Revision: Doing a Part-Whole Analysis of Your Story
Paul Alan Fahey

In 1789, Ben Franklin wrote, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” If you’re a writer, you must add the word, “revision” to the list. “Writing IS revision.” I can’t recall who first said this, but as writers we know it to be a truism of the writing craft. There are many ways to tackle revision, but I’d like to suggest one that has worked for me. Usually, I push myself to complete the first draft and then refine what I have through two or three subsequent drafts. What I present here could occur anywhere after the first, second or third draft. So feel free to jump in and try this technique whenever or wherever it seems reasonable.

My head’s mainly a jumble from reading articles and books on writing, so before I begin, I should give credit to three sources I’m sure I’ve plagiarized in the process. My thanks to the wonderful literary mystery writer, Elizabeth George, and to her helpful text, Write Away: On Novelist’s Approach to Fiction. Many thanks as well to another Elizabeth (Lyon) and her insightful guide, Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore. And lastly, my appreciation goes to Syd Field who introduced me to the three act, two-plot point paradigm, in his terrific screenwriting text, Screenplay.

I. Your Logline Can Be Your Lifeline

First I refer back to the logline of my story. A logline is a short summary of your story in three to four sentences. For examples of loglines, take a look at the capsule movie descriptions in any newspaper. Most descriptions, excluding title, are brief and about 25-30 words. I like to make mine a bit longer and include the story’s time, place, main character and story situation. Here’s an example of one of my loglines from a short story forthcoming in African American Review next year:

“The Monarch Across the Street”

In 1970, HRH Haile Selassie blackmails Philip Noland, an American teacher, into helping him safeguard the Ark of the Covenant resting inside Old St. Mary’s Church in Axum. What Philip discovers on his journey threatens to bring the monarchy crashing down.

Well, it’s not the best, but you get the idea. I write the logline on a 3 X 5 card and keep it in front of me while I revise.

II. Examining the Parts: A Scene-by-Scene Review

Next, I print out the most recent draft and review the story, one scene at a time. While I’m reading, I make minor revisions. For example, using a red pen, I might underline names, places, dates, etc. that must be checked for accuracy. With a black or blue pen, I correct typos, strengthen nouns and verbs and delete extraneous or clumsy wording. When I’m finished with a scene, I ask a few questions: Is this scene necessary to the story? Does the scene contribute to the whole? (Now’s the time to refer to your logline.) Does the scene add tension or conflict or develop character? In other words, does the scene move the story forward? If not, should I delete the scene? Add the information from the scene, if critical, to another scene as dialogue, narrative, etc.?

After I finish reviewing a scene, I write a short summary of it—two to four sentences. (Visual writers can actually SEE the arc of their stories by glancing at these scene summaries.) You can put them on cards or list them one after the other on lined paper. When you’re done summarizing all the scenes, you’ll have an annotated outline of your story. Here’s an example of a scene summary from a story of mine in process:

Scene #4. Elwira hears what she thinks is good news on the wireless. Pius XII is planning a peace conference to stop German aggression. More information here on Rebecca by DuMaurier and Elwira’s identification with the book’s heroine. She hears German chorus singing, “Wir Fahren Gegen England,” and snaps off the wireless with great force that sends the tuning knob flying across the room.

 **Again, it’s not Shakespeare, but no one, hopefully, will ever see your notes. Well, not unless you become terribly famous like Hemingway or Jacqueline Susann, and then, of course, all bets are off.

III. Looking at the Whole Story

Once you’ve completed the summary of scenes, asked the important questions, and decided that what you have in the draft stays in the story, it’s time to have a look at the overall story structure. For this step, I like to use Syd Field’s three-act paradigm. (For more information, please see a previous Fiction Fix article in the archives: “Lights, Camera Flash,” November 2008.) Field’s paradigm consists of three acts and two major turning points called plot points that hold the structure in place. Act I, or the set-up, presents the major characters, the dramatic premise of the story and the surrounding circumstances. Plot Point I, or the first major turning point, happens near the end of Act I, spins the action in another direction and propels the characters into Act II. In Act II, or confrontation, the characters face obstacle after obstacle as they struggle to achieve their goals. Plot Point 2 occurs near the end of Act II and leads directly to Act III’s dramatic climax and resolution.

As you read over your Summary, try to pinpoint Act I scenes. Ask yourself: Which scenes belong to the story’s set up? Where is the first turning point? Then identify Act II scenes. Watch the story arc curve upward as the character(s) meet obstacle after obstacle culminating in the second major turning point that ends the act and begins the final one. Which scenes make up Act III? Can you pinpoint the climax? Can you see the highest point of tension in your story arc? Does the action subside and shift downward to a satisfying resolution?

I’ve heard many writers complain about the drudgery of revision, and I must admit I’ve often felt the same. Yet, trying new techniques is one way to increase your motivation (and skill at the craft) and help you move swiftly through the revision process. Hopefully, these techniques or modifications thereof will work for you.

Please let me know one way or the other: [email protected]

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About the Writer:

Paul Alan Fahey is a California Central Coast writer. His work has appeared recently in Byline, New Times, audience, Crimson Highway, Boston Literary Magazine and in the Cup of Comfort Anthology for Single Mothers. He is a five time recipient of the annual "Lillian Dean Award" at the Central Coast Writer's Conference. Paul has just completed two screenplays and three short stories using Syd Field's three-act paradigm as a guide for structure. He lives in Nipomo, California with his partner, Bob, and three loveable yet very unruly shelties.