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.

Maintaining Truth in Narrative Nonfiction

A special challenge of narrative nonfiction is deciding how closely you want to stick to the truth. Do you want to be fully dedicated to it, come what may? Or do you want to soften some blows, change some names to protect the guilty? Maybe you feel a little creative exaggeration will make for a more engaging story.

There is a very real danger in drifting from the truth when you write your story as narrative nonfiction. Remember that the difference between narrative nonfiction and other types is that narrative uses fiction techniques to tell a true story. That does imply that the story is still true.

true story

Illustration © neirfy • Fotolia

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Populate Your Book with Engaging People

We’ve talked about what sort of nonfiction you may be writing and why it’s important to use stories to make your point. Now we’re ready to dig into the Nonfiction Checklist. The first category, Personality, is equivalent to Character in fiction.

The type of nonfiction you’re writing will determine whether you need to include characters or not. In most nonfiction genres, character development is not critical. If you’re just mentioning someone in an anecdote or case study, we only need to know enough about them to supply context for the illustration. Continue reading