Revision (or Plotting!) Checklist:
The Most Common Issues I See as an Editor
Disclaimer! Like pirate code, these are more guidelines than rules. Most (but not all) of them will apply to most
(but not all) types of stories, so use at your own discretion.
-Are all your subplots necessary? Do they all weave into and affect the main
storyline and/or are they vital to the character arc?
-Do you have a clearly-defined catalyst? What kicks off the Big Change in your
character’s life, leading inevitably to the central conflict?
-Do you have one central conflict that every subplot, character arc, and plot
point tie into? Usually, there needs to be one clearly-defined Big Problem in your
story—a warning sign here is if you have a handful of loosely-related
problems/enemies popping up throughout your story, instead of a single conflict
that evolves and intensifies.
-Are you starting in the right place? Does it feel too fast (gimmicky, misleading, or confusing) or too slow (unnecessary build-up, starting with backstory, or boring)? Find a place at or just before the catalyst (sometimes you can even start a beat afterwards, but that isn't right for every story), and then start out with a change in the character’s life—something a little unusual or noteworthy, something that hints at a simmering conflict or foreshadows a conflict to come. You don’t have to grab us by the throat on page one; you just have to invite us into your story, and give us some sort of story question or hook by the end of the first chapter that pushes us to read on.
-Do you have a black moment—a point near the end of the manuscript where your character has lost something or someone extremely important to him/her and all appears to be lost and failure seems inevitable? This usually happens right before he/she has a revelation or a breakthrough of some sort and throws him/herself back into the intensified conflict with a new determination, leading into the climax.
-Are any plot points too convenient or coincidental? The general rule of thumb (I can’t remember where I heard this, so please refresh my memory if you know whose quote this is!) here is that you can use coincidence occasionally to get your characters into trouble, but not out of trouble. They need to earn their way out for themselves, and ideally it should cost them something.
-Do any plot points depend on your bad guy being unintelligent, vain, unusually reckless, or evil just for the sake of being evil? It makes for a more powerful story when your characters win (or lose) the day due to their own cleverness and strength, and not because the bad guy didn’t think things through. Also, bad guys don't have to be evil and do bad things just for the sake of badness; they just need a goal that conflicts with your main character's.
-What are the stakes, internally and externally? What’s at risk if your main characters fail to achieve their goal? What will they lose that’s personal and important to them—not just “the city will explode,” but “his daughter, who is in the city and out of contact, will die if he doesn’t stop the evil genetically-engineered monkeys from carrying out their plans of citywide destruction.” Internal stakes are also important—these are quieter, more invisible stakes, but still vital to character growth. For example, if Larry can’t kick his drinking habit, he’ll sink into alcoholism and be lonely and bitter just like his dad.
-If you have a big reveal at the end (“Evil Monkey #1 was actually pretending to be the Funny Sidekick ALL ALONG”), does it make immediate sense or do you have to stop and explain it? Big reveals need to be set up and foreshadowed before they happen, because explanation kills excitement. At the moment of the reveal you want a reader to think “of course! How did I miss it?” and not “what the heck? That can’t happen, can it?”
-Does each character (yes, even the bad guy!) have a goal? Do they desperately want something strongly enough to take active steps toward it during the course of the plot? Note: in my experience, having a goal that requires a character to move toward something he/she wants is much more powerful than one that requires them to move away from something he/she fears. When in doubt, you can always combine both; maybe Megan is trying to run away/save herself from the pack of homicidal genius monkeys, but she’s also trying to get to her boyfriend in time to save him from said evil primates.
-Does each character (again: yes, the bad guy too!) have a motivation? This is the engine that drives the goal—they want the goal because of the motivation. Characters can be motivated by a lot of different things, but there needs to be one or two really strong ones (love, fear, greed, protection of loved ones, etc.) that drive the actions they take toward their goal throughout the plot.
-Does each character have a conflict? This is the result of a character’s goal being stymied by an opposing force: a character or event or thing stops them from getting The One Thing they so desperately need. Goal + opposing force = conflict. This is true of the overarching main plot, but on a smaller scale, each important character needs to have their own personal conflict as well.
-Does your main character’s decisions and actions drive the plot forward (this means they’re active), or are they mostly reacting to external events and being led through the plot by other people’s actions/decisions (this means they’re passive, and that weakens both your characters and your plot)? Active characters have agency, which you can find out more about in this post by Chuck Wendig.
-Are your characters three-dimensional? Do they feel fleshed out and organic, with deep flaws and redeeming qualities and their own unique ways of relating to the world? Or do they feel cardboard and shallow? I tend to see this problem often with female characters in particular, especially ones who on the surface seem "strong" (girl assassins, feminist princesses, etc.) but have almost no agency in their own stories. Remember, "strong female character" doesn't mean they have to be physically strong--they just need to be three-dimensional, have agency, and do things that serve their own personal goals and motivations. And if they're the main character (or often even an important secondary character), they almost always need to be the instrument of their own salvation instead of being rescued by someone else. For more on "strong female characters," check out this other post by Chuck Wendig.
-Are all your characters necessary? If you cut or combined any of them, would it affect the main plot at all? (If not, that usually means they do need to be cut or combined.)
-Do your main characters and important secondary characters have a character arc? In a typical arc, a character starts out in a negative state with some sort of internal problem (often one they don’t recognize), is forced to change and grow as the result of their choices (and, typically, their failures) during the course of the plot, and then acknowledge and/or fix that problem to end up in a positive state at the end. Or in a negative character arc, which is rarer (a good example here would be Anakin Skywalker in episodes I-III of Star Wars), this process is reversed and the character goes from positive to negative. The main thing to avoid here is a flat character arc, where characters have no real internal problem and/or they aren’t forced to change and grow throughout the story. Ideally, at the end of the story your character should only be able to win the day because of these internal changes—at the beginning he would’ve run from the terrorist monkeys, but now that he’s been forced to conquer his lifelong primate phobia, he’s able to confront them and stop their evil plans.
-Romances are most powerful when your love interests have goals that oppose in the beginning. He’s a vampire hunter and she’s a creature of the night, or he’s the President who’s trying to get re-elected and she’s a former CEO trying to escape quietly into Mexico before her decade of tax evasion is discovered. Eventually, your characters will likely come into alignment later in the book to work toward a common goal, but early on conflicting goals make for excellent organic chemistry and tension.
-Related to the above note, what’s keeping your lovers apart? The strongest romances are great at showing how the characters can never be together (romantic conflict) while also showing how they absolutely belong together (romantic chemistry). General rule of thumb: the stronger the reason a couple can’t/shouldn’t be together, the more readers will want them to be.
-Every character comes to every scene with his or her own agenda. Play those conflicting goals off each other.
-Are your scenes shallow? Ideally, you should have two or three different types of conflict happening in each scene: external, internal, romantic, interpersonal, etc. Each scene should be fulfilling more than one purpose. Introduce that plot twist, and deepen a character’s arc, and add a touch of romantic conflict.
-Do your scenes have a clear chain of cause-and-effect? Does each scene inevitably lead to the next, like a line of dominoes toppling into each other? Or do some scenes feel more like a sequence of loosely-related events? Is each scene tied to the last by either “but” or “therefore,” and not just “and then?” (More on this excellent and highly useful tip from the writers of South Park here.)
-Telling instead of showing: this is a huge topic, but basically, the goal is to present the reader with puzzle pieces and then allow them to put the picture together themselves, instead of plopping a bunch of info in our laps. There are several sub-types of telling:
-Characterization via telling. This is when you inform readers about a character (ie, “Bob was particularly grumpy, even for an evil monkey") instead of showing, via their actions, dialogue and narrative style/thinking patterns, who they are and what they’re like. Characterization via telling is okay for in-and-out characters or the occasional voice-y tidbits of narrative, but when you use it too much or for important characters it can distance readers.
-Telling via infodump. This is when you pause a present-moment scene to dump a big ol’ chunk of data about your world or characters or backstory in our laps. This is dangerous because info is much more boring than in-the-moment action—readers came for a story, not to be educated about the story. Only give us the pieces of information we need to know about when we need to know about them, with a tiny trickle extra added when necessary to set the tone/mood of your scene or world.
-Telling via dialogue. This is when one character tells another about some aspect of their world or backstory, etc., for the reader’s benefit. This makes your dialogue feel clunky and unnatural, and includes the sub-type of As-You-Know-Bobs, which is when one character informs another about something they both already know for the sake of informing the reader: “As you know, Bob, evil necromancer monkeys (yes they’re necromancers now) can only be killed by an enchanted steak knife to the heart.”
-Telling via adverbs. Anything that ends in –ly usually means you’re informing us of how a character is performing an action, instead of showing us. Ie, “The evil monkey paddled the boat angrily” would be more powerful if you showed that anger: “The evil monkey paddled with choppy strokes, his knobby fingers tight around the oars.”
-Emotional telling. Any time you use an emotional descriptor (happy, sad, guilty, confused, etc.), it’s telling. The emotion comes across much more powerfully and impacts readers more when you show that emotion through the characters’ physical actions, dialogue, decisions, and with your POV characters even the tone in the narrative itself.
-Filter words. This is when you filter scenes through your main character with things like “she saw x” or “he heard y” instead of showing us the scene for itself, which gives us a more immersive experience and clears out the clutter of the unnecessary filter words. In this category are words like saw, heard, felt, realized, thought, appeared, seemed, etc. Filter words are an easy, if time-consuming, fix: “he heard footsteps” can become “footsteps pounded on the path.”
-If you have more than one point-of-view character, do their voices feel distinct enough? If a reader opened to a random page, they should be able to guess within a few paragraphs whose point of view they’re in. Each POV character should have a distinct way of thinking, talking, and narrating.
-Does your world, as a whole, make sense? Do all the bits work together to make a cohesive whole, or does it feel like certain elements were thrown in as they became necessary/convenient to the plot? Are there any elements you’re making readers accept at face value (“all super-intelligent primates are evil because… just because”), instead of tying them more deeply to your world or magic system?
-Is your world-building consistent? If you set up a rule early on (“necromancer monkeys can only be killed in x manner”) and later on break it, do you show how and why that deviation is possible?
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Naomi Edits | Naomi L. Hughes