How Studying Plot Structure Makes Editing Smoother

How Studying Plot Structure Makes Editing Smoother

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the nitty gritty, dirty nitpicking involved with the editing process. One of the first things people think of when they sit down to edit something they’ve written is proofreading and line editing. And it’s true that choosing the right words and making sure you have them in the right order is an important part of the process.

But editing is so much more than making sure your sentences flow and catching your spelling mistakes. In fact, I wish someone sat me down and told me that when I first started writing. It took several years and three novels before I mastered the editing process. And a part of my hangup was not really understanding the role editing serves in composition of a book.

Before we start worrying about where paragraph breaks and commas should be located, we first need to make sure the story elements are properly working together. It sucks to spend hours polishing a scene only to realize it serves no purpose and has to be cut. If there are plot or character issues, its best to address them before you apply the polish we’ve talked about in previous posts.

How do we do that? By understanding plot structure and how we can put it to work for us.

A Quick Look at the Three Act Plot Structure

Most plots fall into a measurable pattern. Even if you know nothing about plot structure, chances are any story you write will naturally develop this pattern, in part because every story you’ve ever been exposed to uses some form of it.

The most commonly used plot structure in media today is the Three Act Structure. It consists of a beginning (usually marked by the inciting incident), a middle (usually marked by the midpoint) and an ending (usually marked by the climax).

Generally, the first act will present a status quo, introduce the main players, and ask a dramatic question that will be answered by the climax. The second act will build tension until the midpoint, which usually increases the stakes and presents the goal or dramatic question in a new light. The climax represents the highest point of tension within the tale, at which point the dramatic question will be answered. Afterward, the story may include falling action that provides a resolution after the main conflict has been resolved. (Stories with ambiguous endings skip this step.)

These are the basics of the Three Act Structure. The length of the acts doesn’t matter, they’re measured by their content. Not all the elements of the plot appear where expected in every story, but you can usually find these elements somewhere.

Of course the Three Act Structure is only of the patterns plots often follow. You may choose to use the Five Act Structure instead. The Hero’s Journey is another popular plot structure, especially in epics and myths. The Hero’s Journey usually involves the hero dealing with failure, receiving divine aid (perhaps by journeying through a spirit realm), and then receiving instruction from a mentor before going on to complete their goal.

How Is It Useful?

In general, understanding plot structures is more helpful to analyzing stories than it is to writing them. Some writers diligently graph every story before they start writing. I have never been one of them. And I don’t think it’s critical to know where your plot points fall on the graph when you write your first draft.

But, understanding the different plot elements and how they work together can ease a lot of the headaches caused by the editing process. Because nine times out of ten, when a plot element isn’t working, it’s because either you’ve missed one of the plot elements in the structure, or placed the scene in question in the wrong place. Every character in the story should have their own plot arc (big or small), and tracing a character’s plot arc is the easiest way to find weakness or issues with the overall plot. It’s gotten me out of numerous ruts in the past.

By noting where each scene falls on the chart, you can track your character’s development, how close they are to achieving their goal, and how much they have struggled along the way. Seeing gaps in the structure will allow you to fill in blanks or rearrange your existing scenes so that they flow in a logical order and produce the greatest emotional reaction. The most important thing to remember while you’re editing is every scene in the story should serve the plot in some fashion. The best way to edit a scene is to figure out what purpose it serves and how it can best accomplish that.

Use These Questions to Hone Your Plot Structure

As an outliner, the first step in my editing process is to revisit my outline. My plots tend to mutate while I’m writing them, so I always swing back through my notes and make sure that each of my chapter summaries matches what I actually wrote. Once all my notes are up to date, I examine the core concept of each scene and try to determine where it falls on the plot graph. Next I ask myself a series of questions that helps me enhance the serving of that purpose.

-Who are my central characters?
-What are their motivations?
-What obstacles or opposing forces will they face in this scene?
-How will they overcome or fail to overcome those challenges?
-What emotions are involved in the scene?
-How will the scene change or affect the characters and/or their motivations?
-Is the scene meant to increase or decrease the tension of the main or side conflicts?

This may seem like a lot to keep track of, which is why it’s best to tackle scenes individually. You may not need to answer all of these questions for every scene. Sometimes the answers may be short and simple, or they may be complex, depending on what’s going on. The main purpose is to bring out the scene’s central theme so that it can shine.

Once you determine the purpose of each scene, you may have to shift the order of certain events to make the plot flow better.

If you find a scene that seems to serve no purpose you have a few choices. You can re-write the scene so that it better contributes to the plot. You can move the scene to a better location. Or, if you can’t find a way to make it work, you can drop it.

Make Plot Structure Work for You

Lots of interesting things happen as a result of this process. You may end up removing some or folding two characters into a single entity. Characters might swap places so that you don’t have to complicate the story by compensating for extra movement. You may accelerate or slow the pace, depending on how you want things to flow.

Even three drafts deep, combing my outline like this provides a fair number of ah-ha! moments. If you’re having trouble spotting the problem yourself, try talking through your various plot arcs with a willing ear. They might not need to say anything; sometimes the simple act of voicing your thoughts is enough to shake an answer loose!

While there’s no point in allowing concern over plot structure to bog you down in the early drafts, understanding plot structure is a useful tool for helping our manuscripts reach their full potential.

Do you use plot structure to make your stories sing? Let me know in the comments!

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