New writers often focus their first novel revisions on individual words or sentences. Some spend hours, hunting for the right word or trying to improve “flow.” While this can be helpful, it’s important to look at the story and its structure before digging into details such as word choice or order. Big Picture revision is learning to see the forest instead of the trees.
1. Can you state what your story is about in one or two sentences?
If not, you may not really know what your story is about. Three questions can be helpful in pinning down the essence of your novel’s story:
1) What does your Protagonist want more than anything? This is the goal.
2) What kinds of obstacles must she overcome to gain this goal?
3) What will the Protagonist do to overcome the obstacles and meet the goal?
When you’ve answered these questions, put them together in a sentence or two that sums up the story. Here’s a formula that can help you state your story in one sentence:
EXAMPLE: [protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].
While not every story must have a happy ending, every story does need a goal (desire), a problem (obstacle) and action (sacrifice) to overcome the problem to get to the goal. Also, all stories end in one of only five ways: The character gets the goal and is happy; gets the goal and isn’t happy; fails to get the goal and is happy/unhappy. The fifth type of ending, doesn’t care (ambivalence) is very rarely successfully employed.
2. Can you name the five major events (plot points) on your Protagonist’s journey?
Your novel may have more than five plot points, but if at least five scenes or story events aren’t clear to you as author, readers will be even more confused. Try using index cards, sticky notes or Scrivener) for mapping out the MAIN action in the story.
Your five plot points plus a resolution should loosely adhere to this structure: 1) an Inciting Incident (What started it all) 2) Things get worse 3) Complications or reversals arise 4) All Hope is Lost scene 5) a climax scene where your Protagonist acts to try a last-ditch effort to win the goal. (6) A brief denouement or resolution scene.
3. Does your opening page or two raise questions, give hints at tension to come as well as give just enough info on character, time and place to pull readers into the story?
New writers often think they must tell readers everything about their character before the story begins. The opposite is true. Readers will forgo info or background to get tension, conflict and action. If your opening is full of back story (flash back) or features your Protagonist alone on stage, look for the scene where the action begins. Often, this place is further into the first chapter or even at chapter two or beyond. Don’t be afraid to move the first action scene as close to the opening as possible. You can then “weave” short pieces of back story as the need to know arises.
4. Does every scene move the story forward?
When we draft, we often write scenes that later in revision don’t seem to pull their weight in resolving the main story question or even subplots. Story board techniques help you see the forest for the trees. Using sticky notes, note cards or a program such as Scrivener, write a single sentence to describe the scene. Place all those scene cards in order on a flat surface. Stand back and view the story as it goes through each card. By seeing the story as a whole, you will more easily see if a scene is too much like the last one, has no real purpose or seems to “march in place.” Don’t be afraid to combine, rearrange or even delete scenes as necessary.
Other elements, such as theme, character arcs, subplots and more fall under the category of Big Picture revision. To become skilled at spotting and fixing structural flaws, practice these Big Picture revision ideas on already published works by authors you admire. By learning how those authors build their stories, you’ll gain insights to apply to your own work. Then, when you begin line edits, you’ll be ready to see the trees in the forest of your fictional story.
Linda S. Clare is the author or co-author of six books, including Five Editors Tackle the Twelve Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing; The Fence My Father Built and A Sky Without Stars. She serves as “Expert Writing Advisor” at George Fox University. She lives in Oregon with her family, three cats, a bunny and a chameleon named Rainbow Brite.