Questions to Ask While Revising

Book cover of James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure

James Scott Bell’s book Plot and Structure has some useful information, but I would rank this one as more of library loan instead of a must own. Plot and pacing come more naturally to me.  Description and setting are generally my problems, so I ended up doing a lot of skimming. However, I did find the chapter about revision to be very helpful.  Here are some of the questions JSB suggests mulling over while editing:

Questions About Your Lead Character

  • Is the LC memorable? Compelling? Enough to carry a reader all the way through the plot?
  • Does this character avoid clichés? Is he capable of surprising us? What’s unique about the character?
  • Is the character’s objective strong enough?
  • How does the character grow over the course of the story?
  • How does the character demonstrate inner strength?

Questions About Your Opposition

  • Is your opposing character interesting?
  • Is he fully realized, not just a cardboard cutout?
  • Is he justified (at least in his own mind) in his actions?
  • Is he believable?
  • Is he as strong as or stronger than the Lead?

Questions About Your Story’s Adhesive Nature

  • Is the conflict between the Lead and opposition crucial for both?
  • Why can’t they just walk away? What holds them together?

Questions About Your Scenes

  • Are the big scenes big enough? Surprising enough? Can you make them more original, unanticipated, and draw them out for all they are worth?
  • Is there enough conflict in the scenes?
  • What is the least memorable scene? Cut it! Now we have a new “least memorable scene.” Consider cutting it, too.
  • What else can be cut in order to move the story relentlessly forward?
  • Does the climactic scene come to fast (through writer fatigue to finish)? Can you make it more, write it for all it’s worth? Set a ticking clock?
  • Do we need a new minor subplot to building up a sagging midsection? Do you need to cut a subplot to clarify a tangle of melodrama?

Questions About Your Minor Characters

  • What is their purpose in the plot?
  • Are they unique and colorful?

The Four Basic Science Fiction and Fantasy Story Models

A lot has been written on plot and whether you even need one.  Stephen King argued in On Writing that you don’t need a plot as much as good characters and an interesting premise.  He’s a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of guy.  That surprised me.  I wrote my first book that way, and I can’t say I was a fan of that model.  Not only is it stressful, but I think my lack of direction showed.  For my second and third novels, I’ve had at least an outline and sketched out the major themes I wanted to cover.  The first drafts of those two have gone much smoother.

I’ve been reading a few books lately by authors who do like a plot with more structure.  I’ll be doing a Ten Tips on James Scott Bell’s book on plot, but once again, the most helpful resource so far has been Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.  I swear, this the last post on it, and I’ll shut up, but only if you promise to read the whole thing.

OSC maintains that most stories follow one of the following four models (MICE):

The Wizard of Oz is an example of the milieu story model.

Milieu:  The story begins when you enter a strange land. It ends when you leave. The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver’s Travels

Sherlock Holmes is an example of the idea story model.

Idea:  The story begins by raising a question. It ends when the question is answered. Sherlock Holmes and nearly every other mystery

Perks is an example of the character story model.

Character:  This story is about transformation. It begins when the main character becomes so unhappy in his present role that he begins the process of change. It ends when the character either settles into a new role or gives up the struggle and remains in the old role. The Perks of Being a Wallflower and most coming of age stories

Lord of the Rings is an example of the event story model.

Event:  The world is out of order. This story begins not when the disorder starts, but when the character whose actions are most crucial to establishing the new order becomes involved in the struggle. It ends when a new order is established, the old order is restored, or the world descends into chaos and order is destroyed. Lord of the Rings and a kagillion other epic fantasies

The most important point to remember in plotting is to finish the story you started.  If you begin your story one way and end it another, you’ll frustrate your readers. Imagine if instead of solving the murder (idea), Holmes decided half way through to check into rehab, and the end of the book was about him conquering addiction (character). Bully for Holmes, but I want to know if the butler did it.  Likewise, how frustrating would Return of the King have been if Frodo decided instead of finishing his quest to destroy the ring (event), that after meeting Gollum he’d had enough adventure and headed back to his hobbit hole (milieu)?

Up Next:  Ten Tips from James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure