The Basics of Plot Editing

Editing is something that happens after you have a first draft. It can be helpful to have an idea what of what makes a good plot or a good story before you start writing, but I know a lot of editors who have written a lot of beautiful chapter ones and never finished a book. So first, put on your writer hat and let the story end up in your first draft. Then, after an appropriate amount of celebration, come back with your editor hat and see what that first draft needs in order to turn into a polished manuscript.

A lot of new writers finish a book and immediately start correcting their grammar and punctuation in order to make the book presentable to other people. After all, they are eventually going to have to show it to other writers and even editors. And they don't want to have any embarrassing mistakes.

So I'm officially, as a professional editor, giving you permission to have typos. Spell like crap, have run on sentences, and don't worry about dangling modifiers. That all can be dealt with later.

Grammar and spelling are not all that an editor cares about. A lot of people expect me to be an expert on commas and really good at scrabble. I’m only so-so at scrabble, but luckily I’ve yet to work on a book where I had to make a word out of a certain set of letters. (I guess it’s a good thing I wasn’t one of the famous translators of Harry Potter who were trying to make "I am Tom Riddle" an anagram for Lord Voldemort in other languages.) But editing isn't just about fixing the grammar and punctuation. That's all easy to fix later on. No, what we're looking for right off the bat is the story. A good book needs plot and characters and emotion and stakes and plenty of things that have nothing to do with the Chicago Manual of Style.

Further than giving you permission to have mistakes, I'm actually going to beg you to ignore them on your early read-throughs. Once you start looking at commas, it gets so much harder to focus on the big picture. There's no reason to go look up the rules for semi-colons or spend time pondering over an em dash versus parenthesis when you might end up deleting that whole sentence or even the whole chapter. In fact, the more time you spend trying to polish up the little details, the harder it will be to make those deletions when the time comes. So don't do that to yourself.

When you read through your first draft, worry only about the plot.

Plot editing can be much more frustrating than the grammatical kind. Where spelling has Merriam Webster and commas have The Chicago Manual of Style, there is no official book of rules for a strong plot.

There are certainly theories. The Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, the 10 types of plots, and many other structures exist to define and organize the scenes of a book in order to make a plot strong enough to hold up a good novel. But it can be hard to use those strict formulas. Adhering to them too consciously can end up feeling cookie-cutter, and applying it to your story later can end up feeling like slapping name tags on random scenes and pretending its a structured plot.

When you read books that you didn’t write, you probably can tell pretty easily which ones have satisfying plotlines and which ones don’t. It’s something that you feel without having to think about it consciously. But that doesn’t always work when reading your own writing. Some authors are their own worst critics and others have a really hard time spotting their mistakes.

So what can you look for to make sure your book has the basics of plot to build a compelling story on?

The three most important things to look for in that first round of editing are your main character, the climax, and the inciting incident. Those three things are the foundation for everything else that happens in the book. If you need to decide which chapter should start off your book, you need to know why people will relate to the main character and where the inciting incident happens. If you need to make your antagonist more interesting, you need to know what they want to accomplish during the climax and why. Anything you do in your book springs from the combination of these three elements.

So first you have to identify them. You probably know who your main character is. That one is a pretty conscious decision for most writers. If you have multiple major characters and you don't know which one to focus on, you can go check out my post about main characters for more pointers about what a single focal character can bring to your story or my post about picking a main character to go over the role they play in the plot.

Second, I would identify your climax, even though that's not the one that comes chronologically first in your draft. But it's usually pretty easy to spot, even if your book didn't end up where you planned. Just start at the end and scroll to the first (technically last) bit of conflict. What "conflict" means for your book will depend on your genre, but it should be the last big and important thing that happens in your book.

Third, you need to find your inciting incident. If you aren’t familiar with this term yet, the inciting incident is the beginning of your plotline (not your book). It is the moment that where your character makes the goal that guides them through the book. In most books, the inciting incident is something that happens to the main character, not a decision they make themselves. But it sets up a problem or a question that the main character needs to deal with in the climax.

Once you have identified these three elements of your book, you have the cornerstones of your plot. From there plot editing is mostly making sure that they all connect together. A disconnect between any of those three things is going to leave readers feeling unsatisfied with the end of the story.

In my next plot editing post, I'm going to go over what makes a good climax. Then we will talk more about fitting these three elements together to keep the story active and interesting the whole way through.

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