If you missed Part 1 of this series about doing your own structural edit, go back and read that post first—it introduces core concepts and lays the foundation for this one.
With your skeleton blurb clear in your mind and the knowledge that you have a complete narrative to work with, it’s time to identify your story arc scenes and check the pacing of your story.
Step 3: Analyze your story arc scenes
The easiest way to compare your scenes to a narrative structure is to write a one-sentence description of the action that takes place in each scene.
Chapter 1: Protagonist, a widower, watches movie footage of his wife, including scenes toward the end of her life
Chapter 2: Intruders kill the protagonist’s puppy, given to him by his now-deceased wife to keep him company after her death
Chapter 3: Protagonist digs out long-buried weapons, remnants of a former life, and leaves his home in search of revenge
Next, identify the five(ish) scenes that hit the key plot points described in Part 1 when we discussed the narrative arc. You want these plot points to be distributed nicely throughout your story for consistent pacing. If too much action occurs too quickly, the pacing may be too fast for readers to develop a connection with your characters. If plot points are too far apart, the pacing will be slow and readers may lose interest before the action picks up again.
You don’t have to delete scenes during this process, although you might. Refer back to your skeleton blurb as a guide. If a scene doesn’t further the story or the reader’s understanding of the main character, you may have to put it on the chopping block. (Don’t delete it, though! You never know what you might use these “clippings” for.)
Analyze whether your story arc scenes are in the right place, moving the action forward at the right times. If the answer is no, move things around and make revisions that improve the story’s flow. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Are there parts that simply move too fast or too slow? Parts where the action feels forced rather than organic?
In general, a traditional narrative arc has beats that look like this:
- Inciting incident (kicking off the main story): ~10% of the way through the book
- Plot point one (the protagonist is invested in the conflict; something is at stake): ~25%
- Midpoint (protagonist becomes proactive rather than reactive): ~50%
- Plot point two (a low point for the protagonist; we worry they will not succeed): ~75%
- Climax (protagonist faces the biggest challenge and determines their fate): ~85%
- Resolution (protagonist processes events, and perhaps the villain isn’t defeated after all …): 100%
If this feels overly formulaic, it probably is. Think of these more as guidelines than rules. They exist as guardrails to help orient you if you feel lost in the darkness, but you can certainly break them. Just make sure you never forget your reader!
Step 4: Perform a scene edit
During this step, think of each scene as a miniature story, like an episode of a TV show. On its own, it should hook a reader from the very beginning and leave them wanting to read more by the end. These “reader hooks” are crucial for keeping people turning your pages from start to finish. They also help with pacing, keeping transitions moving from one scene to the next.
During this process, make sure scenes start and end in the right places. Each scene must contain characters, plot, and setting. Lean too far in one direction, and the pacing will be thrown off.
If the point of view character shifts, it may be a sign that you should start a new scene. The same rule applies if there’s a sudden plot twist or location change. As a general rule of thumb, changing locations within a scene requires describing the new setting and likely the journey from one setting to the next. If you start a new scene, you can simply pick up in a new location and include the relevant details as they arise. In this way, a scene edit will tighten and focus your book.
To recap, the elements of a scene to check for during the scene editing stage are:
- Entry hook
- Purpose relating to the skeleton blurb
- Start and end points that make sense
- Consistent POV
- Exit hook
Step 5: Character, POV, and setting
To call this a single editing step is a misnomer because it incorporates some of the most prominent story elements, and each deserves distinct time and attention. The point is to focus your attention on the remaining elements of craft most critical to your book: character, point of view, and setting.
- Character: Check your characters’ dialogue and actions for consistency. This doesn’t mean characters shouldn’t change—in fact, the protagonist most certainly should change by the story’s end—but it does mean that their actions should align with what we know about them. If a hothead main character sits back and relaxes when someone cuts them off in busy traffic, it won’t ring true. It’s not consistent with the person we know them to be. Also, take the time to assess each character’s motivation in the story. What do they want, and what’s at stake if they don’t get it? A goal or motivation is not strong enough if failure has no consequences.
- Point of view (POV): Broadly, point of view refers to who is telling the story, either in the book as a whole or within a single scene. Your POV character should generally remain the same throughout or follow a pattern if you choose to rotate POV characters in each chapter or scene. (If you do this, label your POV changes clearly to avoid confusing your readers.)
- Setting: Settings should be described through the lens of your narrator, unless you use third-person omniscient POV. If your story is being told by a character, remember that if they can’t see it or interact with it, they can’t describe it. They can only recount what they experience directly. You can also play with setting to dial story tension up or down. Bustling coffee shops, frozen deserted wastelands, and a child’s backyard birthday party are all vastly different settings with different stakes attached.
We could go on and on about editing, but Parts 1 and 2 of this Structural Editing mini-series cover the basics that every indie author should know. Do you disagree? Tell us what we missed in the comments!