Revision stage part five: plot and flow
If you don’t know what plot and flow are, don’t worry. I’ll define them in depth throughout this post. Basically, plot is your storyline—the main events of your book. Flow is the forward motion of your story: how fast or slow it goes and how the transitions move it along.
So, I’m sure this one is easy to guess, but how do you revise these things? A lot of what makes up revising a plot can be found in my first post about exposition, climax, and denouement, but now we’ll look at them as a whole, not just individual pieces.
I’ll try to break this up, but first ask this: What is your plot—beginning, middle, and end?
What is the problem? What is the solution? What is the conflict?
Even if it’s not immediately known, this is your beginning. When you identify your problem, you can find the solution and conflict, the latter being the obstacle that prevents the solution from happening (or can prevent it from happening).
You need to know the answer to those questions before you continue. Got it? Great. If not, stay here until you can answer those questions.
Are these cohesive?
Now we get to the revision part. If I have a plot in which a timid woman finds a secret room in her new house, and in it, she discovers the histories behind all who ever lived there. The problem is, opening that door allowed all spirits into the house and she has to learn their past and fix the problems they left. Until then, she’s stuck with them haunting her in her new home, all demanding her attention to save them (though ghosts can’t speak so it’s just a scary haunting to her). So, what’s the conflict? Right now, there isn’t one. It’s not that she’s being haunted. Without the conflict, I immediately have a problem.
- She could move out of the house. I would. And this is a shy, weak-minded woman. Why wouldn’t she move out?
- Does she even believe in ghosts? If not, she wouldn’t help them and would disregard a lot of the haunting occurrences.
- Why would a weak person help anyone? What suddenly makes them any kind of hero?
So, there are a few questions, but you might even be able to add to it. Without conflict, the plot has holes. That’s why I said you have to answer those questions first. The story must be cohesive. So, let’s add conflict: She moved into her grandparents’ house after they died in an attempt to escape her own past, and she can’t afford a house of her own. That adds a bit, right? Well, let’s continue. Perhaps she is indifferent about the existence of ghosts, but once she sees the problems left by her grandparents, she wants to help them and the attention their ghosts give to her drive her to do just that, helping other ghosts along the way.
I know . . . I just made an awesome story. Kidding. I don’t write ghost stories. The point is, you need to make sure you can answer the questions that come with having a plot. Ask yourself about everything that could hinder the continuation of your story. Just like I did above. What plausible reasons would stop your story from happening?
Is it appropriate?
I don’t mean PG-13 or anything regarding the specific content. Does your plot have a point? If this woman helps the ghosts, what good is it if all she gets is the house in the end? She had the house before the ghosts arrived, and while this might work out and make a good story, we want it to be great. In Harry Potter, killing Voldemort didn’t just end with Harry being alive and ridding the world of a terrible person; he learned a lot about his past along the way, he gained knowledge and experience as a wizard, he met the girl he’d marry later, etc. In Rule of the Bone, which is about a kid who runs away from his mom and stepdad and grows up alone, he meets his real dad, learns what his definition of love is, and he realizes what it means to love someone, not just respect someone. These are heavy themes in the story, which is what makes that important.
Don’t just write about a woman who escapes her past only to fix other people’s. She has to gain more than the house. So, by appropriate, I mean the plot needs to have a purpose. Existing for the sake of existing doesn’t make a great story. It’s flat and lacks dimension.
So, you can make a list if you like. Make a list that answers this question: What comes as a result of this story?
There’s always a moment when either the reader or the main character—or both—discover something huge, understand something important, or see something that changes the story. Something. There isn’t always just one of these, either.
Sometimes, your reader will learn something before the main character or the main character will know something the reader doesn’t. Where plot comes in here is with deciding where to place this information and how it’s relevant to advancing the story. This is a main event, and, simply put, you have to collect all these moments (if there’s more than one) and look at the effect it has on a story.
For example, if you have an aside where something is revealed to the reader and not to the MC, why? This removes most of the suspense because now the reader knows, and they’re just waiting for the MC to know, too.
If it’s the other way around and your MC knows something, again, why? Your reader can’t rely on that MC anymore because they have secrets.
Depending on the story, either of those can slow it down or speed it up. It can provide insight into another side of the story that the MC won’t ever see that the reader must know, or it will allow the reader to learn more about the MC while they seek the answer to a question they have yet to discover.
When reading through these moments, consider the purpose behind your revelations. What good does it do to execute it in the way you’ve decided to do this? Does it take away necessary suspense and reduce the reader’s engagement while they play the waiting game or does it make the reader desperate to continue? Which do you need the reader to do?
Let’s talk about flow.
This part takes a bit more time and you’ll likely be reading the entire novel for the fiftieth time if you haven’t addressed this already. There are three things you’ll be looking at here.
You can’t overlook this. Consider how quickly you want your transition to occur, how quickly/slowly it does occur, how plausible of a transition that is, and whether the transition makes the event an earned one. I know, that’s a lot in one sentence. I’ll expand a little on the last part, though, because what exactly do I mean by “earned”? Making an event or scene or whatever an “earned” one means the reason it occurred needs to make sense in the reader’s mind. So, if your MC has to earn their place as king and because they saved their best friend, they become kind for their bravery, that’s unearned. If your MC falls in love with a man by chapter two (unless your chapters happen to be ridiculously long), that’s unearned. You have to make the event feel worth reading. Give it a foundation on which to exist. Build it up so it’s realistic. Don’t let your readers be the confused siblings who ask why their younger brother got ten dollars for an A in their kindergarten music class.If you’re writing a romance, I don’t care how most intimate moments begin. Think of this: I can ask you what 2+2 is and you’ll easily say 4. What you don’t know is that your mind did the math. It figured out what “2” meant, which is the addition of 1+1, and it counted to 4 that way. You call it memorization, but your brain, if it could explain in detail, would call it quick calculation.You know the answer because you understand how to get to it. That’s one reason it’s so difficult to simply memorize things. It’s a lot easier when you understand it. So, intimate moments. They’re not just talking then getting intimate. There are thoughts, emotions, feelings, etc. They build, whether they start before the meeting or before the moment. There’s a transition, and you need to decide whether the transition will be slow or quick. How much of a “build” will you need before you make the sudden change?A fight? What triggers the actual fight between two women? A word? An overflow of hatred? Things like this can happen quickly, but there needs to be enough reason for it to occur. What’s plausible? What makes sense? Think of this when you reach the moment before and after an event change or scene change.
Obtaining power? Let’s say a kid is about to earn a power as rite of passage or maybe a daughter is going to learn her mother’s secret recipe for a pie. Whatever the case, consider the reason this must happen and make it an earned moment. Transitions aren’t always a page, paragraph, or sentence before something happens. Sometimes, it’s throughout the book (like a love story or training).
Your story’s pacing helps aid the flow of the story as a whole. If your story occurs over a period of two days, you’ll need to consider all that happens within an hour more than you’ll have to consider the larger events throughout the day. Your peaks in time (midday, evening, midnight, morning) will be your stepping stones. In between that will be the individual happenings. Naturally, some “hours” will be drawn out and longer than others, but you’ll have to keep in mind the time limit you’ve set for yourself. So, consider what needs to be drawn out and expanded upon, and also consider what doesn’t need to be expanded on at all. You can use this to determine what you want to do with those pieces of time by developing your character more in some places than in others. Same with the plot.If your story occurs over a period of years, your stepping stones will be just that: years. This is when pacing becomes difficult because it’s easy to think that everything that happens in that large amount of time is important. It’s not. Consider where the real story is. So, the pacing will be faster in areas where the story is only developing, but it will slow when the story’s true plot comes in. Whether you use flashbacks to do this or work chronologically, you’ll have to keep this in mind. Some scenes can be expanded, others can be summarized, and some will simply need to be cut. This will help you pace your story if you keep in mind how quickly or slowly you need to get to the meat of the story. Where is the main course, and how quickly can you get there?Remember, if you find yourself saying, “Well, they just need to get through this part,” you have work to do. That question should never exist. Do not make your reader work for it. It’s their money. They likely won’t do it. Never give them the benefit of the doubt. Because they won’t get through that part.Lastly, with pacing—and I repeat myself here—make sure your story is earned. If you move too quickly throughout your story, it’s not good to the reader. If your story takes a lot of development, slow it down. If the development is in the beginning, slow the beginning down and go a little quicker when that part is complete. Development is the biggest chunk of deliciousness, though it’s not quite the dessert because the yummy conflict and solution are what drive the reader’s cravings. However, the development is that steak, and your reader will feel a lot more nourished and satisfied (and now I’m hungry) if they get to cut into that tender steak and enjoy it a while before the steaming, hot brownie with ice cream comes out.
- Give and take
Think of the waves. Sometimes they push across the sand past the foam they left behind, and other times, they stretch far but don’t quite reach the small clams they left in their wake before. You don’t always need to give the reader something big and new and extraordinary and shocking. Sometimes, it’s okay to let a question or two linger while you focus on something else. Slow down, take a breath, and make sure every part of your story reaches the momentum it needs to reach.
The funny thing about plot and flow is that they drive each other, but writers often overlook one and focus on the other. Make sure you’re giving them both attention, and don’t disregard a moment where you wonder if something should happen now or later. Ask yourself that, and ask others if you need help.
Theme and setting are deeper in the story, and while they’re both important, one is more important in literary writing and another in genre-specific stories. Themes provide deeper meaning beneath the story’s surface, and setting is what everyone knows to be imagery, location, and even tone. We’ll discuss how to revise your story to open up the surface enough to see a theme, and we’ll also discuss how to better use setting in your story to make it more vivid and realistic (or magical).