Today I want to talk about working with a story you already have developed, to make it stronger. If you are an outliner, you can do much of this at the outlining stage. Otherwise, you can work with a draft. The goal is to take a step back so you can see the structure of the manuscript. It's important to focus on what is really there, not what you intended to put on the page. But it's hard to do that when you're immersed in the story.

Critique partners can sometimes help at this point, but there are problems. Less experienced critiquers might sense something is wrong, but not know what or how to fix it. If people see a chapter at a time, it's harder to get a sense of the whole story. This is particularly a challenge if your writing is strong and smooth. If each chapter reads well, your initial readers may be enthusiastic, but they might not recognize that you have plot holes, repetition, or other problems.

I developed a system for myself to help me analyze a work in progress. I'll share that here, and in another thread I'll give some alternative methods.

The Plot Outline Exercise

Follow these steps to make an outline of your manuscript. Focus first on making notes; save the actual editing until after you have detailed notes about what changes you need to make.

Write a one or two sentence synopsis for your manuscript.

What genre is it? What is it (briefly) about? This might be the equivalent of your thirty-second pitch with your “hook,” but don’t worry about making it pretty. The goal is to give yourself something you can refer back to as a reminder of what the manuscript is really about. Here are a couple of examples:

Rattled is a romantic suspense novel set in the dangerous New Mexico desert. Erin, her best friend Camie, and love interest Drew head to the desert to search for a lost treasure, but they face dangers from nature, wild animals, and criminals out to steal the treasure.

Counterfeits is a romantic suspense set in a small town in the New Mexico mountains. When a young artist inherits her grandparents’ children's art camp, she is torn between starting a new life with old friends and the sexy camp cook/manager, or pursuing her art career in New York. The return of her long absent father, and the mysterious criminals following him, brings confusion and danger.

The Eyes of Pharaoh is a mystery novel set in ancient Egypt, for ages nine and up. When their best friend disappears, Seshta and Horus spy on merchants, soldiers, and royalty, and fall into a dangerous trap as they uncover a plot against Egypt.

In these examples, the first sentences identify the genre, setting, and age range. You probably have those things firmly in your mind, but it doesn’t hurt to have this reminder, especially keywords such as suspense, romance, mystery, or adventure. That reminds me that I shouldn’t spend too much time exploring the history and culture of ancient Egypt, for example; the mystery should come first.

The second sentences in each synopsis summarize the plot in a few words. This is tricky when you have several important characters and two or three hundred pages of plot twists. But before you do anything else, spend some time trying to identify the plot at its most basic, core level. Usually that comes down to identifying the main character (MC) and what he or she is trying to achieve. Depending on the type of novel, your primary focus may be on the internal or on the external journey.

I could have written the second sentence for Rattled like this instead: When Erin meets a sexy helicopter pilot, she has to decide if she's adventurous enough to pursue this chance at romance.

That would focus more on the romance, instead of the external challenges. If I felt it was equally important, perhaps I’d add another sentence to the synopsis. But in this case, the romance goes fairly smoothly and it's the external problem that carries the plot.

Define your goal.
Do you want an action-packed page turner? A novel that explores an issue and makes people think? A laugh-out-loud funny book? There is no right or wrong answer, just your personal goal for this manuscript. As with the synopsis, the goal is to give you a simple reminder you can refer to when you’re making decisions about what to add, cut, or change in the manuscript.

If you hate outlining, don’t be intimidated by the word. You don’t need Roman numerals or subheads, just a brief description of what happens. The outline is simply a record of what you have written. Writing an outline after you finish a draft of your novel helps you see what you have so you can step back and look at the big picture.

For every chapter, write a sentence describing what happens. If you have long chapters with multiple scenes, you may want to do this for each scene rather than each chapter. If you are doing this exercise on paper rather than the computer, leave plenty of space after each chapter summary for your notes — at least three or four blank lines. This is where you will be making notes about what changes you need to make in the manuscript. While you are making your chapter/scene notes, you should also:

  • Make a note of the number of pages in each chapter.

  • For each scene/chapter, list the emotions you’ve portrayed. Underline or highlight the major emotion.

  • Keep track of your subplots by briefly mentioning what happens in each chapter where that subplot appears. Use a different color of pen or highlighter for each subplot. For example, you might use a purple pen to keep track of the romantic subplot and a green pen to track a subplot with the main character’s father.

Analyze Your Plot

Now that you have an outline of your manuscript, including the main action, subplots and emotions, you’re ready to analyze your plot. You’re not going to start editing yet, just analyzing and making notes.

The Plot Outline Exercise is designed to start big and then focus in on details. If you look over all the questions in advance, you might start to feel overwhelmed. The key is to take things one step at a time. Consider each question individually and spend time on it. If you read a question and immediately think, “Oh, that part is fine. I’m happy with that,” slow down. Take another look at your synopsis and goal, and then look through your outline carefully with that question in mind. Have you really done all you can, or are you just in a hurry?

My full analysis looks at many issues, but will start with Conflict and Tension. You still might want to take several days to thoroughly consider these questions. This is a long post, so I'm going to put the analysis questions in a separate thread. You can also download The Plot Outline Exercise from my website as a Word document, so you can print it off or answer the questions right on the document: (top of the left-hand column)