22 Revision Prompts: Teaching Revision Part 4
What prompts do you use to teach revision? I’m a little over halfway through the revision workshop I’m teaching this summer, and here are 22 exercises I’ve given (as options) so far. Some are diagnostic. Some are more traditional prompts that require writing to a directive. *They’re not in order of when I assigned them.
Make a list of all the decisions your protagonist makes, every single one. Now change the order of the decisions your protagonist makes so that they follow a causal chain. Rearrange your story to reflect this new list of decisions. Cut at least one decision and, if this applies, the corresponding scene. Now restructure the story again. Many stories are not ultimately in complete chronological order. The *plot* should still be the same causal chain, but the story might utilize flashbacks, memories, flash forwards, imagined scenes, etc.
Start by asking yourself the following questions1. What is the story about?2. What is the central conflict?3. What are the stakes?4. What does the protagonist want?5. How does the character change or fail to change?6. Where are the gaps where something could be added? What is missing?7. What is extraneous?
(I handed out paper split into three columns.)
Each column represents a page of your story. Draw lines across each column where the story has a natural break. You have to decide for yourself where these breaks may be. Many might be space breaks in the story, but also maybe breaks between characters, between timelines, between narrative summary and scene, etc. Then–in each individual section you’ve created:
1. Write down any action that happens in that section.2. Write down what each section is “doing” for the story. What is its purpose(s)? To raise the stakes? To complicate a relationship? To move the plot? Etc.
3. Write down any themes that show up in each section.
4. Shade the sections that happen in the past.
5. Note any characters who show up.6. Note any settings.7. Write down any desires that show up and the conflicts that get in the way of those desires.
Rearrange your story so only two “sections” you identified are in the same place. Every other section should be moved. If that means you have to add or delete scenes, please do so. Do whatever you need to do to make your story work again.
Look for any place you can add characterization. Just read through and put an asterisk or make a mark where you could add anything at all to characterize. After you’ve done that, go back and add characterization at every single point. Think about characterizing in all of the ways we discussed in class, but especially through decision and action. Your additional characterization should make your story much longer. You probably have too much characterization now. Cut at least half of what you’ve added.
Wherever a new character enters a story, write an extended introduction for that character, including what they look like, how they are dressed, what objects are associated with them, any identifying marks, any identifying habits or gestures, their way of seeing things, their attitude toward the world, their age, their ethnicity, their occupation, their family relationships and history, their relationship to the protagonist, the narrator’s or protagonist’s or even any other character’s opinion of them, their desires, their problems, their faults, etc. Also include at least one paragraph of backstory for each character in that introduction. What do you know about their pasts, how they’ve come to be who they are now?
Once you’ve done all of this, cut what you don’t need or move it elsewhere in the story and keep what you need. Keep what “gets the character in.” Is it that she’s the kind of person who stays up until everyone has gone to bed and waits for the neighborhood stray to poke its head into her yard, but never goes out to talk to it or pet it, just looks at it longingly? Etc.
Skip forward in time at least ten years and write at least one more scene into your story in which the protagonist sees the dramatic consequences of a decision s/he made earlier.
Add a source of outside conflict to your story. That is, add something big that comes in and forces itself on the plot, something like a toxic spill or an earthquake or a war or a rabid dog or a serial killer or a rapture. Don’t make this a small insertion but something that truly changes the story. You might think about what large outside conflict might connect to your character’s arc thematically, if that helps.
Underline all of the “missed opportunities” in your story. Or, better yet, have a friend or your writing partner do this for you. Add as much as you can for every single missed opportunity. Now cut at least half of what you’ve added. Rearrange the story and do whatever you need to do to make the story work again.
Identify the “symbolic action” in each scene–what does the protagonist do that represents her/his change from where/who s/he was at the beginning of the scene (even if this change is slight), and which changes the situation (even if this change is slight). Add symbolic action where you are missing it. Try to get the most significant symbolic action for your protagonist close to the end of the scene.
Highlight everything in your story that is backstory. Take a look now and see what the balance between past and present looks like. For each piece of backstory, try to identify whether it is absolutely necessary. Then ask yourself where it is absolutely necessary–for one, ask yourself where it would put the most pressure on the present story. Remember that the past slows the story down by its nature–so it should be used to increase urgency in that particular present time. If you have a character encountering her mother on page 15, you don’t need the backstory about the mother that makes that encounter harrowing on page 3. The present and past need to work together in the right place, so that there’s a clear reason we go into the past when we do and a clear reason to go back to the present. What are those reasons?
Now delete as much as you can (that isn’t necessary). Try to put as much of the necessary backstory as you can into the present instead. Think about what information is being conveyed. Can you put the backstory in dialogue? Can you get the same information across through action? Attitude? Implication? If we need to know that the protagonist has a bad relationship with her mother, do we need backstory about that relationship? Or can we see this dramatized in the present scene and understand their dynamic without backstory? Is it about the change between the past or the present, or is it about the change that is going to happen in the present?
Utilize objects in your story. Try to get objects into each scene. Try to associate each character with an object. Make objects that appear earlier in your story reappear later, either in their same form or transformed. How does your character interact with those objects differently the second (or third) time versus the first? Leave some objects, cut the ones that don’t seem to add anything. Make sure at least one object “tracks” through the story, appearing at multiple points and signaling change either through how the characters interact with it, or how they feel about it, or what it looks like, how it has changed, etc.
Kill off one character or more. Or simply delete one character or more. Or fuse two characters or more together to make a single character. How does the story change? If you need another character again, make up a new one instead of returning to a character you cut.
Consolidate your settings. Try to cut out as many settings as you can, to get the story down to 1-3 settings total. Make sure the setting has an effect on the story and is not just a place to set it.
If your story is in first-person, write a scene from the narrator’s point of telling. Narrators are always telling a story from a future point, even in present tense (an implied future point just after the action or a future point far later). What is your narrator doing with her life when she is telling this story? Where is she? Who is she now? What does she know at that future point that is different from the present of the story’s action? Make sure this is a scene, dramatized, not just narrative summary. You may need to bring in another character.
Start by underlining (or however you want to do it) anything that moves the character arc/inside story forward (thoughts, emotions, etc.). Then over-line (draw a line over the top of, or highlight or however you want to do it) anything that moves the outside story/plot forward. Look for places inside and outside story overlap. Look for places where the inside story could be heightened and add things there about the character arc. Look for places where there could be more action/outside story and add some external action.
Most of all: look for places where the inside story affects or should affect and does not yet affect the outside story (emotions that lead to action or so forth) and places where the outside story affects or should affect and does not yet affect the inside story (action leads to emotion or so forth). Now try to create causation between the two–inside and outside story–so that they are intricately linked.
Make sure both inside and outside story create an arc. Make sure both inside story and outside story have a beginning, middle, and end.
You might try to add a foil or mirror character (someone in the story who is the opposite or mirror of your protagonist), or at least identify and utilize those potential characters in your current draft, and see how your protagonist feels about and interacts with that character, how that foil/mirror changes or doesn’t change, etc.
Write past your ending. Write one or two or more scenes after the end of your story. Even if these scenes don’t make it into the final version, they will help inform the final version. What happens after the end of your story? And don’t stop there: now write about what the consequences are of what happens after the end of your story.
Add a scene with a character who arrives for only that one scene and interacts with your protagonist (a character from the world outside the story–an example would be a prank phone call or an old friend coming to town).
Write one anchor scene with all of your main characters in the same room, maybe even talking. What is the setting, how do they interact with each other, how do they relate to each other, etc? Introduce everyone within one scene and then work off of that scene. Maybe you already have that scene and you reorganize your story to center it, or maybe you add that scene.
Get closer in psychic distance (go further into your protagonist’s head) or make a switch in POV–for a scene or two or even for the entire story.
Add a scene to reveal more about a minor character(s). What is the minor character doing while the rest of the story is going on? How do those actions or action affect what the protagonist must do or decide?
Add a scene that changes the context in which we know the characters–maybe they go on a trip, or maybe they are always together but now we see them apart, or maybe someone important to them comes to visit and they have to be on their best behavior, etc.