Monday, May 19, 2014

Save the cat? Kick the dog? Deciding overall story changes

On the second draft of my current WIP, revisions are proving to be somewhat brutal. I really liked Becky's recent post about revising, and it got me thinking about big picture changes I want to make in my novel.

But where to begin? Some scenes read fine while others need a ton of fixes, and it's difficult to refrain from line edits at this stage. I need to meld together story elements that work, and discard those that don't.

Knowing what to cut and what to keep isn't always clear. In concentrating on overall big picture problems, I've consulted the Periodic Table of Storytelling by James Harris.

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While this is mostly directed at screenwriting, a lot of it can be applied to novels.The table divides elements into overall story structures, settings and plot, story modifiers, plot devices, etc. It even includes character archetypes and villains. It's tons of fun to play with.

Lots of us have probably heard the phrase "Save the Cat."(On her blog, Janice Hardy has used it to discuss overall plotting.) While not included on the Periodic Table itself, I found this page that discuses "Save the Cat" on, where the table derives a lot of its material.

"Save the Cat" didn't truly sink in for me until my fiction workshop last semester, when I discovered my main character didn't show a lot of empathy. This made it harder for readers to get invested in her story, so I found opportunities where she could feel sorry for others. Sometimes the "saving" part doesn't have to be literal.

There's also  "Kick the dog," a useful tool for fleshing out villains. Since we all know villains need to be three-dimensional, there's also "Pet the dog" (acts of kindness) and "Adopt the dog" (a shift from evil to good).

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And there are other ways. I determined one of my villains is what's known as "The Chessmaster." He's using my protagonist as his pawn to accomplish what he wants...and when she figures this out later in the story, it allows her an opportunity to turn the tables on him.

Finally, the table includes "story molecules" (the circles at the bottom), which show how some story elements can fit together. Examples include well-known stories like Star Wars and Firefly (also demonstrating what's been overly done and how you can make your story different). In studying the table today, I've already figured out how to add more emotional depth in one scene and heighten the tension in another. And I hope, when I'm done with this pass through, the scenes gel together a little more cohesively. 

For those wanting an even simpler analysis of overall plot structure, we can always count on Kurt Vonnegut

 So: when revising, what methods do you use to fix big picture issues and link events together in a significant way? What overall story elements stand out to you in your current WIP?


Jennifer Jensen said...

I love the Kurt Vonnegut story arcs, but I'd never heard of the Periodic Table of Storytelling and TV Tropes. What a site to get lost in! Lots of wonderful ideas for shaking up my stories - thanks!

Karen McCoy said...

Sure thing!