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.

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

Elements of Fiction handout

I had a great group at the Mandel Public Library of West Palm Beach today for the Edit Like A Pro: Elements of Fiction workshop. I brought 20 handouts and ran out, so I guess I had about 30 eager writers there. So for those who didn’t get a handout, here’s a copy:

Elements of Fiction handout

Regular readers will recognize that the Elements of Fiction checklist is the foundation of this handout. I am working on an e-book version of the Elements of Fiction series, so I’ll make you the same offer I made the folks in the seminar. If you’d like to be a beta reader* for that book when it’s ready, please e-mail me, and I’ll add you to the list. I hope to have it ready for you to preview by the beginning of summer.

* At another event last month, someone asked what exactly a beta reader is. To be a beta reader just means you read the book as any other reader would and then offer feedback.

Know when to stop editing

We’ve made our way through the whole Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist. Now there are two vastly different errors writers can fall into.

The first is thinking you’re done. If you are working on your first—or even second or third—novel, one or even two passes through your manuscript will not be enough. Let the book lay fallow for a couple of weeks or even a month, while you start writing something new. Then give it another read-through. Look at each category of the checklist and ask whether you’ve really done each element as well as you possibly can. Then make another pass.

The second error is making an infinite number of editing passes, so your manuscript is never finished. The pursuit of perfection is unending. At some point, to borrow an expression from Seth Godin, you just have to decide it’s good enough to ship. Usually that’s the point at which you’re just making things different instead of better. Continue reading

In writing, style isn’t about your clothes

Style is one of those words that has too many meanings to keep track of. I once narrowly avoided attending a conference workshop on “personal style” when I found out that it was actually about clothing and makeup and such. Style as part of your appearance and branding.

I had thought it would be about developing one’s personal writing style, which we often refer to as voice.

Yet another type of style—and this is what I actually want to cover today—is the kind of style we are talking about when we refer to The Chicago Manual of Style, The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, or the Associated Press Stylebook. Continue reading

Yes, spelling counts in novels also

You may write the most brilliant story with the most sympathetic characters, but if your manuscript is full of spelling errors and typos, you will struggle to find readers.

Spelling is correct.

English spelling is notoriously difficult. It is rarely phonetic, as Spanish is, and is not consistent, as French is. Honestly, the only way those kids who win the spelling bees do it is by memorizing. If you’re not entering a spelling bee, just use a good dictionary. The folks at The Chicago Manual of Style recommend Merriam-Webster’s. The abridged version is free, and will serve most of your needs. An unabridged version is available by subscription if you think it necessary.

A less authoritative but still fun source is OneLook, which searches over a thousand dictionaries. It’s useful for highly specialized terms and slang that hasn’t made it into traditional dictionaries yet. Continue reading

Beware the nonrules

Last time I noted that there are lots of misconceptions about what constitutes “grammar.” There are also lots of misconceptions about what constitutes “rules” of writing.

Adverbs modify verbs is a rule. Don’t use adverbs is a nonrule. You may use adverbs, as long as you do so judiciously.

split infinitives

Black Chalkboard illustration by jaylopez • freeimages.com

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