The Revision Circle: Does My Story Have Too Many Problems?

jami-goldI’m so excited to join WHW as a Resident Writing Coach (because Angela and Becca are awesome—am I right?). *smile*

If you’re not familiar with me, I’m Jami Gold, and in addition to my fiction, writing blog, worksheets, and workshops, I also occasionally squeeze in freelance developmental editing. That means I can identify big-picture issues in stories, including:

  • low stakes,
  • poor motivations,
  • missing goals,
  • weak conflict,
  • lack of tension,
  • slow pacing,
  • unrelatable characters, etc.

Countless articles debate which of these story elements are the most important to focus on in revisions. However, during a developmental edit, I often see stories that have problems in all of these areas.

If Our Story Has All the Big Picture Problems, That’s Bad, Right?

puzzleIf we receive a long revision letter—especially one that mentions issues with several of the story elements above—we might panic, thinking our story is too broken and we should give up. (Of course, we shouldn’t!) But even after we get to a place where we’re ready to dig in, more uncertainty hits: when several big problems have surfaced, where do we even start revising?

The truth is that problems in one of those areas can carry over to the others. Thus, improving one area can improve all those other ones too!

Big-picture revisions are often circular, meaning it’s hard to say which story element is the most important to fix and will create the “biggest impact.” When one is weak, they usually are all affected, and the same applies in reverse.

But if we understand how they’re related, we might have an easier time of figuring out how to fix all the problematic areas in one revision pass.

Drilling Down into One Example: Missing Goals

We know that every scene should be a mini-story with a beginning, middle, and end with an arc where something changes—and where the character has a goal. Obviously, without a goal, a scene can feel pointless, but there are a couple of other problems that missing goals can cause:

  • Scenes without a purpose slow down the pacing. In non-experimental fiction, scenes should exist for a reason, and a character’s goal helps give them one. Goals also provide a narrative drive over the whole story, keeping the pace going. Without goals, there’s no drive—no sense of the story moving forward—so any sense of progress happens only in hindsight.
  • Without the character having a goal (or at least a longing), there’s nothing for readers to root for. In turn, this makes the character less relatable. We expect people to want something, to strive for something. If they don’t care, why should we?
  • If the character doesn’t want for anything, why are they doing what they’re doing? Why are they acting this way or saying that thing? Goals give context to a character’s motivations and decisions. Without goals, all their actions and behaviors are happening in a vacuum, and we don’t have any sense of their motivations—what’s driving them.
  • If the protagonist doesn’t want anything, there can’t be any chance of failure. Without the possibility of failure, there are no consequences or stakes from the conflicts. So the conflicts feel weaker—nothing can go wrong!—which undercuts the tension. A lack of tension also contributes to a sense of a slow pace.

So goals create stakes (which then add tension to conflicts), add context to a character’s motivations, give readers a way to relate to and root for the character, and contribute to a sense of forward movement—all of which play into a story’s pacing.

In other words, during revisions, if we ensure our characters have goals and/or make their goals stronger—and then make sure those goals are reflected in their longings, motivations, fears of consequences (stakes), and conflicts—we’re automatically improving every one of those elements of our story!

water-dropWe can create that same sort of interconnected loop even if we start with a different element. Low stakes weaken motivations and make goals seem less important, so making sure consequences exist if our characters fail to meet those goals will help both elements. Unclear motivations can muddy readers’ understanding of the stakes and hurt character relatability, so clarifying what’s driving a character (especially how it relates to their goals and fears of consequences) will help readers connect with them. Etc., etc.

Yes, it can be intimidating to get feedback that states we have several big problems to address, but our story might not be in as dire shape as we fear.

Next time you face a big revision, challenge yourself to follow the circle that connects multiple elements. By seeing how different scene elements are related, we’ll be able to tackle several problems at once, and know to not give up on a “too broken” story.

*smile*

YOUR TURN!

When you revise, do you notice how fixing one story element can end up improving several areas of the story? Let us know in the comments.

jami-picture-200-x-300_framedAfter muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.
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Image Puzzle: Hans @ Pixabay
Image Water: JaneKE88

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This entry was posted in Editing Tips, Resident Writing Coach, Revision and Editing, Uncategorized, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to The Revision Circle: Does My Story Have Too Many Problems?

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  5. Renea Guenther says:

    This is such a great post. I never thought about all of the ways the elements of a story interconnect. This will definitely be a tip to remember when I finally get my first draft finished. From the sound of it, revisions would be so much easier as fixing the larger problems would fix some of the smaller problems along the way; thus, reducing the total workload.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Renea,

      Exactly! Or at the very least, we’d know how to tweak a word or a sentence here or there to tie them together more closely so the strengths can carry over from one to another. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  6. This is so timely! Thank you, Jami, for breaking this down into a tiny enough bite that I can swallow my next round of edits without choking!

  7. Iola says:

    Great post. This highlights the problem in the book I’m currently reading – the heroine’s only goal seems to be to save her father … who has a terminal disease in 1861, and we know from reading the book description that he’s going to die. So what’s her goal? What’s keeping the story moving forward? Not a lot.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Iola,

      Great example! At the first plot point (around 25%), the story goal and the stakes should be established to give the story enough oomph to carry the momentum. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  8. Donovan Quesenberry says:

    Greetings,
    In the midst of rewriting my 1st draft of NaNo and expanding it to 60K words. And it is overwhelming. Involved with a critique group and they have given feedback of a couple of chapters, but I think I need more than just comments to “fix this sentence here, change that paragraph there” type of thing.
    How does one get a coach, exactly?
    Stay Well,
    Donovan

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Donovan,

      That’s a great question, but I’m not sure if an answer is a good fit for this forum. So I’ll ponder a post on the topic over on my blog in the future. 🙂 Thanks for the idea!

  9. You’re so right that big picture problems are often circular and interconnected.

    The BP items I’ve had the most difficulty with is the lack of tension which results in slow pacing which produces boring passages. I began using Autocrit and found I use too many passive words (and those lack tension). Finding verbs to replace the passives fixed the pacing and increased the tension.
    Thank you for the reminders of the characters goal and motivations in each scene. I tend to forget that for the overarching goal. Time to put another post-in on my bulletin board above my laptop. 🙂

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Mona,

      Oh yes! Verbs carry the narrative drive of our story, so the stronger verbs we have, the stronger the force pulling the story along. Thanks for sharing that great point! 🙂

  10. :Donna says:

    Jami, what a positive way to look at the revision process so it doesn’t seem so overwhelming 😀 Thank you!

  11. Glynis Jolly says:

    While I “bleed” onto my first draft, I’ve worried about all of these “big picture” problems. Knowing there’s a chance that solving one of them will at least help the others has taken some weight off my shoulders. Thank you for sharing this article.

  12. Sieran says:

    Hey Jami!

    For some reason, I really like how you use the word “longing” instead of just the more generic word “want.” I don’t know; “longing” kind of deepens my understanding of the concept somehow. *Shrugs* 🙂

    My “overwhelmed by a huge revision” problem is that my story is sci-fi, and naturally, I keep finding world-building inconsistencies, sigh. Or not exactly inconsistencies, but many things I neglected to mention or explain. And it seems like I never cease to find more things I need to fix. >_>

    I love the idea that the elements you described above are interrelated, though; this was a very encouraging post! 😀

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Sieran,

      “Want” can make us assume that a character’s goal is something tangible and conscious, while “longing” might help us see how a goal might be subconscious as well. 🙂

      But it’s also true that we often find a deeper understanding when we learn something from multiple angles. 🙂 I hope this helps!

  13. Gwen Gardner says:

    Love this! It’s a great reminder of the necessary elements to story. Thanks, Jami!

    Hi Angela and Becca!

  14. Sara L. says:

    Love this post! And it’s not just because Jami is a fellow RWC and articles are wonderfully informative anyways. 😉

    I officially began the beta-reader cycle with my WIP this week, so in the next several weeks I could be in this exact spot: receiving feedback on the story and planning new revisions because of problems I wasn’t previously aware of. And my greatest fear is, of course, that I may be blind to a story that’s “broken beyond repair,” or has so many problems that it’s overwhelming.

    But you made a good point here: Sometimes fixing one problem can fix other related problems. It’s a matter of finding the root, then seeing how it branches out and making the necessary changes from there. And that’s reassuring to know. So, thank you for that new perspective on revising. 🙂

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Sara,

      In my editing hat, I’ve never come across a story that was “too broken.” The only question is how much work we’re willing to put into a story. 🙂 Thanks for the kind words, and I hope this helps!

  15. Thanks, Jami!

    Your post makes me think of George R. R. Martin and how he must shudder as he’s working on his current novel, the sixth in the Game of Thrones series. Any change has to be compared with the timelines and character sheets for six novels.

    In my own work, I feel the pain of even minor alterations, knowing I’ll have to do another read to ensure I haven’t introduced an impossibility to my story.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Kathy,

      LOL! So true. 🙂 I’m struggling with just a handful of loosely related books in my series. I can’t imagine the huge GoT challenge.

      And yes! During every editing stage, I always want to do “one more” read-through to make sure I didn’t mess up any story threads. 🙂 Good luck!

  16. This was such an interesting post, Jami. As a critiquer, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the big picture items, but it has never occurred to me before how so many of them affect one another. That image of all the puzzle pieces is an apt one because these elements really do all go together. Thanks for sharing :).

    • Jami Gold says:

      Thanks so much for the kind words–and the invitation to join you here as a Resident Writing Coach!: )

      Yes! I very much see stories as a puzzle, and when something feels off, the whole story will come together better if we fix that one issue. 🙂

  17. Thanks for this post, and welcome to Writers Helping Writers! I’m in the middle of revisions and will keep an eye out for this.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Thanks for the welcome, Carol!

      And I can talk about this topic all day (as my struggle to keep this post from getting too long can attest–LOL!), so let me know if you have any questions. 🙂

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