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.

A must-listen podcast for novelists

Writing a novel is an incredibly complex task with so many moving parts it’s easy to lose track of them. That’s one reason editing is so important. You can’t—simply can’t, it’s physically and intellectually impossible—get it perfect in a single draft.

Because the task is so complicated, multiple opinions about developing your craft are beneficial. Not every method or technique works for every writer.

Photo by Craig Hauger • freeimages.com

Photo by Craig Hauger • freeimages.com

I recommend the Writing Excuses podcast for novelists at every level because the show’s four hosts each present a unique view on the craft. Continue reading

Your first draft can be awful, as long as it’s finished

The difference between a good novel and a great novel is editing. Before you submit your manuscript for traditional publication, you must edit thoroughly. That goes double if you plan to self-publish.

At the Florida Writers Association’s Mid-Winter Conference West and Reading Festival in Bradenton last week, one of the sessions I taught was called “Elements of Fiction: How to Edit Your Novel Like a Pro.” I can’t encapsulate years of training and experience into a two-hour seminar, or even a bunch of blog posts. But I can give you enough information to give you a competitive edge. Continue reading

Don’t hide the POV character’s identity

One of the most common point of view errors we see in amateur novels is what I call Hidden Identity Syndrome.

This seems to be an attempt on the part of fiction writers to replicate something we see in movies: A nondescript figure walks into a darkened room, rifles the desk or cracks the safe or plants a bomb. Because of the lighting and camera angles you can’t tell who it is. So when the perpetrator is exposed later in the film, it’s a surprise.

We get a lot of manuscripts that start with characters called only he or she, or by some epithet—the Hungarian or the masked man or the accountant. He did something, she went somewhere, the accountant heard something…

But a novel isn’t a movie, so in most cases this is a POV violation. Continue reading

Fiction Q&A: Using italics for character thoughts

Hey Kristen —

Sorry to pester you, but I didn’t know who else to ask. I was going over a critique someone gave me, and they mentioned that top editors teach to never use italics, even with internal thought. Some say never to use italics at all.

question answer

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Here’s my concern. Almost everyone else I’ve run into says italics should be used for internal thoughts that would normally be spoken as words. Continue reading

The difference between your voice and the character’s voice

Voice, like art, is one of those things that, being hard to define, often falls into the category of “I’ll know it when I see it.” It’s a quality that writers strive for and editors look for, precisely because it’s so hard to accomplish.

There are two kinds of voice; authorial voice, which is what writers bring to their overall body of work, and character voice, which is how each individual character sounds to the reader.

One of the great advantages of Deep POV is that, if your characters are well developed, their voices will pervade the narrative. In Deep POV, the main voices one notices are those of the characters. Continue reading

Fiction Q&A: How long is a chapter?

question answer

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Q: Is there a rule of thumb for how long chapters in novels should be?

Also, how should I place chapter breaks? I try to put them in when I’m writing, but then I wind up moving things around and having to renumber them. It’s kind of a pain.

A: Yep, it sure is. That’s why I advise not putting in the chapter breaks until you believe the manuscript is done. I say “believe” because in truth it’s not done until it’s published. Continue reading