As we write, we weave our characters, plot, dialogue, action, narrative, backstory, etc. together to create a full picture for our readers. However, during the revision process, we might have to rip through our carefully-constructed story.
We might need to reduce our word count to meet publishing specifications, or we might discover a subplot drags down our story’s pace. Or we might need to add new scenes, subplots, or characters to fix other story problems.
Regardless of the circumstances, we can’t simply delete or insert and move on. Instead, we have to repair the broken threads, weaving our story back into a smooth storytelling experience for readers. How can we stitch the pieces of our story back together after big changes?
Think of Story Elements as Threads
Our story elements are like threads that stretch forward and back through our story. That subplot we need to delete might be foreshadowed two scenes earlier. Conversations from that subplot might be referenced three chapters later.
In stories that follow what’s known as the “But and Therefore” rule to avoid episodic writing, every piece of the story is affected by what came before and likewise affects what comes after. Plot revelations and character epiphanies don’t happen in a vacuum.
So the hardest aspect of big revisions is recognizing the story threads of anything we touch so we can fix the frayed ends throughout the rest of the story. When we struggle to see the strings, a checklist might help. *smile*
Before Changing Anything…
- Before removing a chunk, identify the still-relevant elements in the deleted section.
Does it share important information with readers? Does it show a bonding moment between characters? Etc.
Decide what elements are important to keep and brainstorm how to include them somewhere else, such as sharing important information in a different scene or giving characters a different way to bond.
- Before adding a thread, know why
it’s important to include.
How will it fit into the big picture of the story? What does it accomplish that can’t be accomplished in other ways?
Repairing Frayed Threads: The Basics
Once we understand the nature of our changes, we can analyze how they affect the story as a whole:
- How do the scenes before or after need to change to seamlessly follow the new cause-and-effect flow and/or to include the still-relevant elements?
- Do we have old foreshadowing to remove and/or new foreshadowing to add?
- Do we have references or callbacks to a defunct thread’s setups to delete or change?
- Do our characters change due to a defunct thread in ways that need to be adjusted?
In the big picture, we need to smooth out the transitions between the old and the new, stitching them into a seamless story cloth.
Recognizing Frayed Threads: Advanced Steps
The hardest part of making big revisions is finding all the minor ways our changes affect our story:
- Check for “in passing” references to a defunct thread in the following scenes.
- Introducing a new character aspect, like a motivation or fear? Ensure hints and references before and after are consistent so the new inserts don’t feel out-of-character.
- Did an earlier scene trigger the defunct thread? Is that scene or trigger still needed? Or should it be deleted so as not to imply future story events that no longer happen?
- Did something in a defunct thread trigger later events or reactions? Should the later events or reactions be deleted as well? Or should they be triggered another way?
- Are we now missing setup or motivations for later events or reactions? Can they be added elsewhere?
- How does the defunct or new thread intersect with the main plot, subplots, themes, or arcs? Do those intersections need adjustment?
- Did events in a defunct thread round out or help motivate the character in ways that need to be replaced in other scenes?
- Did the changes introduce repetition we don’t want?
- Did we introduce characters, settings, emotional issues, motivations, relationships, questions, goals, breakthroughs, ideas, etc. in a defunct thread that now need to be introduced elsewhere?
- Are characters’ internal and emotional arcs still smooth? Or is part of their journey now missing or zigzaggy?
Once we’ve fixed all the necessary changes we can think of, we can then search for keywords of the defunct or new thread, subplot, or characters involved to look for other sections we might have missed. For example, if we’re removing a character’s motivation or false belief, we can search for the words we used with the previous descriptions.
Then we should always finish with a reread of our story. No matter how carefully we try to stitch pieces together, we’re likely to find a few loose strings. *smile*
Do you have any questions or insights about fixing torn story threads?
Jami Gold, after muttering writing advice in tongues, decided to become a writer and put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential as well, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.
Jennifer Rose says
I’m digging deep into a complicated developmental edit. Good timing of this article. Thanks!
Do you use a spreadsheet or outline to track all the edits to be made, or something else?
Jami Gold says
Great question! When I did a big, rework-part-of-the-story revision, I started with that first step of knowing what I wanted to keep and what I wanted to change. I was changing the heroine’s motivation, which affected her goals and false beliefs, etc., so I had a lot of tweaking to do. 🙂
It had been a while since I’d touched the story, so I skimmed each scene to remember references and what would need to be adjusted. At each point, I asked myself questions like those I mentioned in the post, especially understanding how each change affected the following scenes.
I ended up with over 50 questions to address:
* What prevents X from happening?
* How is Y supposed to work?
* How do they define failure here?
* What do they see as their choices after Z?
* What changes with their reaction here?
(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, it probably would have been more like a regular outline.)
The next step was a lot of brainstorming to answer those questions. 🙂 Then I went through, scene-by-scene, to type in the changes.
After that, I did the reread–and neither I nor my editors found any loose strings. Yay! 🙂 Thanks for the great question!
Traci Kenworth says
Good to know! Thanks, Jami, Angela, and Becca!
Jami Gold says
You’re quite welcome, Traci! I hope this helps. 🙂
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Great post, Jami!
For me, this is why it is so important to have a few new people do a full read at the end of the editing process. If I’ve missed any threads (because I’m too close to it or I have lost track of what’s changed) they catch it, because it’s the first version they have read. So helpful!
Jami Gold says
Exactly, Angela! I’ve beta read for a friend a few times when her instructions were specifically to look for those loose threads. 🙂
BECCA PUGLISI says
Great, practical tips on how to fix those holes, which isn’t as easy as it seems. Thanks Jami!
Jami Gold says
You’re right that it’s definitely tricky to find the holes, as it’s hard to see what a story is *missing*. 🙂