Teaching Revision: Even More Revision Prompts
More revision prompts to add to https://pleiadesmag.com/teaching-revision-all-of-the-revision-prompts-so-far/
I’m teaching revision again, this time for a senior thesis workshop, in which students are workshopping novels, plays, TV and webisode scripts, whatever they are working on for their final creative writing thesis. Each week, one student workshops their entire manuscript and a revision of part of it. In their submission packet, they also include a four-page synopsis/treatment, notes on their writing and revision process, and any other process work. Since this is their sixth workshop, they are setting the rules for their own workshops, so they submit a list of five rules for workshop (such as table-reading a certain section or mapping points of excitement or raising one’s hand or so forth) and any questions they have for the workshop to consider, especially in our letters to the author. At the beginning of their workshop, they also present on five books they have read that have influenced their project and how, to give us further context for workshop and to prepare them for a critical paper they need to write for the course. At the end of their workshops, they state what they will do next in revision, and I incorporate what they have said into a few options for revision that everyone in the class must choose from. One revision per week, reviewed in groups of three and sent to me with process notes. I’ve used a couple of revision exercises from the list above, but mostly made up new ones to suit the particular needs of whatever manuscript we’ve seen for workshop that week. Here is a partial list of 20 revision exercises I’ve given so far. I will update this at the end of the semester with the rest.
- Rewrite your opening with zero dialogue (and zero internal dialogue). Try to get across everything via action and description (/stage directions). Though this will not be your final version of your opening, it will help you make your opening better by helping you fully imagine what everyone is doing and by helping you use the environment and your characters’ bodies to convey meaning.
- Write two long descriptions of setting for your opening. One should use setting (only) to get across your characters’ personalities and desires. Imagine how your characters would see the setting, how they would make things into symbols, how they would see in the setting various opportunities or potential action. The second description should be a description in which the setting itself has agency and resists the agency of the characters. What in your setting provides conflict? What in the setting contradicts how the characters would subjectively see it? Now move your opening back so that it starts with setting for at least two pages and then extend your opening so that it ends with an interaction or description of setting for at least two pages.
- Reveal all of your secrets and plot twists up front. Write them all out and give them to your narrator, first person or third person. Now rewrite your opening using this knowledge, not hiding it from your audience. How does this change what is meaningful, what is suspenseful, where you find meaning and suspense and conflict and desire and so on. How do you make your opening compelling without holding anything back, without the question of what will happen, and only the question of why does it happen or possibly how does it happen (if it’s not via a plot twist or surprise).
- Every time a character comes up for the first time (if that character will return), spend an entire page introducing them. Tell us about why they matter and how they are related/connected to other characters and what their story is. Show us what they look like, how they enter a room, any characterizing objects/scars/tattoos/markings they have, their gestures and mannerisms, and what they will do if they are required to act. Consult your character questions if you need to. Fill out their introduction. Then cut that page back to a paragraph or two and let that stand.
- Identify your plot’s inciting incident. Note that this is rarely the first thing that happens. It is not a scene that establishes the situation, but the scene that begins a causal chain that permanently links two or more storylines and that will be resolved in some way in the climax. (The situation will be resolved in the end, in the denouement after the climax.) Here is an example: A strange, orphaned boy lives in a closet under the staircase in his relatives’ house. They don’t like him, but suffer his company, making him the butt of jokes and a doer of chores. One day he discovers that he can understand a snake talking to him, and that it seems like he can do some kind of magic, which startles his cousin. (Note that this is still the situation, that it is still a single storyline and is not causal, but rather all set-up.) He starts to test these newfound powers, gaining some small confidence, and one day a giant shows up and tells him that he is, in fact, a magical being, and it turns out that he is not just any magical being, but a hero in a whole magical world and history he is about to find out about for the first time and to which his parents belonged. In other words, the magical world has collided inseparably with the boy’s regular life. NOW—you have identified this scene, but it is time to revise it. Make sure that the scene has the weight of an inciting incident, that it has the feeling that it will indeed start a long chain of events and that however that chain resolves will forever alter the situation of your main character’s life. Make the stakes clear, increase them, and hint at the larger arc that will come.
- Your characters have two main desires/goals/journeys: one concrete journey and one larger journey that this concrete desire either symbolizes, represents, contradicts, or distracts from (etc.). For example, a girl volunteers to join a battle royale in order to spare her sister from taking part in it, and so she needs to find a way to survive if she is ever going to see said sister again; then, while trying to survive, she finds that she is caught up in a larger revolution and has to figure out what her role in that will be or not be. Your exercise is to add a conspiracy to the works that will link the smaller situation to the larger situation. Write a scene in which your character discovers that her concrete goal is actually a part of a big conspiracy—for example, the tournament that she is in is actually a way to keep the poor people from uniting and rising up. How does this conspiracy affect your protagonist’s actions? Is she willing to fight the larger conspiracy? Is she reluctant? How does the conspiracy change your plot? What larger stakes are added? What extra suspense and intrigue? Hint at what’s to come. Foreshadow. Etc.
- Look for any place in your manuscript where you can add characterization. Just read through and put an asterisk or make a mark where you could add anything at all. After you’ve done that, go back and add some kind of characterization at every single point. Think about what makes the character different from everyone else and express that especially through decision and action. Your additional characterization will make your story much longer. You probably have too much characterization now. Cut at least half of what you’ve added.
- Skip forward in time at least ten story years and write at least one more scene. In that scene, the protagonist acts and/or narrates with an awareness of all of the dramatic consequences from the events of ten years earlier. How are they different now?
- Make your setting “act.” Find the scene or scenes that have the least active settings (where the setting itself doesn’t do anything to affect the characters’ actions) and make it DO something. If your characters are eating in a restaurant, have someone drop a meal in one of their laps. Have a screaming child run around and throw something at them. Have someone in the restaurant fart really loudly and embarrassingly. OR: set it somewhere else, with more inherent action, like at the edge of an active volcano, or during an earthquake, or at a car crash, or on the train tracks as a train bears down on them, etc.
- Now that you’ve done some revising, go back and take another look at your logline. Change it to better represent the themes and story you now have. Then revise (or add) one extended imagined scene to fit and support the new logline. Think about how the imagined scene shows things that are sometimes told, like desires, fears, stakes, inner thoughts. Also think about how an imagined scene can be used to prolong suspense before the set-up or question and the follow-through or answer. (For example, a lion breaks out of its cage, and a little girl imagines it eating her and her mother crying over her bones, before we know what happens with the lion in real life.) Lastly, think about how what plays out in the imagined scene mixes with what will play out in reality, affirming it or contradicting it or so on, and how that is linked to theme. (For example, the theme of the lion story might be the girl’s fear that she will have to leave her mother, figuratively, and that this will be a sort of death.)
- Increase the influence of outside force by at least two times the page-space it takes now. Make sure this outside force works thematically with the character arc—for example, an earthquake that splits a house in half as a figurative mirror of a character’s breakdown and the effect on her family. Use the outside force to raise the stakes. Then cut so you have the same number of pages as before, but with more agency given to the world.
- Choose one character who needs more characterization and development. Think of their position in the world and what makes them different from everyone else in the manuscript. What do they want that no one else wants? What do they want in relation to the other characters? For example, a character might want overall to find belonging, but with family they want support for who they are, from the cool kids in school they want acceptance, or just to be left alone, etc. Add a scene with that specific character outside of the main problem of the manuscript. Give them a different problem to solve in this scene. The character who wants belonging and is always trying to please is suddenly mugged and has to chase down the mugger and get their belongings back. In other words, change the context in which we know the character—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, or maybe they go to a party full of people of a different race or full of people of the same race, etc.—and let us see them in a new situation where they can be someone free from their associations with other characters in the manuscript.
- Take a scene in which characters are having an important conversation and add in an objective correlative. Let them talk about the thing they are talking about via another object or person. For example, take a scene in which two people argue about whether it is right to steal from their neighbor and have them do something like judge a contest in which a child cheated, but clearly did the best job anyway, and disagree about who should get top prize. Or take three kids who are really fighting about how someone always gets left out and have the left out one stomp on an ant hill and then the ants crawl over him and bite him. Etc.
- Pick a ten-page span where the writing seems weaker, less interesting, less snappy, more functional than fun, etc. Go back and overwrite every paragraph. Go big. Add more imagery, more metaphor, more sound and sonic resonance. Make it funnier, add jokes! Go directly at theme, say what you might not normally say. Let the characters say what they want to say but are holding back, let them be inappropriate. Exaggerate, throw in obvious symbolism and foreshadowing and dramatic action. Add description, utilize all five senses. Etc. Finally, cut those paragraphs back again, leaving only the best writing, until you are back to around the same length, no more than twelve pages and no fewer than eight.
- Add another source of either danger, humor, or desire to each (or least half) of your scenes. Choose only one and try to add that choice in each case (e.g., add a source of humor to each scene, not humor to one scene and danger to the next). If you choose a source of danger, add a natural disaster or a predator or a distrust or an ulterior motive or a disturbing setting or an enemy or etc. If you choose a source of humor, add a jokester or some physical comedy (like slipping on a banana peel) or awkwardness or a misunderstanding or embarrassment or a sideshow (like a person passing by who slips on a banana peel) or ironic juxtaposition (like monkeys talking while a person passes by and slips on a banana peel) or etc. If you choose a source of desire, add an attraction or a coveted object or an opportunity to make money or a hero or a temptation or a secret or a forbiddance or etc.
- Write a new scene, one you have been putting off or avoiding. Either write the scene you really want to write but can’t see a way to or have been holding off for another story or for some other reason. OR write the scene you really don’t want to write because you don’t feel emotionally ready to write it. Chase your immediate interest or your unease, but know that they are sometimes the same thing.
- Write an outline of your manuscript as it appears right now. As it is on the page. Now, write a new outline, moving things around and/or borrowing things and/or adding/deleting, etc, that represents your ideal outline for the book, what it would look like if you were the perfect writer you are in your head and could execute whatever you want.
- Make the setting alive, or make a part of the setting alive. Please take this literally. What if a rock seems to move—how do the characters react? If the house seems to guide the characters from one room to the other? If birds suddenly attack a person who has done something wrong? Or right? If the setting is alive, it has a motive—what does it want or seem to want? Does the character interpret this in a way that gives the setting a motive, or does the character misinterpret the motive the setting actually has? You may use magic to make this happen, or spirituality, or religion. Or you can play with reality altogether—are the characters really seeing what the world is, or do they only think they do? Do this for one significant scene and plan out the consequences of this scene in the scenes that follow. Remember that everything has consequences.
- Write a scene where a character (or characters) behaves the opposite from who they think they are at the core. A character who thinks they are just causes injustice. A character who thinks they are kind acts cruelly. A character who thinks they love someone pushes that other person away. Write this before you think about where it might go in your manuscript. Afteryou’ve written it, find a place for it and map out the consequences of this scene on the character’s arc. What does this scene mean to the way the character is changing as a result of what happens in the manuscript?
- Add a (long) paragraph or two to the beginning of each chapter or act in which the narrator explains to the audience everything that is going to happen and why. What are the secrets that the various characters are keeping from each other? What are the secrets they are keeping from themselves? What do they think their motivations and desires are and what are they really? Now think about what the effect is of having all of the information up front. Which information actually helps make the scene more compelling and which information spoils mysteries that are better left unsaid, or are better shown in action? Cut what isn’t useful.