One of the most common questions I receive from new authors is some version of “I’ve finished my manuscript, how do I revise it?” First, congratulations. Finishing a manuscript is a major accomplishment, and you should take a moment to be proud. Second, this is a difficult question to answer because stories are infinitely sensitive to context. It’s relatively easy to explain the fundamental rules of storytelling, which is Mythcreants’ whole thing, but saying what should be changed about your specific story is much more difficult.
However, I’ve been in the editing business for a while now. Once you read through enough unpublished manuscripts, patterns emerge. Since I can’t cover everything, I’ve crafted some basic plotting questions to get you started. Plot is a great starting place because plot problems usually result in the biggest revisions or even rewrites. If you address these issues early, it’ll improve your story and save you money on editing.
1. Are Your Plots Connected?
Once you’ve finished writing a story, the first thing to consider is whether you’ve actually written a single story or multiple stories. This is not only a super common problem with new manuscripts, but it also shows up in published stories all the time. So how can you tell whether your beautiful manuscript has this problem? You check to see if your various plots are connected.
If one plot isn’t related to another, you’re trying to tell two different stories at the same time. This happens most often with multiple POVs, which is also where you tend to see it from professional authors. If your POV characters are all fighting each other for the throne of Westeros, no problem, they’re all connected. If one of those contestants for Westeros is all the way over in Fantasy Mongolia promising that one day she’ll return maybe, you’ve got a disconnected story.
But multiple POVs aren’t required to make your story disconnected. A single viewpoint character can do it if they veer off into another plot that doesn’t have anything to do with the previous one. For example, in House of Earth and Blood, protagonist Bryce takes several breaks from her murder investigation so she can work on paying off the debt for a magic dog she bought during a time jump. These scenes don’t move the main story forward; they’re at best a side quest. That works in an open-world video game, less so in a book or movie.
The third common disconnector of plots is the unrelated internal arc, be it about a relationship or a character’s emotional problems. Writers often create character arcs that don’t match their external conflicts, so the two drift apart over time. They also have a bad habit of getting heavily invested in a relationship arc without considering whether it supports the rest of the story. The TV show Andor has a lot of great relationship arcs, but it also wastes a bunch of scenes showing Syril off by himself being a sad fascist. That prepares him to begin what looks like a romance with Dedra, in case you were eager to see the Imperial spymaster get a boyfriend.
When plots disconnect from each other, they compete for space. The least bad scenario is that you have several equally engaging stories that your readers are forced to switch between, like if you spliced a bunch of Legendborn chapters into their copy of A Half-Built Garden. Not everyone minds constantly switching stories like this, but many readers find it frustrating.
More likely, your readers will like some of the disconnected stories more than others, either because of personal tastes or because you simply put in different levels of effort. Readers will resent whenever they are forced to switch from the story they like to one they don’t care for, and this is a big cause of not finishing the book at all.
Some authors think it’s fine to have disconnected stories as long as they eventually unite later in the book, but that doesn’t work. At best, you’re sacrificing reader enjoyment early in the hopes of getting a better return later, but you can’t go back and undo how your readers felt before. Or the readers might just be frustrated that the disparate plots weren’t united sooner, and then you’re even worse off.
It can sometimes be difficult to tell what constitutes a “plot.” If your hero briefly pauses the murder investigation to pet their cat, is that a disconnected plot? Not unless they have some conflict related to petting their cat. If their cat is shy and they have to spend multiple scenes coaxing their cat out, that’s too much. Once it constitutes a plot, it needs to support the main story, or you have a problem.
Once you’ve identified any disconnected plots, your options are to cut them, separate them into multiple stories, or connect them properly. Romance doesn’t have to interrupt your mystery if the love interest is a fellow investigator or a suspect. If your hero is having money problems, link that to the main plot by promising a big payout if they catch the bad guy.
When those options don’t work, examine the relative strength and completeness of each arc. If one of them is clearly more exciting and complete than the other, keep that one and cut the one that’s slow. If they each have their own escalation and climax, separate them to give yourself two books instead of one.
2. Does Tension Escalate?
If you’ve been on Mythcreants before, you probably know that stories need tension, with the exact level depending on how dark or light you want the story to be. It’s unfortunately common for stories to have unbearably slow beginnings due to a lack of tension, usually due in turn to a corresponding lack of conflict. We all know Kvothe is beautiful and perfect with a beautiful and perfect family,* so can we skip right to them all getting murdered instead of spending five chapters on how beautiful and perfect everything is?
But you know better. You’ve established tension at the beginning. The hero has to stop a monster from attacking the town, or they have to ask the monster on a date because otherwise it means going to prom alone. Great! But tension is a wily creature that demands more, more, always more. It’s not enough to establish tension; you have to raise it as the story progresses.
This is roughly equivalent to the “rising action” you may have heard about in English class. If tension stays the same or (heaven forbid) drops, then your story gets boring fast. It’s great to open the story with a monster threatening the town, but if the story ends with the same monster threatening the same town with the same degree of destruction, the tension has probably all bled away.
Most professional authors have already had to master this trick to get published in the first place, but a few still slip up a bit. Lewis certainly did when he wrote Magician’s Nephew. We start out with good tension about a spooky magic uncle and raise it when we discover an evil witch, but from there it plummets as the witch gets less and less dangerous. Finally, tension is just a flat line as Aslan escorts the heroes around and tries to sell them a Narnia time-share.
Sadly, there isn’t a scientific way to measure exactly how much tension a story has, no matter how many times I smash copies of The Martian and Get Out together in the Large Hadron Collider. Also, I’m no longer allowed on CERN premises.
However, there are a number of reliable techniques to ensure tension rises. The first is making the hero’s obstacles progressively more difficult to overcome. The villain might get stronger, so they’ll be harder to beat in the future. Or the villain might win a major battle, making it seem more likely that they’ll win more battles later. If there’s no villain, then the natural disaster might get more intense, or the prom committee might pass new dress code rules that the hero can’t afford.
Another option is to raise the stakes, meaning you put more on the line than there was before. The hero’s family has been captured, or it’s revealed that the hero’s ex is also coming to prom. Now the hero needs a date more than ever, or they’ll look lonely and pathetic in front of the one who broke their heart! This method works best in conjunction with making obstacles more difficult, as readers may not care as much if the chances of success stay the same.
A third option is to make the problem more urgent, usually by reducing how long the hero has to solve it. It looked like the Imperial fleet would be here in a few days, but they’ve activated hyperspace boosters, so now the Rebels only have hours to prepare. The prom was supposed to be next month, but the dance hall will be closed for construction then, so now it’s next week instead! When the hero has less time to plan and prepare, everything gets harder, and this is also a way to move up your climax if you’ve run out of plot material.
There are other options for raising tension, but those three will get the job done most of the time. The next step is to make sure that tension steadily escalates over the story’s entire run. If you start with the hero battling a single bully from the local castle, you can first raise the stakes when the bully brings some friends to help push the townsfolk around. You can raise the stakes a second time when the bullies get weapons and decide that instead of free drinks, they’re demanding all the town’s coin. Then the castle’s lord hears about this and decides the entire town is in rebellion. You wouldn’t have the lord appear first and then have the bullies increase their demands, because the lord is a much bigger deal and would render the new demands moot.
Wait, there’s one more thing: you can’t only have tension go up. That’ll quickly exhaust your readers. You also need to sprinkle in low-tension scenes so readers have a chance to catch their breath, creating peaks and valleys. Each peak and valley should be higher/lower than the pair that came before.
First, your hero confronts the initial bully. After getting punched in the face, your do-gooder retreats to nurse their wounds, possibly recruiting others to the cause. There’s your first peak and valley. Next, the bullies return in force and there’s a tense chase as the hero evades their clutches. After that, the hero has a heart-to-heart with their best friend, wondering if they should leave town to avoid putting anyone else in danger. That’s a second peak and a second valley, each higher than their predecessor. Repeat as needed until you get one of those jagged line graphs that trends upward.
3. Does the Story Move?
Movement is absolutely vital to stories, but it’s also difficult to understand. You know when it’s missing but hardly notice when it’s there. Stories without movement meander around, never moving forward. You find yourself asking, “Is this going anywhere?”
This feeling is difficult to quantify, and until recently, we only felt around the edges ourselves. A lack of movement is one of the many issues that makes The Name of the Wind feel like slogging through a vat of molasses, especially once we reach the magic school section. Things are happening, some of them even a little exciting, but the story never builds to anything. You could drop in at any random point of Kvothe’s tale and not feel like you missed much.
The reason is that we’re not given any condition to judge when the story will be finished, because we don’t even know what the endpoint is. Kvothe is at magic school, and then what? Theoretically, he has the goal of avenging his parents, but that’s so distant that it doesn’t feel real. Almost none of Kvothe’s scenes or actions have anything to do with revenge. Instead, they’re mostly about how great he is at magic.
Alternatively, some stories have an endpoint, but then the hero either ignores it or has no way to move toward it. In the cosmic horror story Chapelwood, the obvious ending is the defeat of a white supremacist cult, but only some of the characters are actually involved in fighting the cult. Lizzie, the protagonist from the previous book, is just hanging around at home with her cats.* Nothing she does gets us any closer to the end.
So what does a good endpoint look like? Sometimes it’s stamped in big neon letters, like how every character in Game of Thrones is trying to get their butt on a throne made of swords. In other cases, the endpoint is implied. No one in Annihilation ever says that the dramatic question is whether any of them will survive the wilds of Area X, but it’s still easy to pick up on. It’s the point at which readers no longer feel any concern or uncertainty over the story’s outcome. In other words, when all the tension is resolved.
Once you have an endpoint, how do you move the story toward it? The easy answer is for your hero to solve problems that move them closer to ultimate victory, but there’s a trap here: remember that we need to maintain tension too. If the hero is solving problems all over the place, then saving the day will seem easy!
This is where authors have to be really sneaky, moving the characters closer to their final objective while simultaneously making that objective harder to accomplish. The key is that if your story gets closer to a tragic ending, that’s also movement.
In Lord of the Rings, Frodo literally gets closer to the endpoint of Mt. Doom, but as he travels, things get worse and worse for him. He loses his badass fellowship of protectors,* supplies run low, and he increasingly falls under the One Ring’s sway. The positive and negative developments all move the story closer to resolving “will Frodo destroy the ring?”, just in different ways.
For a story that’s more about emotions and relationships than epic hikes through the woods, consider Fruits Basket. As Tohru slowly overcomes Kyo’s prickly nature, the story moves closer to putting them in a romance. If Kyo got prickly again and made Tohru start over, that would be boring because it’s retreading ground we’ve already covered. Instead, the show reveals that Kyo will soon be imprisoned because of a magical curse. This raises tension and also moves the story closer to resolving the Tohru/Kyo relationship, but as a sad ending.
4. Is the Climax Earned?
No doubt you’ve perfectly aced the first three questions. You’ve corralled your various plots until they’re all part of the same setting. Your tension will keep trending upward if it knows what’s good for it. The story is moving along, but what is it moving toward? That’s the climax.
This is the highest point of tension in the story, where we learn if the day will be saved, if the lovebirds will get together, or if the hero will fall to their darker nature. It’s what everything’s been building to, which is why it’s near the end. Despite what some plot diagrams might tell you, putting the climax in the middle of your story would be awful. Once tension starts dropping, the story gets boring fast, which is why you’ve got just enough time for some falling action and epilogue before it’s time to get the heck out of Dodge.
There’s a lot of pressure on the climax, since it tends to be what readers remember about the story. If it flubs, then no one is having a good time, and readers are less likely to pick up more books by the same author. First things first, you need a turning point.
If the hero makes a plan and executes it without a hitch, that’s a dull climax. It’s the same if the hero goes out to face impossible odds and then predictably loses. You need a moment where the hero goes from losing to winning, or from winning to losing if this is a tragedy. Sometimes this moment happens in a straightforward conflict like a sword fight or argument, but it can also be less obvious. If the hero needs to retreat but is struggling against their ingrained training that tells them to stay and fight, that could be a turning point.
Turning points happen throughout the story, because stories are fractal, but the climactic turning point is most important, so it needs to feel earned. We have lists of possible turning points to use, but there are two key factors to consider: It has to be plausible, and it has to be deserved.
A plausible climax is one that feels in line with the story’s internal logic. It’s sometimes called “realistic,” but plenty of stories aren’t at all realistic, and they still need plausible climaxes. If the protagonist wins their big race because their hero-mobile can suddenly go twice as fast as you previously said, that isn’t plausible. If the new intern outdebates a master orator, that probably isn’t plausible either. This is one reason you don’t want the hero’s odds to be completely impossible, as it’s much harder to pull off a plausible win.
When climax feels deserved, it literally means that the hero deserves what happened to them. At Mythcreants, we call this principle character karma. It leaves readers feeling more satisfied than if the hero did everything right and still lost.
For a hero to deserve their win, they must do something worthy. Usually this means being clever, persistent, or selfless. Cleverness is the most straightforward. Your hero figures out a weakness in their enemy or a previously overlooked strategy for surviving a natural disaster. It’s the moment when Katara brings water up through the grating under Azula’s feet in Avatar: The Last Airbender’s finale. Katara had to notice the terrain’s specific qualities and then realize she could use them to defeat a more powerful opponent.
Persistence means pushing through circumstances where most people would give up. It’s often demonstrated by a hero ignoring the pain of an injury to finish their mission, the way Steve Rodgers inserts the helicarrier-destroying virus in Winter Soldier despite being shot. It can also represent characters holding out against desperate odds until help gets there, like Aragorn and friends fighting off Saruman’s army at Helm’s Deep until the Rohirrim arrive.
Selflessness is a little less obvious. The selfless act can sometimes happen in the climax itself, like Luke choosing not to kill Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. But in a lot of cases, the selfless act happens earlier, when the hero helps someone and hasn’t yet been rewarded for it. The reward for their selfless act finally arrives in the form of unexpected help that lets them win the day.
Not being rewarded previously for selfless acts is critical – it’s the difference between satisfying victories and deus ex machinas. In Stranger Things’ first season, Mike and his friends are saved when Eleven uses her psychic powers to destroy the Demogorgon. This is satisfying because of all the work the kids put into helping Eleven earlier in the story: now she’s paying them back. In Avatar, Aang doesn’t do anything to earn or deserve spiritbending powers; a passing lion turtle just gives them to him, making for an unsatisfying conclusion indeed.*
If you’re going for a sad or tragic ending, the hero still needs to earn what happens to them. The same rules apply, but in reverse. The hero might be winning their battle until someone they selfishly wronged shows up to stab them in the back. Or they might commit the sin of underestimating their opponent, showing the reader that yeah, this character deserves what’s coming to them.
5. Is the Plot With the Highest Tension Resolved?
Whew, that was a whole lot about climaxes. With luck, you’ve fixed your climax up so it’s both plausible and earned, perfect to wow readers and have them return for book two. There’s just one more thing to consider: Is it the right climax?
A major source of confusion for authors is what they have to resolve in the exciting finale. For standalone books, you need to figure out which storyline should get the prime spot, and in a series, you need to choose what can be left open for the next book. The way you decide this is by looking at which plot has the highest tension. That’s where to point your spotlight.
But how do you tell which plot has the highest tension? It’s usually a combination of difficulty, urgency, and stakes. Let’s say your story has a few different story lines going on:
- The hero is trying to defeat a demon before it destroys the city.
- The hero has a character arc about not living up to their famous demon-hunter parents.
- The hero is romancing the wizard college’s chief librarian.
- The hero is looking into the shadowy sorcerer who summoned the demon in the first place.
While this could change based on specifics of the story, chances are high that the first entry is the highest tension. It’s got very high stakes because the city might be destroyed. It’s urgent because the demon is trying to destroy the city right now. It’s presumably very difficult because the demon is powerful. As the highest tension arc, the climax and resolution should focus on taking care of this demon problem.
As for #2 and #3, their stakes and urgency are much lower, though their difficulty could be very high depending on how much emotional hardship the author wants to pile on. They could be resolved before the climax, in the falling action, or at the same time that the demon is taken care of, like how Luke learns to trust in the Force at the same time he destroys the Death Star. Alternately, those two could be stretched into the later books, provided they have enough meat to be interesting for that long.
Finally, #4 could actually end up with higher stakes than the demon, but it’s much lower urgency. It would make a good series-length plot, with the hero eventually coming face-to-face with their demon-summoning nemesis in the last book. If this is a standalone novel, then the summoner might die early or be caught in the falling action so long as they’re less dangerous than the demon they brought forth.
If the demon plot isn’t resolved in the finale, readers will feel like they wasted their time. This was built up as the most important problem for the hero to solve, yet it’s still just going on? What was the point of reading the book then? This problem crops up in lots of unpublished manuscripts, as new authors often have trouble figuring out what implicit promises they’ve made to their readers.
That’s not to say the pros never make this mistake. The novel Sky Without Stars has a super-high-tension plot about how the space king is brutally oppressing his subjects, but there’s no mention of it once the book concludes. Instead, the story focuses on its three disjointed POV characters and their largely separate character arcs.* That flops because it’s hard to care about individual arcs when the book’s made such a big deal about people starving in the street.
What if you’re planning for your highest tension storyline to last the whole series? No problem, you just have to break that plot into tangible sections. Going back to our demon story, maybe the demon is a bigger deal than we thought. Maybe slaying it isn’t possible in just one book. In that case, the first book’s climax could be about evacuating the city or creating a magical barrier to keep the demon out. That’s now the highest tension plot of book one, and resolving it allows you to keep the demon itself as a threat for next time.
This dynamic also holds true in stories that focus on character and relationship arcs rather than flashy external conflicts. In those cases, the highest tension storyline is usually the main character’s arc, whether it’s about falling in love or overcoming a fear of dance. If another character has a more compelling arc than your protagonist, that’s a sign you have the wrong protagonist.
Revisions are complex and often difficult, but these questions are a good place to start. They’ll help you diagnose your story’s most serious plot problems on your own, so any content editing you get later can work on less fundamental issues. And if you’ve read this article thinking “no way am I making any of these changes,” that’s also helpful to figure out. In the event that you hire an editor, you’ll already know what’s set in stone rather than trying to figure it out during the edit.
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