Revision Tips: Revising for Plot

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably known the incredible high that comes from finishing a writing project. Few things are more satisfying than typing “The End” on the last page of a first draft.

But for me, as exciting as that moment is, the real work of writing doesn’t happen until the next draft. And the draft after that. And the draft after that.

I tell my students that first drafts are for them–but revisions are for readers.

Still, as important as revision is, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by *all the things* that need attention: voice, characterization, setting, scene shifts, pacing, plot, formatting, and more.

VanDusen Botanical Garden maze”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

For me, the only way I can deal with this overwhelming sense that everything needs to be fixed at once is to tackle issues one at a time as I move through drafts. Obviously, if I notice an unrelated but glaring issue on a revision pass, I’ll address it. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to worry about voice or punctuation in a scene that might not make it past the second revision.

I’ve passed the last seven or eight months in varying degrees of revision exaltation/distress. Some days I’m excited for the obvious improvement to my MS–other days, I’m convinced I’m only writing aimlessly in circles. But I’ve settled into a revision pattern that seems to work for me:

1. Revise for plot.
2. Revise for character (sometimes parts of this have to happen along with revision #1–if I don’t know my character motivation, it’s hard to make the plot work).
3. Revise for scene and pacing.
4. Revise for voice.
5. Revise for polish: format, grammar, word choice, etc.

That’s not to say these are the *only* revisions I do. Sometimes I have to repeat a step. Sometimes I do additional revisions based around beta feedback. I’m about to dive into my eighth time this MS–after some recent beta feedback, I decided I needed to tackle the plot again.

So I’m offering up some tips on revising for plot.

Tip #1: Goals. Make sure the character has a goal that drives the entire plot. The goal can change, but the character has to want something, and has to be willing to endure some kind of opposition to get it. If the character is just doing one thing after another with no forward progress, that’s not plot.

Tip #2: Structure. Try reverse-plotting your story against a common plot structure. Make sure that your story hits all the important turning points. In my case, I realized that too much time elapsed between two critical turning points, which slowed down the story for readers.

Here are some I’ve found useful, both as I plan my stories and as I revise.

    • Dan Well’s 7-point story arc
    • Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Beat sheet (though written for screen writers, there are lots of useful adaptations for writers. I love Jami Gold’s downloadable form. Read her explanation too–it’s terrific.
    • If the thought of multiple plot points is intimidating, Janice Hardy has a useful description of the three act story structure on her blog.
    • The Cockeyed Caravan also has some useful questions to ask about structure, as Part 3 of the Ultimate Story Checklist

Tip #3: Readers. Outside readers, both critique partners and beta readers, are critical for identifying parts of the plot that aren’t working. Beta readers might have an edge here, because they see the story in its entirety, rather than in pieces. If you’re like me, that initial advice that the plot doesn’t work might sting–and after fuming for a day or two you’ll realize that they’re right.

These aren’t the only  methods for revising for plot, but these have been the methods that have helped me the most as I muddle through my revisions.

What about you? What resources have been most helpful for you as you revise for plot?

7 thoughts on “Revision Tips: Revising for Plot

  1. I think this is part of why revising my current novel has been so hard for me. I've tried to revise for too many big things at once! I'm hoping that next time around I'll feel more confident in my ability to revise and can tackle it in a way that doesn't make me feel like the world is ending. Lol! Great post!


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