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March 26, 2019

Story Revisions: Keeping Track of Changes

Close up of a red leaf on a tree with text: Revisions: Understanding Our Story's Changes

A couple of weeks ago, I shared some ideas about how we can stitch pieces of our story together after we make big revisions. As I mentioned, anytime we make a lot of changes to our story, we have to rip our story apart to fit in the new stuff, so we risk plot holes, missing transitions, uneven tones, etc.

My post introduced the Resident Writing Coach article I’d written for Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site, which shared a few bullet points to help us find those stitches.

In the comments of that guest post, Jennifer Rose asked how we might track the changes we need to make:

“Do you use a spreadsheet or outline to track all the edits to be made, or something else?”

That’s a great question, so I wanted to share my answer and insights here as well. Just as we all have different writing processes, however, we might also have different revision and editing processes.

That said, how one author handles a situation can give us a starting point of ideas to try. So with that disclaimer, let’s dig into how we might approach the process of organizing our revision changes. *smile*

Two Types of Big Revisions

First though, we need to understand the nature of stories and revisions themselves. Depending on our genre and style, most stories feature arcs for both their plots and their characters:

  • On the plot side, our protagonist tries to overcome the antagonist(s), and the arc tracks the changes as they progress toward success or failure.
  • On the character side, our protagonist struggles with some aspect of themselves, like a false belief, and the arc tracks if and/or how they learn and change to be a better version of themselves.

Similarly, the changes we make in our story during a revision can lean more toward plot changes or character changes, or require a lot of changes with both.

Revision Type #1: Plot Revisions

In my experience as a developmental editor, the most common reasons for plot changes are attempts to fix issues with pacing, story structure (like ensuring stakes increase), and repetition.

On the plot side, we might need to make changes along the lines of:

  • deleting a scene, character, or subplot to improve clarity, focus on the core story, slow pacing, etc.
  • adjusting a confrontation between characters to create a different outcome (making an antagonist win until the end, for example)
  • adding more variety to plot points (so they don’t all involve an assumed ally betraying them, for example)

For plot revisions, we might find stitches by asking a lot of questions about our story’s cause-and-effect flow, foreshadowing, callbacks and references, etc.

Revision Type #2: Character Revisions

On the other hand, most character changes are meant to fix issues with goals/personal stakes/motivation, character conflict, and false beliefs.

On the character side, we might need to make changes along the lines of:

  • adding personal stakes to a character’s situation so they have a stronger goal and motivation to get involved
  • changing how (and why) characters relate to each other to improve tension
  • tweaking their backstory wound to create a better explanation for their false belief

For character revisions, we might find stitches by asking a lot of questions about the “why’s” of our story. Why does a character do or want A and not B? Why do they react or believe C and not D? Etc.

How Understanding the Type of Revision Helps

Of course, most stories require a mix of changes when it comes to big revisions. Changing a plot outcome can affect a character’s personal stakes and motivation, or changing a character‘s motivation can affect how plot points turn out, and so on.

Regardless, identifying the underlying type of revision our story needs can help us in at least a couple of ways…

Benefit #1: How Should We Track Our Revision?

Understanding the type of revision we have might help us decide the best way to track our story’s changes:

  • A plot-heavy revision might do better with analyzing beat sheets and story structure or a story-chronological outline.
  • A character-heavy revision might do better with a list of ways we need to better understand the character and what the changes mean for the story.

Benefit #2: Where Do We Look for Story Stitches?

At the same time, understanding the type of revision we have might help us find less obvious story rips, stitches, and plot holes.

In other words, with a plot-heavy revision, we’re obviously going to look for plot holes around the cause-and-effect of our plot points. However, we might not think to look for problems on the character side of things, such as how changing the outcome of a plot point could erase a character’s motivation for the next scene, etc.

When doing a big revision, how can we organize the changes we need to make? Click To TweetSimilarly, with a character-heavy revision, we’re obviously going to look for inconsistencies with how a character makes choices or reacts. However, we might not think to look for problems on the plot side of things, such as how changing a character’s motivation could affect if or how they’d go through with the next plot point, etc.

So either way, we want to really understand why things are the way they are and how our revisions affect both the plot and character arcs of our story. That said, understanding more about the type of revision we have can alert us to where we might shortchange our analysis and make assumptions that cause story issues.

Case Study: A Character-Heavy Revision

The one major revision I had to do for any of my stories was more character-heavy than plot-heavy (for Pure Sacrifice). Let’s take a look at one approach to that type of revision…

Step #1: What Do We Want to Change and Keep?

As I mentioned in my guest post for Angela and Becca, the first step is getting a strong understanding of what we want to keep and what we want to change. In my case, the revisions my developmental editor suggested included major changes to:

  • the worldbuilding,
  • the heroine’s arc, goals, and motivations,
  • the hero’s internal conflict and motivations,
  • the premise of the scenes leading up to the Climax,
  • a few plot events, and
  • the themes.

Yep that’s a major revision all right. *smile*

Step #2: Analyze and List What Needs to Change

It had been a while since I’d touched the story (which helped), so I skimmed each scene to remember references and identify what needed to be adjusted. At each point, I asked myself questions like those mentioned in my guest post, especially as far as how each change affected the rest of the story.

I ended up with over 50 questions to address along the lines of:

  • Why can’t she ABC?
  • What does D mean for E?
  • Why is he avoiding F?
  • What prevents X from happening?
  • How is Y supposed to work? What’s broken about it in the story’s world?
  • How does he define failure here?
  • What do they see as their choices after Z? What changes with their reaction due to that?

Those questions were in story-chronological order, so it ended up as kind of a character-arc style of outline. If I were making plot changes rather than character changes, my list probably would have been more like a regular outline.

Step #3: How to Make Changes that Work

The next step was a lot of brainstorming to answer those questions. *grin* Then I went through, scene-by-scene, to type in the changes. With that list in front of my keyboard, I was able to fix every aspect of the story (and maintain continuity) in one pass.

How can understanding the underlying issues of our revision help us and our story? Click To TweetEven better, by really understanding all the underlying issues, the typing and stitching of changes turned out to be easy in comparison. I changed some dialogue. I changed a lot of motivations and internal thoughts. And I changed a few word choices to focus on different themes and messages.

Understanding the underlying chemistry of the story, along with the two pages of questions to maintain story flow, helped me see how the pieces and parts fit together. In other words, the thinking about how to fix it and all the questions to answer took at least as long as making the actual changes.

There are many ways to approach revisions (one of my guest posters a few years ago even shared a worksheet for her method), and there are many reasons why an editing process may or may not work for us or our story. But the better we understand our story and the changes we want to make with our revision, the more efficiently we can fix our story. *smile*

Have you struggled with big revisions before? How did you keep yourself organized? Does it make sense how knowing the type of revision we have might help us? Do you have any suggestions or insights to add? Do you have any questions about making big revisions?

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Deborah Makarios

I’m working through revisions – actually, rewriting might be more accurate – at the moment. I’ve been hammering out the changes and additions with pen and paper, asking and answering endless questions, making sure that it all holds together, before I actually sit down and write the changes in the text itself. Which hopefully won’t take so long!
Of course, there are always going to be things I miss, which is why beta readers are so wonderful. Nothing like a fresh mind and a fresh pair of eyes on the tale!

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[…] Story Revisions: Keeping Track of Changes […]

Sieran

Oh yes, I also write down a long (VERY long) list of questions and specific things I want to change, fix, or improve. Most of the things on the list were about fixing world-building inconsistencies, though. My story has a highly detailed sci-fi world, set in the very distant future on another planet, so it’s very easy to trip up. D: But I try to cover as much as I can, and count on beta readers to help me find more plot or world-building problems. My beta readers generally give me praise for the world-building, though, so at least they like it, lol. My list of questions and things to edit is SO long, however, that I got tired very quickly and had to take multiple long breaks from editing. Lol. Thus far, I’m still not done, but I recently got feedback from a beta reader, which gave me more useful insights. I’m especially interested in the feedback that differs from the opinions of other beta readers. For instance, most of my other readers thought I have enough or more than enough setting description. But my latest beta reader thought I could put in more setting details. Also, a number of beta readers said that my protagonist doesn’t change over the course of the story. But this beta reader said that he DOES change, albeit in a more subtle but realistic way. (She believes that people usually don’t change that dramatically, so my MC’s subtler changes feel more realistic to…  — Read More »

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[…] Editing and revising can cause blood, sweat, and tears in some writers. Kelly Notaras tells us how to overcome “death by editing”, Janice Hardy shows how to eliminate often-used words in our writing, Zoe M. McCarthy explains that dangling modifiers don’t have the right word to modify, Jordan Rosenfeld lists 8 mundane elements you should cut from your story, and Jami Gold discusses how to keep track of story revisions. […]

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