7 More Revision Prompts: Teaching Revision Part 5
This is a continuation of my posts on teaching revision. Earlier posts can be found here and here and here. The first 22 revision prompts are here. If you’d like to contribute a guest post or response, please contact me at m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc.].
I finally wrapped up my revision course and thought I would add the rest of the prompts I gave my class. Many of them are about plot, since that ended up being a focus for a few of the later workshop stories.
Make a list of all of the plot points in your story. These are actions or decisions (sometimes through entire scenes) that move the plot forward–that cause other things to happen. The plot I am referring to is the chain of causation in your story. Box or underline the plot points that are a change from things your character might have done before the start of this plot or routinely. In other words, reasons why you’re telling the story NOW, the story of this day/event(s). This is generally an important component of plot (raison d’être).
You might think of the basic fairy tale structure:
Once upon a time
Happily ever after
I’ve underlined the plot points unique to the NOW of the story. This fairy tale structure sets up the character and setting and routine, then has something break that routine that sets off a plot full of action that has never happened before. Many plots work like this, because what happened before is the status quo, and plot is about what breaks the status quo forever (and institutes a new, better or worse status quo).
Once you’ve done that, reorder or rearrange (maybe rethink what’s backstory and what’s present story) your story so that it follows the fairy tale format, generally, where once we get into “one day”–into the changes–the rest of the story is new action up to or until the very end.
Add and/or explain causation between the different plot points in your story. Especially: how does the past cause the present action? If the past had not occurred, would the present action be different? That should be the case. That is, the protagonist’s past–if that backstory is included–should affect how s/he acts in the present. Ask why everything happens. Write this into the story. Later you can take out what you don’t need.
Go through your story and underline anything abstract, such as ideas, emotions, vague bits, etc. Now go back and try to replace everything you’ve underlined with a more concrete way of expressing the same thing. For example: “Susie missed her boyfriend” might become “Susie climbed up onto her roof with her binoculars and looked out at the spot where she had had her first kiss with her boyfriend, in the old tree house.” Or, you know, something much better than that. If you absolutely *need* to keep the abstraction, add something concrete before it. For example the sentence about the tree house, followed by a sentence about how any happiness to her is the blush of first love–or, obviously something better than that.
List all of the context in your story. Now separate the context into “general context” and “dramatic context.” I’m stealing these terms from Robert Boswell: general context being the context for the story in general (setting, age, time period, etc) and dramatic context being the context that makes an action more dramatic (usually: personal to the character and the character’s desires, stakes, arc, and so forth). Boswell uses the examples of two people playing “Seven Minutes of Heaven” and a woman seeing another woman in the same hat. The first doesn’t require too much dramatic context to make it dramatic, since a kiss between two strangers has its own drama, but the second requires a lot of dramatic context to make it matter. Or here’s another example: You might imagine running into two different people from high school. The general context is more or less the same. But one might be an ex-boyfriend and one might be someone you barely knew. That dramatic context would make the first likely the more dramatic scene.
After you’ve made your list, figure out where best to put all that context. Think, esp., about what the dramatic context is making more dramatic and think about putting the dramatic context near the thing it is context for, and not too early or too late. How much general context do we need to feel situated and how much is too much (boring)?
Underline anything in your story that is in the past. This might be parts of a sentence or entire scenes (flashbacks). Now cut your story up, page by page, with scissors, so that you’ve cut out everything that was in the past. Tape the pages to the wall one by one. For each page, tape what is present on the top and what is past on the bottom. Now make sure you’re putting the past where it’s really necessary to the present, and make sure your sentences need to go into the past where they do. For example, with a sentence like: “The fishermen had just finished dragging in their nets and were going to get a drink,” can it be: “The fisherman finished dragging in their nets and went for a drink?” More action in the present of the story, even on that small a level, makes the story feel more active. Rewrite/rearrange/cut.
Write a frame for your story–imagine a time from which all of your story becomes important backstory that determines a change or fail to change in the frame of a new present. (Not always how a frame works, but an easy way to think about one.) For example: A woman is on her way to see her estranged child when she stops for lunch and talks to a young woman who is lost. Now we get all of the story of how mother/child came to be estranged. Then we return to the frame and the decision for the woman of what to do about going to see her child or helping this young woman who is lost or what.
An alternate way to think about plot (call it the What would Alice Munro do? method): Identify all of the scenes and potential scenes in your story. Now identify the arc, both the story arc (rising and, if applicable, falling action) and the character arc (how does the character change or fail to change?). What do these arcs suggest that the story is “about?”
Now go back to the list of scenes: which scenes are necessary to the story arc? Which scenes are necessary to the character arc and make clear what the story is “about”? Here’s where Alice Munro comes in: Imagine a new scene (or identify an existing or potential scene from your list) in which the causation that makes up the story arc becomes clear. In some/many Munro stories, the plot is still a plot of causation, but instead of the story being propelled forward by wondering what the character will cause to happen next, the story is propelled forward by wondering how what happens is connected to what happened before. In other words, the plot’s causation isn’t clear until the story jumps forward or backward to the point in time at which the causation becomes clear to the character. Now we see how the story had a plot after all–the character arc reveals the story arc, rather than the other way around.
Better yet let me try to use an example. I’ll make up a simple one here. Say we have a scene where a young girl witnesses her father killing a stray cat. Then we have a scene where the girl is a married woman and her husband refuses to let them take in a stray cat. Finally we have a scene where the girl is divorced and is out with her daughter, who is engaged to a boy with a cat. In the third scene, the mother comes to realize that the various scenes have led to each other, though they seemed discrete and separate events at the time. Surely her father killing a stray cat didn’t lead to her husband refusing to take in a stray cat, which didn’t lead to her daughter getting engaged to a boy with a cat. But–the mother now sees as she dines with her daughter–the attitudes toward a cat are both what drew her to her husband and made her divorce him, and perhaps also what draw her daughter to the boy, on some deep level. It might not even be so to the girl, but the mother realizes that these events are how she has framed the boy, why she likes and approves of him, and why she hopes her daughter will not make her own mistakes.
The above could be a kind of Alice Munro “plot.” Though of course a stupid example.
Alternatively, someone like, say, Charles Dickens might link these events more directly. The cat might be a neighborhood cat, and the father killing the stray cat might lead to the girl secretly feeding stray cats, which end up breeding the cat the husband later refuses to take in. That may be the exact moment then when the girl, now a woman, divorces the husband, and why she eventually pushes her daughter to judge a man by his attitude toward cats. This all makes the action much more directly causally linked.
Try to identify whether your story might follow one of these models. Perhaps it is something different. The “Charles Dickens” model is what we usually think of as a plot of causation and is probably a type of story you’re pretty familiar with. In the example above, it’s basically the fairy tale model. For now try to work your scenes into the Munro model. What does that do for your story?