Teaching Revision: All of the Revision Prompts So Far
It’s the start of the semester, and I thought it would be helpful to have all of the revision prompts so far in one place. I had to put this together for my own teaching materials, so here it is. 41 revision prompts and counting!
Make a list of all the decisions your protagonist makes, every single one. Now change the order of the decisions your protagonist makes so that they follow a causal change. Rearrange your story to reflect this new list of decisions. Cut at least one decision and, if this applies, the corresponding scene. Now restructure the story again. Many stories are not ultimately in complete chronological order. The *plot* should still be the same causal chain, but the story might utilize flashbacks, memories, flash forwards, imagined scenes, etc.
Start by asking yourself the following questions
- What is the story about?
- What is the central conflict?
- What are the stakes?
- What does the protagonist want?
- How does the character change or fail to change?
- Where are the gaps where something could be added? What is missing?
- What is extraneous?
(I handed out paper split into three columns.)
Each column represents a page of your story. Draw lines across each column where the story has a natural break. You have to decide for yourself where these breaks may be. Many might be space breaks in the story, but also maybe breaks between characters, between timelines, between narrative summary and scene, etc. Then–in each individual section you’ve created:
- Write down any action that happens in that section.
- Write down what each section is “doing” for the story. What is its purpose(s)? To raise the stakes? To complicate a relationship? To move the plot? Etc.
- Write down any themes that show up in each section.
- Shade the sections that happen in the past.
- Note any characters who show up.
- Note any settings.
- Write down any desires that show up and the conflicts that get in the way of those desires.
Rearrange your story so only two “sections” you identified are in the same place. Every other section should be moved. If that means you have to add or delete scenes, please do so. Do whatever you need to do to make your story work again.
Look for any place you can add characterization. Just read through and put an asterisk or make a mark where you could add anything at all to characterize. After you’ve done that, go back and add characterization at every single point. Think about characterizing in all of the ways we discussed in class, but especially through decision and action. Your additional characterization should make your story much longer. You probably have too much characterization now. Cut at least half of what you’ve added.
Wherever a new character enters a story, write an extended introduction for that character, including what they look like, how they are dressed, what objects are associated with them, any identifying marks, any identifying habits or gestures, their way of seeing things, their attitude toward the world, their age, their ethnicity, their occupation, their family relationships and history, their relationship to the protagonist, the narrator’s or protagonist’s or even any other character’s opinion of them, their desires, their problems, their faults, etc. Also include at least one paragraph of backstory for each character in that introduction. What do you know about their pasts, how they’ve come to be who they are now?
Once you’ve done all of this, cut what you don’t need or move it elsewhere in the story and keep what you need. Keep what “gets the character in.” Is it that she’s the kind of person who stays up until everyone has gone to bed and waits for the neighborhood stray to poke its head into her yard, but never goes out to talk to it or pet it, just looks at it longingly? Etc.
Skip forward in time at least ten years and write at least one more scene into your story in which the protagonist sees the dramatic consequences of a decision s/he made earlier.
Add a source of outside conflict to your story. That is, add something big that comes in and forces itself on the plot, something like a toxic spill or an earthquake or a war or a rabid dog or a serial killer or a rapture. Don’t make this a small insertion but something that truly changes the story. You might think about what large outside conflict might connect to your character’s arc thematically, if that helps.
Underline all of the “missed opportunities” in your story. Or, better yet, have a friend or your writing partner do this for you. Add as much as you can for every single missed opportunity. Now cut at least half of what you’ve added. Rearrange the story and do whatever you need to do to make the story work again.
Identify the “symbolic action” in each scene–what does the protagonist do that represents her/his change from where/who s/he was at the beginning of the scene (even if this change is slight), and which changes the situation (even if this change is slight). Add symbolic action where you are missing it. Try to get the most significant symbolic action for your protagonist close to the end of the scene.
Highlight everything in your story that is backstory. Take a look now and see what the balance between past and present looks like. For each piece of backstory, try to identify whether it is absolutely necessary. Then ask yourself where it is absolutely necessary–for one, ask yourself where it would put the most pressure on the present story. Remember that the past slows the story down by its nature–so it should be used to increase urgency in that particular present time. If you have a character encountering her mother on page 15, you don’t need the backstory about the mother that makes that encounter harrowing on page 3. The present and past need to work together in the right place, so that there’s a clear reason we go into the past when we do and a clear reason to go back to the present. What are those reasons?
Now delete as much as you can (that isn’t necessary). Try to put as much of the necessary backstory as you can into the present instead. Think about what information is being conveyed. Can you put the backstory in dialogue? Can you get the same information across through action? Attitude? Implication? If we need to know that the protagonist has a bad relationship with her mother, do we need backstory about that relationship? Or can we see this dramatized in the present scene and understand their dynamic without backstory? Is it about the change between the past or the present, or is it about the change that is going to happen in the present?
Utilize objects in your story. Try to get objects into each scene. Try to associate each character with an object. Make objects that appear earlier in your story reappear later, either in their same form or transformed. How does your character interact with those objects differently the second (or third) time versus the first? Leave some objects, cut the ones that don’t seem to add anything. Make sure at least one object “tracks” through the story, appearing at multiple points and signaling change either through how the characters interact with it, or how they feel about it, or what it looks like, how it has changed, etc.
Kill off one character or more. Or simply delete one character or more. Or fuse two characters or more together to make a single character. How does the story change? If you need another character again, make up a new one instead of returning to a character you cut.
Consolidate your settings. Try to cut out as many settings as you can, to get the story down to 1-3 settings total. Make sure the setting has an effect on the story and is not just a place to set it.
If your story is in first-person, write a scene from the narrator’s point of telling. Narrators are always telling a story from a future point, even in present tense (an implied future point just after the action or a future point far later). What is your narrator doing with her life when she is telling this story? Where is she? Who is she now? What does she know at that future point that is different from the present of the story’s action? Make sure this is a scene, dramatized, not just narrative summary. You may need to bring in another character.
Start by underlining (or however you want to do it) anything that moves the character arc/inside story forward (thoughts, emotions, etc.). Then over-line (draw a line over the top of, or highlight or however you want to do it) anything that moves the outside story/plot forward. Look for places inside and outside story overlap. Look for places where the inside story could be heightened and add things there about the character arc. Look for places where there could be more action/outside story and add some external action.
Most of all: look for places where the inside story affects or should affect and does not yet affect the outside story (emotions that lead to action or so forth) and places where the outside story affects or should affect and does not yet affect the inside story (action leads to emotion or so forth). Now try to create causation between the two–inside and outside story–so that they are intricately linked.
Make sure both inside and outside story create an arc. Make sure both inside story and outside story have a beginning, middle, and end.
You might try to add a foil or mirror character (someone in the story who is the opposite or mirror of your protagonist), or at least identify and utilize those potential characters in your current draft, and see how your protagonist feels about and interacts with that character, how that foil/mirror changes or doesn’t change, etc.
Write past your ending. Write one or two or more scenes after the end of your story. Even if these scenes don’t make it into the final version, they will help inform the final version. What happens after the end of your story? And don’t stop there: now write about what the consequences are of what happens after the end of your story.
Add a scene with a character who arrives for only that one scene and interacts with your protagonist (a character from the world outside the story–an example would be a prank phone call or an old friend coming to town).
Write one anchor scene with all of your main characters in the same room, maybe even talking. What is the setting, how do they interact with each other, how do they relate to each other, etc? Introduce everyone within one scene and then work off of that scene. Maybe you already have that scene and you reorganize your story to center it, or maybe you add that scene.
Get closer in psychic distance (go further into your protagonist’s head) or make a switch in POV–for a scene or two or even for the entire story.
Add a scene to reveal more about a minor character(s). What is the minor character doing while the rest of the story is going on? How do those actions or action affect what the protagonist must do or decide?
Add a scene that changes the context in which we know the characters–maybe they go on a trip, or maybe they are always together but now we see them apart, or maybe someone important to them comes to visit and they have to be on their best behavior, etc.
Make a list of all of the plot points in your story. These are actions or decisions (sometimes through entire scenes) that move the plot forward–that cause other things to happen. The plot I am referring to is the chain of causation in your story. Box or underline the plot points that are a change from things your character might have done before the start of this plot or routinely. In other words, reasons why you’re telling the story NOW, the story of this day/event(s). This is generally an important component of plot (raison d’être).
You might think of the basic fairy tale structure:
Once upon a time
Happily ever after
I’ve underlined the plot points unique to the NOW of the story. This fairy tale structure sets up the character and setting and routine, then has something break that routine that sets off a plot full of action that has never happened before. Many plots work like this, because what happened before is the status quo, and plot is about what breaks the status quo forever (and institutes a new, better or worse status quo).
Once you’ve done that, reorder or rearrange (maybe rethink what’s backstory and what’s present story) your story so that it follows the fairy tale format, generally, where once we get into “one day”–into the changes–the rest of the story is new action up to or until the very end.
Add and/or explain causation between the different plot points in your story. Especially: how does the past cause the present action? If the past had not occurred, would the present action be different? That should be the case. That is, the protagonist’s past–if that backstory is included–should affect how s/he acts in the present. Ask why everything happens. Write this into the story. Later you can take out what you don’t need.
Go through your story and underline anything abstract, such as ideas, emotions, vague bits, etc. Now go back and try to replace everything you’ve underlined with a more concrete way of expressing the same thing. For example: “Susie missed her boyfriend” might become “Susie climbed up onto her roof with her binoculars and looked out at the spot where she had had her first kiss with her boyfriend, in the old tree house.” Or, you know, something much better than that. If you absolutely *need* to keep the abstraction, add something concrete before it. For example the sentence about the tree house, followed by a sentence about how any happiness to her is the blush of first love–or, obviously something better than that.
List all of the context in your story. Now separate the context into “general context” and “dramatic context.” I’m stealing these terms from Robert Boswell: general context being the context for the story in general (setting, age, time period, etc) and dramatic context being the context that makes an action more dramatic (usually: personal to the character and the character’s desires, stakes, arc, and so forth). Boswell uses the examples of two people playing “Seven Minutes of Heaven” and a woman seeing another woman in the same hat. The first doesn’t require too much dramatic context to make it dramatic, since a kiss between two strangers has its own drama, but the second requires a lot of dramatic context to make it matter. Or here’s another example: You might imagine running into two different people from high school. The general context is more or less the same. But one might be an ex-boyfriend and one might be someone you barely knew. That dramatic context would make the first likely the more dramatic scene.
After you’ve made your list, figure out where best to put all that context. Think, esp., about what the dramatic context is making more dramatic and think about putting the dramatic context near the thing it is context for, and not too early or too late. How much general context do we need to feel situated and how much is too much (boring)?
Underline anything in your story that is in the past. This might be parts of a sentence or entire scenes (flashbacks). Now cut your story up, page by page, with scissors, so that you’ve cut out everything that was in the past. Tape the pages to the wall one by one. For each page, tape what is present on the top and what is past on the bottom. Now make sure you’re putting the past where it’s really necessary to the present, and make sure your sentences need to go into the past where they do. For example, with a sentence like: “The fishermen had just finished dragging in their nets and were going to get a drink,” can it be: “The fisherman finished dragging in their nets and went for a drink?” More action in the present of the story, even on that small a level, makes the story feel more active. Rewrite/rearrange/cut.
Write a frame for your story–imagine a time from which all of your story becomes important backstory that determines a change or fail to change in the frame of a new present. (Not always how a frame works, but an easy way to think about one.) For example: A woman is on her way to see her estranged child when she stops for lunch and talks to a young woman who is lost. Now we get all of the story of how mother/child came to be estranged. Then we return to the frame and the decision for the woman of what to do about going to see her child or helping this young woman who is lost or what.
An alternate way to think about plot (call it the What would Alice Munro do? method): Identify all of the scenes and potential scenes in your story. Now identify the arc, both the story arc (rising and, if applicable, falling action) and the character arc (how does the character change or fail to change?). What do these arcs suggest that the story is “about?”
Now go back to the list of scenes: which scenes are necessary to the story arc? Which scenes are necessary to the character arc and make clear what the story is “about”? Here’s where Alice Munro comes in: Imagine a new scene (or identify an existing or potential scene from your list) in which the causation that makes up the story arc becomes clear. In some/many Munro stories, the plot is still a plot of causation, but instead of the story being propelled forward by wondering what the character will cause to happen next, the story is propelled forward by wondering how what happens is connected to what happened before. In other words, the plot’s causation isn’t clear until the story jumps forward or backward to the point in time at which the causation becomes clear to the character. Now we see how the story had a plot after all–the character arc reveals the story arc, rather than the other way around.
Better yet let me try to use an example. I’ll make up a simple one here. Say we have a scene where a young girl witnesses her father killing a stray cat. Then we have a scene where the girl is a married woman and her husband refuses to let them take in a stray cat. Finally we have a scene where the girl is divorced and is out with her daughter, who is engaged to a boy with a cat. In the third scene, the mother comes to realize that the various scenes have led to each other, though they seemed discrete and separate events at the time. Surely her father killing a stray cat didn’t lead to her husband refusing to take in a stray cat, which didn’t lead to her daughter getting engaged to a boy with a cat. But–the mother now sees as she dines with her daughter–the attitudes toward a cat are both what drew her to her husband and made her divorce him, and perhaps also what draw her daughter to the boy, on some deep level. It might not even be so to the girl, but the mother realizes that these events are how she has framed the boy, why she likes and approves of him, and why she hopes her daughter will not make her own mistakes.
The above could be a kind of Alice Munro “plot.” Though of course a stupid example.
Alternatively, someone like, say, Charles Dickens might link these events more directly. The cat might be a neighborhood cat, and the father killing the stray cat might lead to the girl secretly feeding stray cats, which end up breeding the cat the husband later refuses to take in. That may be the exact moment then when the girl, now a woman, divorces the husband, and why she eventually pushes her daughter to judge a man by his attitude toward cats. This all makes the action much more directly causally linked.
Try to identify whether your story might follow one of these models. Perhaps it is something different. The “Charles Dickens” model is what we usually think of as a plot of causation and is probably a type of story you’re pretty familiar with. In the example above, it’s basically the fairy tale model. For now try to work your scenes into the Munro model. What does that do for your story?
Research something fact-based or theory-based or historical, etc., and add at least 10 “facts” (or statements of information) from your research that seem relevant to the thematic content of your story. Maybe one of your characters is interested in this subject, or your protagonist goes to a museum or gets an information flyer or mysterious phone call or email, or whatever. “Nonfiction” information, or a researched topic, can help get across the theme and give your audience the sense that they’re learning something–they can create interest and investment through a kind of backdoor. Think of the novel, The Quick and the Dead, by Joy Williams, which uses environmental facts and theories to get across the theme and character and to immerse its reader in the obsession of its protagonist. 10 “facts” is a low number–maybe shoot for more? Think about how they’re related or could be related and how they could be related to your story’s theme.
Restructure your story so that it starts at the most recent event and moves backward in time. Think about the causation here. Also think about the character’s possible paths and how those paths narrow by the choices they make.
Add interpretation and rumination/consideration from your narrator to the story so that the narrator (from a later point in time or a more understanding position) can tell the audience what the events in the story mean. Add this all over, but then cut out what is too much explaining or is too obvious, etc. Then try to let these additions help you rediscover what the story is about and how characters act in certain situations–what they know and don’t know about what is going on at the time and how that knowledge changes.
Go paragraph by paragraph and try to get each paragraph to answer at least one question that the story has already brought up, and also pose at least two more questions, until the climax.
Introduce a symbolic and/or magical premise and begin the story with that premise, in the very first sentence. Now revise to make the story work with this new premise. Make sure the premise speaks directly to your themes! (Don’t choose this one if you already have a symbolic/magical premise, unless you feel you aren’t foregrounding it well enough and need to refocus the story on the premise, maybe.)
Revise your story so that it is only 3 big scenes (and maybe also narrative summary). Maybe you need to combine scenes. Maybe backstory moves into dialogue. Do whatever you need to do to make this work as a story.
Add a scene to reveal more about a minor character. What is the minor character doing while the rest of the story is going on? How do these actions or action affect what the protagonist must do or decide?
Add a clock to the story–something that starts at the beginning of the story and counts down to the end; for example, Suzy has two weeks to live.
Tell the story from two alternating perspectives, a la “Seven.” Think about secrets and the differences between what the two characters know and how the two different perspectives add to and build on each other. Make sure to give both characters an arc, and to have both arcs contribute to the same theme. Now cut back to one if you need to. How do you get the information in?
Increase the resonance in your story by adding three things: rhyming action, motif, and objects.
Increase the outside conflict by at least 2x the page-space it takes now. Make sure it works thematically with the character arc. Raise the stakes! Then cut so you have the same number of pages as before, but with more outside conflict.
Work on grounding your story throughout. Use the list we talked about in class, which included setting, staging, not switching perspective or time or place too much within paragraphs, using space breaks, introducing characters fully when they come up, introducing characters by their relationship to the protagonist, within sentences being careful to start with grounding information instead of burying it later, thinking carefully about the order in which information is revealed, making sure information that doesn’t need to be withheld is given upfront, etc.