December 27, 2011

How to Force a Story to Evolve: 6 Revision Tips

Collection of butterflies and chrysalises

*Quick Reminder: Don’t forget the Pitch Your Shorts pitch session coming January 10th.  Get your 10-60K stories ready.  More details to come.*

I hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season, no matter what holidays you celebrate.  While I’m enjoying some time with my family, I’ll share this post originally written as a guest post for the Writers on the Storm blog.

Forcing a Story to Evolve—From First Draft to Finished Draft

Previously, I’ve talked about how it’s fascinating to watch a story evolve from a story seed into a full-blown draft.  By the time we type “The End,” we often forget how small the seed started and have a hard time recognizing how the two are even related.

Similarly, stories evolve a great deal from first draft to finished draft—especially when we’re still climbing a steep learning curve.  If we analyze the ways a story can evolve through the editing process, we might know how to focus our revisions.

I’m not talking about the editing we do to make a story prettier, cleaner, or faster paced.  I’m talking about the big picture revisions that change the essence of the story behind the words.

Types of Story Evolution

  • Tone

A story’s tone greatly affects a reader’s experience.  The Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris (source material for the True Blood TV show) deal with many dark subjects, but the tone of the books is light and fluffy for the most part, despite the threat of mortal peril.  While revising, we can control the reader’s experience by changing the tone.

  • Voice

Related to the above point, changing the voice of the story will often change the tone.  A chatty or jokey voice tends to make the story less dark and serious.  This doesn’t mean a serious story can’t have comic relief, but maybe the source of the jokes would be from a non-POV character, or maybe the one-liners would be along the lines of gallows humor.

  • Point Of View

If a scene isn’t working, we might be able to fix it by using another character’s POV.  Or we can try to switch a story from first person to third person, or vice versa.  Similarly, making a third person POV into a deep third person POV affects how a story reads.

  • Motivation

Character motivation is like a magic formula for changing the feel of a story.  Think of all the reasons a character could be speeding while driving: impatience, escaping, rescuing, obliviousness, arrogance, etc.  Each of those would lead to different interpretation for the reader.  Same action, different reader reaction.  Then if we take it to the next level and add complex or competing motivations, or subtext, the story changes again.

  • Theme

When we have a strong theme, our story naturally feels deeper and more serious.  During revisions, we can tweak wording or sentences to accentuate the themes.  Check out this post for ideas on how to bring out themes in your story.

  • Depth

This can mean anything from adding subtlety or subtext to going deeper into characters’ emotions.  Real people are complex and act against logic or their own best interests sometimes.  We have competing needs fighting for control over which way we react in a situation.  Adding that element of unpredictability to our stories helps them avoid being cliché or formulaic.  Readers will believe in characters who do something stupid if those motivations are laid out for them to piece together.

Being Deliberate with Our Writing

When we write, everything we type is a choice.  We not only choose between this word and that word, but also how we use the above elements to affect a reader’s experience.  And even though these aspects seem subtle, they make a huge difference in how a story reads.

So when we revise, now that we no longer have to do the drafting work of puzzling over plot, subplot, and tying everything together, we can go back to the drawing board and figure out what type of experience we want our readers to have.  Do we want the story to feel light or serious?  How intimately do we want the reader to experience what the characters go through?

If the story we want isn’t the story we have, but we can’t figure out why, we might be tempted to toss it.  We might even worry that we’re not capable of doing the subject justice.  But maybe it just means that one of these big picture things is off a bit.  In other words, it’s fixable.  *smile*

Which of the above elements have you changed when revising a story?  Were the changes big or small?  What about the results?  How much did the changes affect the readers’ experience, the essence of the story behind the words?

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Susan Sipal

All of these are great points, Jami. I usually play around with POV, theme and depth the most in my stories. I love to work with some sort of unusual POV in every story. And whenever I have a problem of not knowing what to do, I usually go back to my theme to try to work it out from there. But where I need to spend more time on in the revising stage are tone, voice, and motivation. I especially need to work on voice, though I think other readers can often recognize this better than the author.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post, as always!


Thank you for a really useful post, Jami. The Sookie Stackhouse is a great example of using a light tone to continually throw all sorts of horrors at the reader.

Haley Whitehall

Thanks for the reminder, Jami. These basic revision tips need to be revisited once in a while so that us scatterbrained writers won’t forget. They really do make or break a story.

Gene Lempp

Great tips, Jami. Generally, I have most of these worked out in advance, although depth is one that I find hard to do in the early steps and the area where I constantly find myself coming back to. I wouldn’t say any of the changes have been massive (storyline changing) but all have been beneficial. I need to get a shovel placard to remind me to dig deeper in the early stages perhaps 🙂

Angela M

I struggled with my first ms. I knew something wasn’t working, but couldn’t put my finger on it. Then I went through Jodi Henley’s Character Arc Workshop, and it just clicked. It was my male mc’s motivation.

You’d think messing with a character arc after the ms is completely written would be a mess, but it wasn’t bad at all. Didn’t scare me off, anyway. A few scenes, some dialogue, and a tweak here and there, and voila! So much better.

Sonia G Medeiros

Excellent points. I love watching my stories evolve and pushing that evolution.

Robert Datson

Jami, thank you. I’m approaching the end of my first draft, and looking forward to the editing process. But, despite having completed a course in writing and editing, I had not thought through the process. You’ve given me some ways to look at the process.
Thanks again.


[…] How To Force A Story To Evolve: 6 Revision Tips by Jamie Gold. Another great list! […]


I love this post! I just added it to my bookmarks so that I can come back to it once I hit the revision process. Thanks so much for these great tips, and I hope things are going well for you! Have a great day, and happy writing!


[…] that I love subtext. I’ve analyzed the Spiderman reboot for subtext. I’ve written about how to revise for subtext, how to use subtext in emotional scenes, and how character development happens in subtext. Yeah, […]


[…] Gold talks about drawing out the evolution of your story in terms of tone, voice, point of view, motivation, theme, and […]

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