tilted in one direction or another? If so, jot down some notes about events that could or should happen in the beginning, or earlier on.

Ask yourself if there is a climax. Does the character make a choice that changes the trajectory of the story? Great! If not, think about why that might be. Does your character only have things happening to him or her? Is the character only passively observing someone else’s life?

In a notebook or text file that you are keeping specifically for this editing project, jot down some notes about actions that could be added to the story. Instead of having the character just at work for a while, have the action move up earlier in the story. Instead of just letting the bad thing happen, have your character make an effort to stop it.

Good work, editors. Next time, we’ll delve deeper into plot choices.

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