6 Steps to Balance Your Editing: Plot vs. Characters

by Jami Gold on June 17, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Balance with a gold ball and a silver ball with text: Finding the Balance in Revisions

After we’ve finished drafting our story and the warm fuzzies of that accomplishment have faded, it’s time to buckle down for the next step: revising.

Many of us aren’t sure where to start with revisions, even when we know something is wrong with a story. When I help authors edit their books, they sometimes mention the dozens of fix-it ideas they’ve tried, none of which worked.

Usually, the reason those ideas didn’t work is because we can struggle with seeing the underlying issue and knowing what to fix or how to fix it. Do we need to change the plot? The characters? Both?

Too often, I see writers change plot event after plot event and forget to look for problems within the character-related sentences. So let’s take a look at some of the symptoms we’re likely to see in problem areas and identify how we might be able to tell if the issue is plot or character related. *smile*

Step 1: Gather Feedback

This might mean that we pay for an editor, but I recommend not sending first-draft (or even second-draft) material to an editor because that’s an expensive way to go. At the first-draft stage, we’re likely to need a lot of changes, and personally, I’d rather save my money for editing after the low-hanging problems are worked out.

Instead, I recommend establishing beta reading and/or critique partner relationships. If you need to find beta readers, check out this post with the resources I know of for playing matchmaker.

Step 2: Organize Feedback

I like collecting first-round feedback from about three sources. That allows me to know if comments are just differences of opinions (the same line prompting one “I hate it” and two “I love it” comments), or more importantly, whether the feedback falls into patterns (multiple comments pointing out the same issue).

Once we have a couple of sources for feedback, we can organize the information to look for patterns. Follow the instructions in this post to combine all of our readers’ MS Word comments into one document.

Step 3: Identify Plot-Related Feedback

Let’s start with finding the plot-specific issues. Here are some clues to look for when deciding if feedback is pointing out a plot-related issue:

Questioning the How of Events

    • “How did they end up at the same location as the killer?”
    • “So did she get kicked out in that last scene or not?”
    • “Is this supposed to be the next day?”
  • Comments along these lines might point out a logic flaw in the plot. Maybe the plot doesn’t flow from one event to the next with linked causes and effects, or maybe we’re missing consequences from an event, or maybe our writing is confusing.
  • These comments are almost always plot related.

Questioning the Why of Actions

    • “Why isn’t she waiting for backup?”
    • “Why isn’t he taking his cell phone with him?”
    • “Is she trying to be Too Stupid To Live here?”
  • Comments along these lines might point out plot holes, where we forced the characters to do something illogical for the sake of the plot we wanted.
  • These comments are often plot related (if they refer to actual plot holes), or they might point out issues with character-related goals, motivations, or stakes, which should be providing context for why those actions aren’t as illogical as they seem.

Questioning the Pacing or Point of Events

    • “What was the point of this scene?”
    • “Why are they arguing? Just for random conflict?”
    • “Bored now.”
  • Comments along these lines might point out plot tangents, where we’ve slowed down the narrative drive of the story with pointless events.
  • These comments—if focused on events—are often plot related, but many pacing issues are actually caused by issues with character-related goals, motivations, or stakes (or simple over-writing).

Questioning the Under/Over of Reactions

    • “Doesn’t she care that she just lost her job?”
    • “Why is he freaking out about a simple knock on a door?”
    • “Wow, melodramatic much?”
  • Comments along these lines might point out mismatches between plot trigger “causes” and the character’s emotional “effects.” Maybe the plot event isn’t big enough to justify the reaction (melodramatic overreaction), or maybe the plot event seems meaningless to the story (character under-reaction).
  • These comments—unless the character reaction is already just as we want—are often more character related.

Step 4: Label All Other Issues as Character Related (for now)

We will occasionally have plot tangents, logic flaws, or plot holes, and labeling those as plot related makes sense. However, just as many (if not more) issues in stories are related to unclear, missing, or weak:

  • Goals (what the character wants)
  • Motivations (why they want it)
  • Stakes (the consequences if they fail)

And these are all primarily character-related issues because these elements are how characters provide context for the plot events. If we start mucking about with the plot, any changes won’t help us (and will, in fact, over-complicate the story), so we need to hold off on plot changes for all other issues for now.

Step 5: Identify the Underlying Issue

Ever heard this writing advice? The purpose of plot is to reveal character. That may be less true in some genres or stories, but it’s a good starting place for understanding why plot changes won’t fix many story issues.

Yet many writers will first jump at changing plot events when they suspect an issue. Plot changes might seem easier. They’re not hidden in our story’s narrative or subtext. They’re worded more straightforwardly. They’re tangible.

But skittering from plot possibility to plot possibility can, in fact, distract us from seeing the real issues. In the big picture, plot events are important mostly for acting as triggers to force our characters to make choices, reveal emotions, cause reactions, etc.

So we first need to understand what we’re trying to accomplish in a scene, and then analyze whether it’s really the plot catalyst (“trigger”) that’s wrong, or if the problem is something else (or a combination). From what I’ve seen in my beta-reading and editing experience, the “something else” is almost always a character issue.

Step 6: Fix the Underlying Issue

If the issue is truly plot related, we can adjust the plot events to lead to the results we want. But remember, the only times a plot change alone will fix our story is if:

  • there’s a plot hole, plot tangent, or logic flaw
  • there’s a mismatch between a plot event “cause” and a character reaction “effect”—and we want to keep the character reaction “as is”
    • For example, if we want the character to freak out, but their reaction currently seems melodramatic, we might need a bigger plot event to justify their reaction.

Otherwise, we should ensure that the Goals, Motivations, and Stakes are clear to readers. If we’re not able to point to a line or paragraph that captures these elements, we can take a look at whether we’re leaving too much in the subtext or if we’re not sharing enough context for readers to understand plot events.

Fixing character-related, contextual elements might mean:

  • wording a vague statement more clearly
    • From “She had a feeling this was going to be a bad night” to “If she couldn’t get xyz, this was going to be a bad night.” (clearer stakes)
  • adding a line of dialogue or internalization
    • “If only she could xyz.” (statement of goal)
  • adding emotion and/or reactions
    • “After all the pain he’d caused, there was no way in hell she’d let him get away with xyz.” (statement of motivation)

Major story issues often seem like they’ll need a big overhaul to fix (which might be another reason we default to plot changes), but in reality, major issues might need just a line or two to change the context. Context is all about controlling a reader’s impression by changing what the plot means to the characters.

Often, it’s not the plot event that’s “off.” It’s the context around the plot event that’s causing the problem.

We can change plot events all day long, but if the context is wrong, no amount of plot tweaking will fix the problem. Instead, we need to control the context of plot events by tweaking how the characters make choices, react, and reveal emotions in response to the events.

So before we flail randomly by making oodles of changes to the plot, we first need to look at the role of our characters and their interactions with the plot. Characters are the key to giving the proper context to plot events, and that’s why our editing needs to balance changes to both plot and characters. *smile*

Have you ever made plot changes, only to realize they didn’t fix the problem? Are you able to see the underlying causes for story issues, or do you need others to point them out? Does this concept of tweaking the context of plot events for the characters make sense? Do you have any questions about this process?

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30 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Tamara LeBlanc June 17, 2014 at 9:32 am

Hi Jami!
I tend to be able to see most issues for myself. I’m an author that will write and re-write a sentence until it sounds right in my head and works with other aspects of the plot before sending it off to my 3 crit partners. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to crafting a story (that’s not to say that I’m perfect in ANY regard. I make mistakes ALL the time) but I don’t usually send out a 1st, 2nd or sometimes even third chapter or scene draft until I really like what I read. Again, that doesn’t mean that what I email to my crit partners is sparkly clean, but it does help me weed out unnecessary mistakes before they even have a chance to look at my work. In the end it takes me longer to draft the story than it does for my partners and betas to correct it. Not sure if that’s smart or not, but it’s the way my process works, so I’m sticking to it 🙂
I totally agree, however with your concept of tweaking plot for the characters. Our characters must remain true to their nature. They should never act out of character unless there’s a damn good reason for it. So tweaking events in regards to my hero or heroine’s psychology is the way I get things right.
Thanks for these 6 steps !!!
have a great day 🙂
Tamara

Reply

Jami Gold June 17, 2014 at 9:45 am

Hi Tamara,

I write relatively clean first drafts (because I’m such a slow writer *shrug*), so I typically send my 1.5 draft (just reread for stupid-obvious stuff) to my alpha reader. He catches the less-stupid-obvious stuff, and then I send 2.0 draft to my betas. 🙂 But we all have to find what process works for us.

Yes, it’s all about matching the plot and the characters, and that often means that plot changes alone can’t fix our story. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee June 17, 2014 at 9:44 am

Back before I released A Fistful of Fire, I sat down with it to start “fixing” the plot to something more conventionally active, to get rid of the narrator’s reactivity.

I didn’t get far before I realized that would change the entire point of the book.

So I took a step back, squinted, and threw my hands up in despair, because my story meant I frankly couldn’t fix the problems without changing the entire point of the story.

Which made me step back again and wonder… Is that such a bad thing?

Sure, some of my protagonists are actually quite reactive, but there’s a reason behind it, and part of the point of the story (or series) is a character learning to take a stand, often despite themselves.

But those reactive characters have significant effects on the plot—effects that, in most situations, would actually be problems. As it is, they’re a reason some readers hate my writing.

I mention all that to point out how important it is to balance others’ expectations and feedback against your intentions for the story.

For instance, even if five beta readers complain that a story’s light on the description, first thing to ask yourself is “Is it supposed to be light on the description?” Not “How do I fix this?”

If the story’s supposed to be light on the description, then the underlying issue isn’t the light description. It’s that you’re targeting the wrong audience. If the story wasn’t supposed to be light on the description, you need to work more in there.

In general, though, I’m a “little picture” person. I can point out how paragraph breaks and word choices affect a scene, but it’s difficult for me to view the whole picture. The more practice I get, the bigger of a “little picture” I’m able to see at a time, but I still am at a loss about some things.

Example: I have a 36k-word novella that has gotten rejection letters citing the fast pacing, suggesting it could use more exposition. I read the story again yesterday, and I don’t see anywhere to put that. To me, it all fits together as it is. So either I’m pulling a Karen Chance and going faster with the pacing than some folks find comfortable, or I’m going to need someone to point out the actual issues.

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Jami Gold June 17, 2014 at 9:51 am

Hi Carradee,

Fantastic point! Yes, I’ve mentioned that advice about not blindly following beta reader suggestions before, but I should have mentioned it in this post too. Thanks for fixing that for me! 🙂

As you’re more of a copy-editor person, it doesn’t surprise me that you see the little things. This is definitely one of those “I’m aware of this issue because I’m a dev editor” things. LOL!

Let me know if you ever want to swap work. 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung June 17, 2014 at 11:44 am

I rarely make plot changes, actually, unless they’re very minor things, because plot changes to me are like “changing history/ changing the truth”…which makes me uncomfortable, haha. Though of course I might have made mistakes in the writing of this history.

Ooh I like how you organized it into making the stakes, motivations, and goals clear and explicit rather than vague or just left there for the reader to hopefully figure out. I believe I’m doing well for the motivations part, because I always explicitly explain my character’s motives (maybe even too much, haha), as I actually enjoy talking about their motives, lol. Sometimes the narrator is unsure of the character’s motives but posits several possibilities and invites the reader to choose one of them, lol! And sometimes, I feel that character x’s motivation for action Y is unclear, so I explicitly explain their motive in the narrative.

But it’s a good idea to pay attention to clarifying goals and stakes too. I didn’t think of these. And after lots of practice with your scene elements list, I have a clearer idea of what you mean by making explicit character goals and stakes now too. 😀

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Jami Gold June 17, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Hi Serena,

Going along with Carradee’s point above about not blindly following our critiquers’ suggestions, this observation you made about how you “might have made mistakes in writing the history” is how I decide what suggestions to implement. Does it feel closer to the truth of the story I was trying to tell? If so, I make the change. 🙂

I have the same attitude as you, as far as wanting to follow the “truth” of the story and the characters. But I take imperfect dictation, so I miss out on some of the layers that exist and get the notes wrong sometimes. LOL!

Yay! I’m glad things are coming together for you. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung June 17, 2014 at 1:23 pm

“. Does it feel closer to the truth of the story I was trying to tell? If so, I make the change.”; “But I take imperfect dictation, so I miss out on some of the layers that exist and get the notes wrong sometimes.”

Yay it looks like we take the same approach to “changing” stories, lol. 😀

E.g. my reader says, “Why didn’t she do X? It would have made more sense.” It’s possible that I missed out that plot event, or wrote her in a wrong way–she really didn’t do Y, she did X. The problem is if you’re unsure of which is the truth, lol. But in general, I assume that the story I have written down IS the truth—until proven/ convinced otherwise! XD

It’s when a reader says, “Why don’t you make X happen?” or “Why don’t you make character X into a Y?” (e.g. make her a boy instead of a girl…) that I get edgy. If you feel that X really did NOT happen, or that character X is really NOT Y, I don’t think it would be morally right for me to change the truth/ history in order to satisfy a reader’s wishes, lol. Yeah I cringe whenever I hear readers saying “make” something/ someone something, lol, because “make” = “force” = distorting the truth, haha. It’s not a “choose your own adventure” game after all. The CHARACTERS choose, not the readers, lol.

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Jami Gold June 17, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes, if it’s meant to happen, it’s great they pointed it out for me, but if it’s not meant to happen, ugh, no. 🙂

A friend of mine is going through some hellacious edits with a publisher now, and this editor is so clueless it’s ruining the stories. 🙁 Forcing isn’t good. Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung June 18, 2014 at 6:45 am

Yikes for publishers ruining stories. 🙁 I hope your friend’s editor understands soon what really needs to be done, not what THEY want to be done, eek.

Anyway….

I forgot to say two things:
About the scene elements list again, I find that almost all of my scenes have “character development” in them! Where a new aspect of a character’s (or characters’) personality is revealed.

Also, you know that thing about crutch words? I actually think that crutch words are not necessarily bad unless it’s TOO overwhelming. When I read authors’ work, I see that author x likes to use expressions xyz a lot, and author y likes to use expressions abc a lot. These “crutch expressions”, I actually think, are nice because they represent part of that author’s style. “That’s the author who likes using words xyz!” Lol. On the other hand, if a hypothetical author manages to vary their expressions SO much that you don’t see any patterns at all, then it feels like there’s no “style” or “personality” to be found. However, I believe it’s impossible to be THAT varied in one’s word and expression choices that the author completely obliterates any sense of style/ personality, though.

Interestingly, I don’t notice these “favorite expression styles” very much in English fiction, but I do notice this in Chinese fiction. Probably because I read Chinese a lot slower and am compelled to notice the repeated word choices, lol. For English, since it’s my first language, my eyes just speed by so I don’t pay that much attention to what specific words are being used all the time. Though I do notice SOME things. George R.R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire series likes to write things like “have you taken leave of your wits/ senses?” , “at least character X had the grace to…” , and “a thimble of sense”. Lol.

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Jami Gold June 18, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Hi Serena,

That’s a good point about how certain phrases can become part of an author’s style. But as you said, the problem comes with overuse. Bland phrases like “he smiled” don’t add much to most scenes and don’t add characterization. Unusual phrases are more interesting, but that unusual-ness means that it will stand out more when used more than once.

It can be a tricky balance. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your insight!

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Serena Yung June 19, 2014 at 9:20 am

Ooh about smiling, I find that there’s a cultural difference. In English stories, I’ve been advised not to say “X smiled” so often, and to just say something like “X said” instead, therefore counting on the reader to KNOW that X was smiling. However, in the Chinese martial arts stories by Jinyong (a very popular author in HK and China), the “X smiled/ laughed” (smiling and laughing are basically the same word in Chinese, lol) appears VERY often; there are so many smiles/laughs even on the same page too. XDD So I think maybe it’s the norm to smile so often on the page for the Chinese martial arts genre culture, lol, or even for Chinese novels in general. I find cultural norm differences in writing styles really interesting. 😀

But yeah, in general, I do agree that overuse can be annoying, lol.

Reply

Jami Gold June 19, 2014 at 9:45 am

Hi Serena,

Interesting! You’re right–cultural differences can be fascinating. 🙂 I never would have guessed it was that big of a difference.

I appreciate the variety we have in English for indicating a smile, everything from “curve on her lips” to “lilt in her voice,” but that definitely means we have to be more creative when editing our work. LOL! Thanks for sharing!

Renee Regent June 17, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Once again your timing is spot on (for me)! I am prepping first draft to send to betas right now, so this was very timely. I like the way you break things down, I find your manner of explaining easy to understand, even though it may be very detailed depending on the subject. My current issue is, Book 1 of my series was well plotted out, and Book 2 has to pick up loose threads, plus carry its’ own plot. Have you written anything on continuing plot lines through a series?

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Jami Gold June 17, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Hi Renee,

Aww, thanks! I’m happy to help. 🙂

Hmm, no I don’t think I have anything about continuing plot lines through a series. (My current series is made up of standalones, so I haven’t analyzed how to continue plots yet. 😉 ) But Kristen Lamb has this post about series that I really liked, and Janice Hardy’s site has this section about series as well. Hopefully, something in those links will help give you some direction. Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Renee Regent June 18, 2014 at 1:46 pm

Thank you, that does help. Making them stand alones, but still weaving plot threads through is my big challenge right now. If you think of a series that may be a good example of how to do that, please let me know.

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Jami Gold June 18, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Hi Renee,

For standalone series, the usual way I’ve seen it handled is to have one of the subplots continue in later books, but to “resolve” the main plot point. That way, the book is “standalone” because of the main plot (not a cliffhanger), but a subplot can have open threads. I can’t think of a particular series off-hand that handles this spectacularly better than anyone else though.

Many paranormal romance or urban fantasy series take this approach. In PNR series, typically, the hero and heroine get their happily ever after (the main plot), while bad forces amass in the background, leaving clues that might go unnoticed in any single book.

Hopefully that gives a couple of ideas, and if I think of a specific series to recommend, I’ll let you know. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Renee Regent June 19, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Great. That sounds like what I am doing, so hopefully it will work when all is said and done. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Series is one I know that keeps plot lines going, but hers is so different from anything else, I am reluctant to use it as “the” example. In any case, I am having a ball writing it!

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Jami Gold June 19, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Hi Renee,

Sounds like a plan! And yes, DG’s Outlander series is resistant to genre ideas, so it’s hard to apply her methods to other situations. Good luck with it and thanks for the comment!

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saralitchfield June 17, 2014 at 1:00 pm

This makes *complete* sense… I’m 70% through rewrites – so it’s a good job it does lol! I did things in the right order – having a spate a beta feedback to work with before my developmental edit, which meant my 3rd draft wasn’t *as* bad as it could have been when it had a paid edit… But I really needed the edit to point out the deeper issues and intricacies with character/plot that you speak about here – I just couldn’t identify the real issues in a way that gave me a clear approach to fixing them before that point.

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Jami Gold June 17, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Hi Sara,

I usually can’t see issues until someone points them out, so I desperately depend on my beta readers to help me with that. 🙂 Good luck with your revisions and thanks for the comment!

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Kira June 17, 2014 at 7:03 pm

Nice post, Jami!The hardest challange for revision is to making sense of my characters and to match the external event and internal journey, my method is to ask lots of questions, your list of questions in this will obviously help, thankyou 🙂

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Jami Gold June 17, 2014 at 7:31 pm

Hi Kira,

Exactly! It’s about trying to make the plot and the characters mean something to each other and not just have random conflicts or personality traits running amok. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Donna Hole June 17, 2014 at 9:31 pm

Revision is my favorite part of writing. It is so hard to get that original idea down on paper; but after the bare bones, I feel free to develop characters, plot, world. When I send it critique partners the first couple times it is with the intent of further developing the story.

Writing is such frustrating fun 🙂

Reply

Jami Gold June 17, 2014 at 9:50 pm

Hi Donna,

“Frustrating fun”–LOL! I love that. 🙂 It’s so true.

And yes, as you said, I want my critiquers to go deep into my story–because that’s the only way it’s going to get better. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Glynis Jolly June 21, 2014 at 7:35 pm

I have a terrible habit of seeing flaws and issues of all kinds as I write. Because of this, trying to get through the first draft is horrid. After reading this post though, I am feeling a little better about all the negativeness in my ability to write. It just might come all together eventually.

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Jami Gold June 22, 2014 at 10:07 am

Hi Glynis,

Messy first drafts–even those that don’t necessarily make sense–are normal. 🙂 And it sounds like you already have some good ideas on where to make revisions after you’re done–that’s great! Many writers struggle with that aspect.

I’d say to get your first draft done, so you can see the full big picture, and then you’ll be in good shape for knowing what to attack in the next step. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

Reply

Bella ardila August 18, 2015 at 7:46 am

Thanks the tip. I really love it. You have been helping a lot.

Reply

Jami Gold August 18, 2015 at 8:26 am

Hi Bella,

You’re welcome! I’m happy to help. 🙂

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