Ok, writers. Raise your hand if you love revising.
Revision freaks a lot of people out because it can be overwhelming. When you start drafting, you’ve got this really clear image of what the story should be, and by the time you type “The End,” it’s hardly recognizable. It’s a mess, and you’re not even sure what the problems are, much less where to start.
This is why I’m a fan of breaking the revision process into rounds—one for characters, one for plot, one for theme, pacing, polishing, etc. And in my experience, it’s the plot round that sends people running, because plotting and story structure aren’t simple.
But like most problems in life, I’ve found that a system can help de-terrify the process and make it manageable. And the first part of that process is addressing what I believe are the two most important questions.
Does Your Story Follow the 3-Act Structure?
There are a dozen different ways for structuring a story and they’re all slightly different, but the majority of them are based on the 3-act structure. Why? Because it works, regardless of genre, audience, or author experience. This is why it’s been around in various storytelling forms for millennia.
The 3-act structure ensures that you’ve included the important story events and they happen at the right times. This design provides a framework for your story that keeps it from sagging, dragging, or jarring the reader and ensures that things are happening in a logical way. If you’re looking for a simple structuring tool, check out One Stop for Writers’ Story Maps, which is based on Michael Hauge’s excellent 6-plot story structure model:
(As an example of how this tool can help you structure your story, you can see here how we used it to map out the movie A Few Good Men.)
Now, there are other plotting methods, as well as authors who write with no method at all. And if you’ve mastered those processes with great success, rock on. But most people need a framework to keep their story on track. If you know your work in progress has issues but you’re not sure what they are, take some time to research the 3-act structure. Read up on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, familiarize yourself with Syd Field’s work, or check out popular plotting methods like Save the Cat to better understand how your story should be assembled.
Are the Important Events Happening at the Right Times?
Structure works because it provides architecture for the story. Without it, we end up spending way too much time in the Setup or not enough in the Complications and Higher Stakes portion of the story. The pace is jerky or dragging; it lacks flow, and readers just can’t get into it. To remedy this, map out your important story events and see where they fall. Use Michael Hauge’s structure model to plug in your important story moments and see if they’re falling at the right spots. Compare that to your story and adjust your points as needed.
Once you’ve ensured that your story is structured properly, it’s time to examine the individual building blocks for potential issues. Remember that feeling of I know something’s wrong, but I don’t know what it is? This is where the pieces click into place.
Use the checklist that follows to review each stage of your story. If any of the answers are No, make the necessary changes to that part.
While I’ve referenced Michael Hauge’s plotting method here, I’ve included terms from models you might be more familiar with, along with a brief description of each stage’s purpose. And for simplicity’s sake, I’ve chosen to focus on plotlines for a character undergoing a change (positive) arc, since this is the kind we see most often. Does every hero have to experience this change? No, though I personally feel that most stories are stronger when an internal arc mirrors the outer journey. If this isn’t the case for your hero, just ignore the points having to do with inner change.
PLOT REVISION CHECKLIST
- Setup/Opening Scene/The Ordinary World: The first 10% or so of the story that introduces readers to the hero
- Have you shown the hero in their real world so readers will see the contrast when things change in a short period of time?
- Have you hinted at the hero being stuck or dissatisfied in some way? This is usually tied to their inner motivation—the why behind their visible story goal.
- Have you adequately developed reader empathy for the hero by making them likable, relatable, wounded, etc.?
- Turning Point #1/The Inciting Incident: A choice or opportunity that, if taken, will catapult the hero into a new world
- Is there a clear choice for the hero to make?
- Is it related (but not necessary equal) to what will become their outer motivation, or overall goal, for the story?
- New Situation/Refusal of the Call/Debate: The hero gets acquainted with their new situation
- If the hero accepted the call, are they getting to know the way things work in this new normal?
- Optional: Does the character move into a new environment? This isn’t required but can be an effective way to show them physically moving into a new situation.
- If the hero is waffling about the call or has rejected it altogether, are they doubting their decision or debating which way to go?
- Turning Point #2/Break into Two/Crossing the Threshold: The character makes the decision that propels them toward achieving their story goal
- If the hero was undecided about the call, have they decided to accept it?
- Is the decision the hero made at Turning Point 1 clarified into their specific outer motivation (if it wasn’t before)?
- Is the goal something they can’t achieve without making specific internal changes (overcoming a flaw, facing a fear, dealing with an unresolved emotional wound, etc.)?
- Does the character make this decision purposefully, as opposed to being tricked or falling into it accidentally?
- Progress/Fun and Games: The hero begins actively pursuing their outer motivation
- Does the hero have a plan for achieving their goal?
- Is the hero making steady progress (despite ample conflict and minor regressions)?
- As they pursue their outer goal, are they toying with making the necessary internal changes without being fully committed to doing so?
- Turning Point #3/Point of No Return/Midpoint: The middle of the story, where the hero commits unequivocally to the goal—no more holding back or hedging their bets
- Does the hero get an inkling (or a full-blown premonition) of what life would be like if they fully embraced the internal changes that need to be made?
- Does the hero take an action or make a statement that declares their intention to others, making it virtually impossible to turn back?
- Will that moment directly result in more complications and higher stakes (which will show up in the next stage)?
- Complications and Higher Stakes/Bad Guys Close In: Conflicts escalate and the stakes get higher
- Are the conflict scenarios intensifying?
- Have the stakes gotten higher and/or become more personal?
- Does the pace accelerate through this section instead of losing momentum?
- Are there opportunities for the hero to embrace inner change and turn away from the old habits that are no longer working?
- Optional: Is there a moment at the end of this stage when success seems to be a sure thing?
- Turning Point 4/Major Setback/All is Lost: The moment when the hero is at their lowest point and the goal seems out of reach
- Does something critical happen that destroys the hero’s chance of achieving their dream?
- Optional: Does your turning point have an actual “whiff of death” to symbolize the death of the hero’s dream? To quote Blake Snyder, “At the All Is Lost moment, stick in something, anything, that involves death. Whether it’s integral to the story or just something symbolic, hint at something dead here. A flower in a pot. A goldfish. News that a beloved aunt has passed away….It’s where the old character, the old way of thinking dies.”
- Final Push/Dark Night of the Soul: In their darkest moment, the hero retreats from the objective, then rallies to put everything on the table in a last ditch effort to achieve the goal
- Does the hero temporarily turn away from their goal, retreating back to the old ideas, behaviors, or coping mechanisms they were relying on at the start of the story?
- Does the hero then turn back to the goal—this time, all-in, with 100% dedication?
- From that point on, is the conflict relentless and almost overwhelming?
- Climax/Finale: The hero figures out what has to be done and makes it happen
- Do they make the necessary internal changes that will allow them to achieve their outer motivation and live in fulfillment?
- Does the hero face their biggest antagonist or overcome their biggest obstacle (often in a showdown kind of situation)?
- Do they achieve their outer motivation?
- Aftermath/Final Image/Return with the Elixir: The hero is living their new reality, fully realized, having achieved their goal
- Does the aftermath mirror the setup in some way, showing the contrast of the character now vs. then?
- Have all plotlines and subplots been resolved by this point?
(borrowed and summarized from Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays that Sell)
- Does every scene, event, and character contribute to the hero’s outer motivation (getting them one step closer or taking them farther from it)?
- Have you created peaks and valleys along the way—humor, times of bonding, etc.—to break up intensity? Alternatively, in a humorous or light-hearted story, are there some serious moments?
- Have you surprised the reader here and there? Remember, you’re shooting for anticipation, not predictability.
- Have you generated questions for readers that will pique their interest and keep them reading?
- Have you carefully crafted your story elements (your hero, their relationships, the world you’ve created) so there are no inconsistencies that will undermine your credibility and pull readers out of the flow?
- Have you included a deadline or ticking clock as a way of increasing the stakes? This isn’t a necessity, but it almost always helps.
This checklist isn’t exhaustive, but it should clarify for you which events, stages, and turning points aren’t pulling their weight. Even if you’ve used a different model that incorporates the 3-act structure, you should be able to verify that story events are happening in the right spots and are accomplishing their purposes.
Either way, having a plan for analyzing your story’s structure will help you find any trouble spots and provide support for your plot. So, no more crickets when it comes to revisions. Jump in with both feet (and your handy checklist) and own this part of the process.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.