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I’ve written a plot for a long story. But it’s not easy for anybody to review because my characters’ dialogue and goals are all over the place, it’s often usually mixed up and I struggle to structure it back because I often forget the plot. I know that a good plot carries out suspense and emotion including the consequences and reactions of a character’s choice, my characters for example don’t add up properly. I am confident with my writing, but not my editing. I’ve been paying attention to the story structure of TV shows such as Breaking Bad and Dexter to try to compare mine to a proper story structure, but at the same time I am trying not copy from a good show.

How can I edit my all-over-the-place writing to focus it more?

  • Hi Edmund. I'm sure that is painful for you, but there is no question here. This is a Q/A site and require a specific on-topic question. If unsure how things work, please take the tour: writers.stackexchange.com/tour – Mark Baker Nov 25 '17 at 17:49
  • Try a mechanical approach. This approach works for me after a fashion. I knew as I was barreling through the first draft that I would need revisions, many of them. I began keeping a list, and in the end had 12 different items I needed to pay attention to in my revisions. Example: 1. Show, don't tell. 2. Distinct character voice. 3. Edit for concision. 4. Edit for timeline 5. Edit for adverbs ... and so on. Make a list of all the suggestions you've heard for strong writing, and all the problems you see within your story. From that list, make your list of edits. – DPT Nov 25 '17 at 17:50
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    (1) Unless your target media is TV, don't look to TV for inspiration on how to write. (2) You seem to be doing a fair bit of mixing of plot, writing, and editing, at least in this question. Plot isn't dialogue. Characters' goals can drive plot, or be driven by plot, but won't be plot. And so on. Your first step should probably be to clarify, at least to yourself, exactly what you are doing. For example, it's perfectly all right to write "from the seat of your pants" without having an overarching plan in place before you start, but if you do, be honest with yourself about what you're doing. – a CVn Nov 26 '17 at 19:38
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    You often forget the plot? The first thing you need to do is write a short description of said plot, maybe you won't forget it. While you write, jot down details: ch1- MC dressed in black pants, blue shirt, Ch2- he changed into white pants but kept shirt. This is what I do after each chapter when there are several new factors added. It's hard for me to remember everything. Also, I've said this before: Online writing groups like Scribophile, Critique Circle and many others more would help you with new eyes and point out things for you. I suggest reading books in same genre instead of TV shows. – A.T. Catmus Nov 28 '17 at 13:20
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While no one can say for sure, my guess is that you are probably suffering from what seems to be a recurring problem for people posting here: confusing plot with imaginary history.

Story never starts with plot. It always starts with character, and it always starts with a character who wants something and a set of obstacles that stand in the way of their getting it, which build to a point where the character must face a fundamental choice of values.

A plot is a device to place the necessary obstacles in the path of your character and to force them to make that fundamental choice about values. Plot exists to advance character toward crisis.

If you start with plot, what you are really starting with is an imaginary history, which may have an internal logic and causality about it, and may lead to some great event such as a battle or a wedding, but however logical and self consistent it may be, if it is not throwing progressively larger obstacles in the path of character who is attempting to gain a desire and leading them towards a fundamental choice, then it is not creating the necessary conditions for story.

Story does not emerge out of plot. Plot follow the logic and necessity of story. In many cases the plot can be highly illogical, even absurd. There is quite an industry on the Web pointing out the plot holes in famous books and movies. But the point is, these are famous and well loved books and movies. They are great stories, even if they have faulty plots. Because plot is not story. Story is the emotional and moral arc of a character leading them to a moment of decision and to the consequences that follow -- in moral logic -- from that decision.

If you started with a plot, you are never going to edit it into a story. A story is a different kind of thing, but in a novel it is the only thing that matters. Telling your story may mean twisting your plot into a pretzel and taking a bite out of it. No one will care if the moral logic of your story remains intact.

  • That was eye-opening, Mark. May I suggest an axiom here: "The plot is an illustration of the story". In a sense more related to (statistical) modelling, this could also read: "The plot is a specific realisation of the story". Is that about right? Or have I misunderstood something? – Filip Dec 11 '17 at 13:07
  • Stories are stories because they have plots. Your paragraph 2 above is an excellent description of what is plot. What you call plot in paragraph 3 is actually the plotline. Most stories succeed by either deliberatively or accidentally finding the plot to best express what the story is about. Plot holes are missteps by writers in trying to create their stories. Writers don't have the luxury of a reality checker in the way they have spell checkers. – a4android Dec 13 '17 at 12:13
  • @Filip Not quite right. "Stories are narratives supported and actualized by plot." Most people confuse plotline with plot. When someone says the plot of this book is etc., they actual mean its plotline. A plotline is a specific instance; the set of events comprising the story in the order which they happen or are revealed in the narrative. – a4android Dec 13 '17 at 12:18
  • @a4android Your terminology is not as universal as you perhaps suppose. Over the years people have made the plot/story distinction in different ways. You use plotline/plot. E.M.Forster used story/plot. The distinction is perhaps not sufficiently clear cut to allow for universal terminology. plot/story seems to be the way most people here describe/recognize the distinction. I have not seen the word plotline used here a long as I have been a user. – Mark Baker Dec 13 '17 at 14:00
  • @MarkBaker No I hadn't supposed the terms were universal.. This is common usage. I notice among readers specifically they use plotline to describe the story which isn't the story nor is it the plot. More of a parallel equivalent. I'm not in favour of terminological exactitude for imprecise terms. Odd I thought I saw "plotline" used in some posts on this site. – a4android Dec 14 '17 at 7:25
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When organizing my novel, I divided it into sections. At first I simply split it intuitively where it "felt right" to do so, points where there were big changes in story structure, setting, new characters came into play or something else made relevant changes to what was going on.

This division into sections allowed me to think about my novel as seven smaller sections, instead of one big mess. What was inside one section can be changed more or less freely, as long as the characters start the every section in the same place they finished the one before and nothing extremely weird or contrived happens to be ignored later.

Later in my work I edited those sections a lot, moved elements around and even merged two sections, because one of them lacked conflict and felt too short, but that is a later stage of development, and by this point you should already have a pretty solid idea of what your plot and story structure are. First of all, write everything you have lying on your mind, make it beautiful and organized later.

After writing crude summaries of my sections, I studied story structure, especially the Hero's (and Heroine's ) Journey and ways to structure plot, especially the Snowflake Method and used those to organize the events of the story. Conflict was upscaled, downscaled or moved around, character arches were extended or shortened, you get the idea.

Now that you know your plot's bones, figure out what skeleton they will build. Shuffle them around and play with them, trying to figure a good order. Insert the dialogue you have already written in the section, scene and act it belongs to, preferably as a side note or comment or in any other way separated from the plot. Dialogue and plot are different hierarchical levels, do not mix them.

As for character motivations, my best advice is to keep them separated from the file where you keep the plot. Personally, I enjoy having one separated file for every major character (or any character I, for whatever reason, know a lot about) and a separated file for all minor characters. If you find it really necessary, make small annotations on the plot file on why a moment, action or line are relevant for a character and affect or are affected by their motivations.

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I'd recommend reading W.P. Kinsella's sprawling, largely incoherent novel, Shoeless Joe, and then comparing it to the tightly plotted, incomparable hit movie based on it, Field of Dreams. Another set of comparisons is John Masefield's Box of Delights, as contrasted with the 1984 BBC adaption (available on YouTube). In both cases, the source material is rich in vivid characters, indelible imagery and magical situations. But only the adaptation can be said to have a real "plot."

I recommend viewing your work in its current form as the raw material you're going to shape a story from. Keep in mind, most of it is going to end up on the cutting room floor --you just have to be at peace with that. Everything that stays in needs to be an important stop on some kind of journey --physical, spiritual, emotional, moral or mental --for your main character.

I'd recommend reading vast amounts of fairy tales, folk tales, the Arabian Nights, Greek myths and other compilations of classic stories from the oral tradition to see narrative-at-work in its purest, leanest form. Once you start to get the feel of story-for-story's sake, you'll begin to see how you can fit your characters and settings into that kind of structure.

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I'm just gonna say some quick words, you don't have to take them if you don't want to, but here's my two cents. I haven't been writing books for very long, and I haven't published anything. However, in my writing, I've found it easier to edit if you build each character one at a time. Now, this may sound time consuming, and really it kind of is. But, it's totally worth it.

Answer these questions about each character:

  1. What are they afraid of, and why? Who can hurt my character and who can help them? What is attractive to them in life? (Now, for this question, I'm not talking about romance. I'm talking about lifestyle.) What is their best memory, and why? Someone that has influence on their life? Attitude towards death and new life, also marriage and divorce? Greatest accomplishment?
  2. Goals, Goals, Goals. and I cannot stress this one enough. What are some life goals for each of your characters? Why do they want these goals, and how will they go about achieving those goals? What tactics will they use and how will they execute their plan? What is your characters goal for the scene? (I use this term loosely because a scene could go on for pages.) What drives your character to do what they do? Why does it drive them? What are the aspects of their life that nobody will ever know about them? What is something that they are willing to die for? why? what are their morals? why do they have such morals?

these questions will help you so much while you're writing. The purpose is for these questions to create more questions as you're asking them. Once you know your character inside and out, it will be easier to write for them. And the fact that they will have some sort of personality when you're done, it will be easier to make that dictate their every move, and will carry the plot. every choice they make must have some purpose, some reason behind it. Once you have every character figured out, your plot will hopefully become clearer. How your characters will change throughout the story is up to you.

alright I've said my piece, thanks for listening.

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