Use Storybreaking to Edit Your Novel

One of the hardest things about editing your book is keeping all of the information straight and in the right order. That’s one reason I advocate for outlining. A plain outline doesn’t suit everyone during the drafting process, but once we reach the editing phase, having a visual depiction of the story will help us edit more efficiently.

One technique that’s not often taught to novel writers is storybreaking, which is a screenwriting technique. Screenwriter Vik Rubenfeld calls storybreaking “The Most Important Hollywood Writing Technique You’ve Never Heard Of.”

When Rubenfeld wrote his article, he expressed surprise that more writers don’t know this technique. He linked to this interview with Vince Gilligan, a screenwriter for The X-Files and one of the creators of Breaking Bad.


If you click through to Rubenfeld’s article, he has a transcript of Gilligan’s comments.

Storybreaking involves identifying each turning point within a narrative. This ensures that we hit all the points we need to and omit those that are not moving the story forward. In Hollywood, this is done at the creation stage, but we can also use it during our editing.

The key point Gilligan makes is that each plot beat the writers identify is indispensable to the scene. He explains that they might spend a week or two on this process for each episode, which might only be a 45-page screenplay. So you might not want to use this technique for an entire book. But if on reading through your first draft you identify weak scenes, storybreaking can be useful for working out what those scenes need to make them indispensable.

Storybreaking can be used in two directions. First, you can use it to figure out, from where the hero is now, what happens next? How does he get from Point A to Point B? Second, you can use it to reverse-engineer the desired ending. If he finishes at Point Z, what were Points Y and X?

Storybreaking can also be used to fill in gaps in a narrative that moves too fast or that loses readers because important information has been skipped over. For example, you might have a first draft in which the hero uses a rocket-propelled grenade to destroy the villain’s private jet. That’s a spectacular climax, but if you haven’t shown how the hero gets access to an RPG, storybreaking can help you figure out how to plant everything that’s needed for your climax.

When to Reject Your Editor

Last time I mentioned that when working in Track Changes with an editor, you should accept most, if not all, of the editor’s changes. It should go without saying, but listen to what your editor has to say.

Yes, there are bad editors who will try to impose their voice and vision over your own. And some editors have a tin ear—a writer at a conference once told me her copyeditor had replaced every gonna and coulda with going to and could have. When faced with those kinds of changes, reject away, kiddo.

At a conference last year, I heard Orson Scott Card say he had once received a manuscript back from a copyeditor who was apparently unfamiliar with science fiction and had therefore made hundreds of changes that ruined his story. The damage was so severe that he sent a copy of his original back to the acquiring editor and demanded a new copyeditor, because the first had fouled up the manuscript so badly that the job had to be started over.

Bad editing does happen. If you don’t trust your editor to give you good advice, then you need a new editor.

editor rejection

Illustration © tumsasedgars • Fotolia

But most editors I know—and I know a lot of editors specializing in multiple topic areas—have your best interests and those of your readers in mind. They will only make changes that make your text more clear and readable. So keep an open heart and mind as you review your editor’s changes to your manuscript. Those changes are most likely there not for the editor’s self-aggrandizement, but so you can deliver a better book to your readers.

Too often editors encounter writers who refuse to make recommended changes. In one recent case, a colleague asked how to handle a client whose narrative was disjointed but who refused the editor’s advice for restructuring the plot on the grounds that beta readers had not seen any such problems.

We acknowledged that the story belongs to the author, who therefore bears final responsibility for the quality of the finished product. We can’t force the writer to make changes.

But if you are paying an editor to advise you and then you reject the advice, what are you paying for?

Beta readers, while very helpful, are not trained editors, so they can miss things editors will see. Also, a beta reader may feel that something in the manuscript is lacking, but they will not have the knowledge to figure out what it is or why is a problem. They may not have the vocabulary to describe the problem in a meaningful way. So they won’t bring it up at all, since they can’t explain themselves.

When your editor suggests a well-reasoned change, consider it carefully, at least a little while. Play out in your mind the ramifications of that change. You may decide that implementing the suggestion would change your story or its presentation in ways that are not acceptable to you. If you can articulate to your editor a compelling reason why you’ve chosen to refuse a particular suggestion, that’s fine.

For example, my client Shirin Humzani, in her book The Education of Amal, chose not to say where the story was set. When I recommended she specify at least a region, if not a city, she explained that she wanted the story to appeal to people from either eastern Pakistan or western India. So she deliberately left the setting vague. That was a valid reason for making her artistic choice.

But the writer who rejected her editor’s restructuring advice is refusing professional guidance in favor of amateur opinion. The most likely explanation for such a refusal is that the author is not willing to do the hard work of restructuring, so instead of following her editor’s recommendation, she is falling back on her beta readers to rationalize her decision.

When you’re deciding whether to reject an editor’s advice, your primary consideration should not be how the choice will affect your workload or your ego. Your primary consideration should be what will produce a book that will be most engaging for readers.

 

Disclosure of Material Connection: The Amazon link above is an affiliate link. This means if you click on the link and purchase Shirin’s book, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Orlando: Editing Workshop

April 16 • 9 a.m.–4 p.m.

I’ll be teaching a full-day workshop hosted by the Central Florida chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers. I’m calling it “Systematic Editing,” but it’s based on my Edit Like a Pro: Elements of Fiction series. I’ll walk attendees through the rigorous process professional editors use to evaluate and edit novels. We’ll look at 10 elements of fiction: Continue reading

How to Know When You’re Done Editing

As I noted when talking about editing a novel, writers often fall into an endless editing trap. You could go over your manuscript an infinite number of times and still find things to improve—or at least change.

A client and I once made two rounds of edits on his book. If he had asked for a third round, I would have had this talk with him, but he beat me to it. “How many times could we go back and forth like this?”

I said, “We have reached the point of diminishing returns.” He’s a finance guy, so he understood my meaning. There comes a time when further editing doesn’t produce a better book, it just produces a different book. Continue reading

Identifying the Passive Voice

I’ve written before about When Passive Voice is Permissible. Strunk and White admit that “Use the active voice … does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

active passive voice

Illustration by kikkerdirk • Fotolia

 

But one of the biggest problems writers face in critique groups is the problem of partners who flag passages as “passive” when they’re really not. Often verbs of being (be, is, was) are flagged as “incorrect” or “passive.” They are not. They are not particularly strong verbs, but they are not passive in and of themselves. Continue reading

What Beta Readers Are and Why You Want Them

Once you have worked your way through the Elements of Nonfiction Editing Checklist, taking as many passes as needed to address the Personality, Presentation, Voice, Information, and Mechanics of your book, what next?

The first thing many writers do is run their manuscript past some beta readers or critique partners. Maybe both. These are two different things, so let me explain. Continue reading

When To Outsource Your Grammar

When we talk about the mechanics of a manuscript, we are ultimately talking about details: grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the like. Style is also a component of mechanics, as is manuscript format.

But remember that when I introduced the Elements of Nonfiction Editing Checklist I said it was in order of importance. There’s a reason Mechanics is the last category on the list. It’s the least important.

Which isn’t to say that it’s unimportant. Continue reading