Self-Editing Series Part #1: Plot and Structure

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Hard truth time: If you are a writer, mistakes and editing are inevitable.

Over the course of typing that sentence, I had to correct several typos. Typos happen. Grammar errors happen. We spot them, we clean them up, we move on with life, right?

Thing is, sometimes the mistakes go deeper than that. You’re reading a nice book, and you get to a point where something isn’t right. You can feel it. The plot is inconsistent or incoherent. The character development lacks development. The tension is all wrong, the dialogue is weird, the words don’t flow. Something is off.

You go to check the author, and your stomach sinks. That author? It’s you. And you proceed to scream into the void in frustration.

Been there? Yeah, you have, haven’t you?

One of the greatest things about writing, though, is it’s malleable. You have a problem? You can fix it. Cool, huh?

In this three-part series, I’ll be talking to you about mastering the art of self-editing. I’ll help you find those tricky trouble spots that are a bit less obvious. We’re not looking for your garden variety “he herd a wierd sound” or “I don’t rite good,” or any of the many real stinkers of my own that I’ve shoved out of my memory.

(Sadly, I can’t seem to forget the time I had a guy take off his pants not once, not twice, but three times in one scene. He did not have enough legs for that.

Me too? Yeah, me too.)

This isn’t proofreading—this comes way before proofreading—but don’t be scared. Together, we can do this.

Mastering the Art of Self-Editing: The Self-Editing Series

In the world of fiction writing, the power of self-editing is immense.

Power? You like power, right?

Self-editing is the bridge between a rough draft and a polished masterpiece. It is the key to capturing readers’ hearts and minds. It allows you to refine your beloved manuscript until you can give your reader a coherent, clear, and seamless reading experience.

Along with the creative benefits, self-editing is the key to optimizing the less-fun parts of your writing journey: time and money. By honing your self-editing skills, you can reduce the time spent on round after round after round of professional editing. This can save you from the financial burden of extensive revisions from professional editors.

And, if you’re anything like I am, you’ll also like sparing yourself the embarrassment of someone else seeing your manuscript in its ratty old jammies instead of its more presentable duds.

The art of self-editing empowers you to take control of your manuscript and ensures that you present your best possible work to the world.

To aid you on your self-editing quest, here is the essential self-editing checklist. This guide will show you key elements that fiction writers must consider during the editing process. With it, you will learn how to give your own writing depth and keep your readers captivated.

From plot consistency and character development to dialogue refinement and pacing adjustments, this checklist will serve as your roadmap for a compelling and polished manuscript.

I know self-editing sounds hard. I know it sounds scary. But it’s good—I promise. So, please, let’s grab my essential self-editing checklist and harness the power of self-editing together.

There are three major areas to focus on during the self-editing process:

  1. Plot and Structure
  2. Character Development and Depth
  3. Dialogue and Pacing

Now, the Checklist

Plot and Structure

  • Identify plot holes
  • Strengthen story structure
  • Ensure smooth transitions

Character Development and Depth

  • Assess character motivation and arcs
  • Enhance character descriptions and dialogue
  • Create multi-dimensional and relatable characters

Dialogue and Pacing

  • Ensure natural and engaging dialogue
  • Adjust pacing for tension and flow
  • Balance dialogue with narrative elements

Presenting a Strong Manuscript for Professional Editing

  • Enhance the editing process through a solid foundation
  • Save time and money by addressing major issues

Sound good? Good. Now, let’s jump into this topic together, starting with:

Self-Editing for Plot and Structure

One of the most important tasks when writing fiction is the construction of a coherent, consistent, structurally sound plot. A well-crafted plot not only captivates readers but also keeps them engaged from beginning to end. Awesome, huh?

As you embark on your journey of self-editing, pay special attention to your story’s plot and structure. Ensure that your story flows, with each event and character interaction contributing to the larger narrative.

By reviewing and refining your plot, you will lay a solid foundation that strengthens the impact of your writing. With me as your guide, you can assess and enhance your plot’s consistency, breathing life into your story and delivering it to new heights with your self-editing.

Take note of the following:

Plot Holes

We’ve all been going along, merrily reading or watching something, and then our joy comes to a screeching halt. Something is wrong! Oh no! It’s a plot hole! An action or a detail has yanked us out of the plot because it’s inconsistent with what we know to be true about the story or its world.

These inconsistencies, usually called plot holes, may be:

  • Factual errors
  • Impossible happenings
  • Out-of-character characters
  • Problems with continuity
  • Plot lines that remain unresolved
  • Other sorts of issues

When they pop up, they leave your reader unsatisfied and frustrated.

Here are some holes to look out for:

  • Deviations from your plot’s established trajectory: When you did your outline, or as you went along, you developed a trajectory that your story would logically follow. These deviations come when you shift away from that path and go in an unexpected direction without the proper buildup.

    Does this mean that all surprise plot twists are bad? No, of course not! But readers like it when they’re wowed in the right way. They like foreshadowing. They like when they can go back and look at the pieces and go, “Holy shit, of course!”

    Likewise, they’re not happy when they don’t get the expected payoff and something else happens instead. You hear all the time about authors switching things up when the audience guesses what’s next, and most of the time, the audience isn’t pleasantly surprised.

    Readers like it when the plot makes sense. If it doesn’t make sense, if events and developments come out of nowhere with no hint at all that this could be the outcome, then you need to go back and work on that. You need to find a way to hint at what is to come. Try weaving in little suggestions here and there—subtle details that make it look like you didn’t just pull this new trajectory out of your ass.

    Readers don’t like asspulls.
  • Details that are factually incorrect, or impossible in your story’s world: You want to immerse your readers in your world. That’s not going to happen if you go against the laws of the universe, whether that’s the laws in our world or an entirely fictional setting. They’ll be thrown out every time, which is terrible for their suspension of disbelief.

    If you’re doing the impossible in your story, you need these to be consistent with the story’s world. If the AI can see everything and predict people’s behavior so well that it’s like she knows them better than they know themselves, that’s fine, as long as you establish that as the rule.

    However, if you establish that the AI is only as smart as our newborn friend ChatGPT (read: currently not very, no matter how it may seem), and then suddenly it’s taking over the world with no sign whatsoever that that’s possible? Unless you do a damn good job explaining why no one saw the signs beforehand, that’s not fine.

    Keep up with what is and isn’t possible, stick to those rules you’ve established, and fix any related issues while you’re self-editing.
  • Characters behaving in ways they wouldn’t: When you’re writing a character, you are usually establishing rules for how that character will behave, details about their backstory, and more. When these characters suddenly behave differently or drop bombshells without foreshadowing, that’s not going to be received well by your readers.

    For instance, our friend Bobzo the Example Guy won’t suddenly love spicy food or suddenly be an action hero. He won’t dismiss the idea that his neighbor might be a vampire or his doctor might be a fraud. He’s a milquetoast with a curious mind, not Tom Cruise or that one tertiary character who always looks the other way.

    If you want the ending where he stands up to the big bad leader of the werewolves and wins, you and Bobzo are gonna have to work for it. Make sure your characters’ abilities, behavior, and backstories stay in line with who they are, and, if there’s a big shift in any of them, work out how to make it happen logically.
  • Forgotten storylines and details: Readers don’t like it when storylines or details simply vanish into the ether like they never happened in the first place. They don’t like it when plot points are unresolved. You want them to have a good time, right, and not be asking, “Hey, what ever happened to x?” Yeah, you do, don’t you.

    While you’re self-editing, keep an eye out for bits and pieces that never got resolved. Did a character disappear and never come back? Did a question never get answered? Was there an event that didn’t have any payoff?

    Whenever you find these things, make a note of them, then come back and answer them in the story. If they’re going to be resolved in a sequel, make sure they’re not forgotten by everyone involved. They should have some kind of impact in the present.

    Then, no one will be asking, “Hey, what ever happened to x?”
  • Continuity errors that contradict another part of the story: These errors range from small details like a character having one eye color in one spot and another the next to much larger ones like abrupt age shifts or different careers. This pulls the readers from the story.

    Keep a list of details that are easy to screw up as you’re writing, then refer to it often as you self-edit. Some people call this a story bible. (Personally, I’m not fond of that term for personal reasons, but I digress.)

    If you keep up with these details, then it’s less likely that you’ll contradict yourself—and you’ll be able to spot it when you do.

By addressing these plot holes, you can ensure a seamless reading experience, allowing readers to immerse themselves in your story and your fictional world.

Weak Story Structure

Story structure is another foundational element of any narrative. That means that strengthening your story’s structure is a key part of the self-editing process.

Much like a car, a story is an intricate arrangement of moving parts, and it needs a sturdy framework holding it together to take your readers on a satisfying journey.

Without that framework, you’re left with a pile of rusty nuts and bolts and words piled up on the side of the road. None of us want that.

photo of corroded vintage white and red sedan on brown grass
Photo by Mark Vegera on Pexels.com

With a strong story structure, you will create a compelling and engaging experience for your reader. As you review your manuscript, you need to look out for:

  • A lack of clear character goals, needs, plans, and motivations: I will be going into characters more in next week’s post, but for now, your characters need goals, needs, and motivations. If your characters don’t want anything at all, if they don’t need anything at all, even if it’s something as small as a ham sandwich, then that will weaken the structure of your story. It will weaken your conflict. It will weaken your tension. It will have a ripple effect from page one to The End.

    Everyone wants something, even if they think they don’t—even if they think they’ve buried their wants so deep that they’ve lost the ability to want entirely. Do they want to be accepted? Do they need to be loved? Do they want these weirdos dragging them on this adventure to leave them alone and let them get some much-needed sleep? Do they just want that damn ham sandwich?

    Figure out what everyone wants, what everyone needs, what drives them, and what they’re planning to do about it, and make that have an impact on the story.
  • Disconnected or unrelated subplots: Look, I get it. Sometimes, a subplot can be fun. Sometimes, a bunch of them can be fun! But if they don’t serve your story in some way, if they don’t develop the main plot or the characters at all…well, I’m sorry, but they have to go.

    I know, I know, you want to keep them—but you want a story with a strong structure more, right?

    Either integrate them better or let these subplots go.
  • Weak conflict: Weak, wimpy conflict, with all of the strength of a boiled noodle. You don’t want that, right?

    In the course of conflict, something needs to change.

    Conflict is a struggle between multiple forces. Let’s go back to that ham sandwich. Our protagonist is hungry af and just wants a sandwich. Their sister wants to drag them out to some fancy experimental restaurant, but they want a simple sandwich. Their roommate wants toast, but there are only two slices of bread left because the roommate already ate most of it.

    This scenario is ripe for conflict. But if nothing changes, if the protagonist doesn’t move in some direction, if the antagonists don’t move, if none of the arguments and conversations lead to anything, then your conflict is weak.

    What are the consequences if our protagonist doesn’t get their sandwich—if the roomie eats the bread? They’ll still be hungry and will have to find something else to eat, and if they go with their sister, that’ll mean more experimental fancy expensive restaurants are in their future. Meanwhile, their roomie gets away with eating all of the bread again, and there’s no more bread.

    What are the consequences if the protag chooses the restaurant? If they split the bread with their roommate? If they go and buy a sandwich from the gas station down the road like the one that gave them food poisoning a few months ago?

    Somebody needs to make a move in a direction, and it needs to impact the conflict accordingly.
  • Unresolved tension: This falls into that plot hole category of forgotten storylines and details and that last point about weak conflict. Tension needs to go somewhere. It needs to be resolved somehow, and in a way that aligns with the story and its tone. If it doesn’t? No one is going to be happy. So make sure it does.
  • Lack of stakes: Something needs to be at stake in your story. The stakes don’t have to be huge, but something does need to be on the line.

    What will your character gain if they get that sandwich? A full stomach, we hope, and freedom from an outing to that restaurant their sister wants to try.

    What if they don’t? Then, they’re going to be spending more money than they want to spend at the kind of place they don’t like and be subjected to more sisterly interventions in their life.
  • Excessive exposition or info-dumping: This is something I’ve already talked about before, but let’s go into it again here.

    Info-dumping is just that—information dumping. It’s when writers unload excessive information, be it background info or explanations, onto readers in ways that interrupt the flow of the story. Instead of doling out every rich detail throughout the narrative, they dump it on readers in tedious and lengthy paragraphs, disrupting the storytelling with details that bore the readers and fall right out of their heads.

    Info-dumps are clunky, forgettable, and boring. If you find you’ve info-dumped, then you should work on integrating the information more seamlessly. While you’re self-editing, work on doling info out in smaller pieces, not longer chunks.

    And trust your readers’ intelligence. They’re reading a story instead of watching a movie for a reason—they like figuring things out! They’ll understand. I promise.
  • Poor pacing: Pacing, like all aspects of writing, is a balancing act. Tension and rest. Speed and slow. It’s easy to get it wrong. When you do, it can greatly affect your story.

    Going too fast leaves readers struggling to connect with your story. It takes away significance and robs pivotal scenes of their emotional impact, leaving readers disconnected from the narrative, overwhelmed, or confused. Even action-packed stories should give the readers time to breathe.

    While editing, you should look out for important moments that rush by without adequate development or explanation, then slow them down. Incorporate more details—description (Kindle version), backstory, emotions (Kindle version) (non-Amazon link), context, or motivations—to give your readers the chance to invest emotionally in your story.

    Going too slowly also has its faults. Whether it’s from excessive exposition, info-dumping, irrelevant subplots, overly complex language, or a lack of resolution to anything, it’s probably going to bore the hell out of your readers. Who wants to keep reading a story that’s dragging on?

    To solve this problem, you’re gonna have to get out your mental scissors and start cutting. I’m sorry. Trim away the excess bulk—don’t delete it! Save it in another file—and be ruthless. Writing is malleable, after all.

    And then there’s the matter of inconsistent rhythm when the pacing is even more discordant. Oscillating between fast and slow pacing with no rhyme or reason makes the reading experience feel disjointed and uncomfortable.

    You need to maintain the right balance. Consider the overall emotional journey you want your reader to experience. Does your pacing gradually build tension and suspense? Are there moments of resolution or emotional release? Do these flow together smoothly? Is the pacing and tone of your scenes and chapters consistent?

    If the answer to any of these is no, expand or cut your scenes accordingly.

Ensure that each element of your story serves a purpose and contributes to its overall impact. Make sure your story is as strong as a sturdy car, with the framework to match—and the right amount of vroom vroom in each scene.

Lumpy Transitions

Ensuring smooth transitions is another vital aspect of self-editing. Scene transitions are when you move from one place, time, or POV to another. Readers don’t need to know every single detail of every single second that passes in your story. That’s where scene transitions come in. And the smoother your transitions, the more seamless and fluid the reading experience.

You don’t want to throw your reader from your world. You want to suck them in deep, holding them tight in your fist until the very last page. But if you execute your transitions poorly, your readers are going to slip and bounce right out of your grasp.

Smooth transitions allow the story to flow. They prevent jarring jumps or stupefying shifts in time, location, or perspective. By examining and refining these transitions while self-editing, you can maintain your reader’s engagement, and keep them in your grasp from page one to The End.

What are some examples of poor transitions, and how can you address them?

  • Abrupt Scene Changes: One kind of poor transition is scenes that leap from one to another in a disjointed, disorienting way. When you thrust your readers into a new scenario too quickly, this interrupts the story’s pacing and flow, and it can leave your readers scrambling to make sense of it all.

    While you’re self-editing, assess each transition and make sure it is smooth and provides the necessary context. If you find some of your scenes change too abruptly, analyze them to figure out what is missing. Does it need more information? Do you need to set the new scene a little more? Would it be a good idea to include a cliffhanger here?

    Figure out what you need here, and edit accordingly.
  • Inadequate Indicators of Time, Place, or Speaker: Is it hard to tell where your scene is happening, or when? Can you tell who the POV character is with ease? If not, your reader will have trouble following you.

    If it’s difficult to tell when or where your scene is taking place, or who it’s focused on, change it! Establish who your POV character is immediately, and provide details about where and when this is happening as soon as possible.
  • Disjointed Mood or Tone Shifts: A roller coaster of emotions is as disorienting as abrupt changes of scenery. If your story’s mood or tone is changing rapidly, this, too, feels jarring and unpleasant.

    Sometimes, a sudden, shocking shift is a good thing, if you’re aiming to hit your reader hard. As always, no suggestion about writing is an absolute rule. But even then, it shouldn’t dramatically change the entire story. If your reader has tuned in for a lighthearted romcom, they’ll feel confused and betrayed if it suddenly turns into a grimdark slaughterfest. So make sure your sudden shifts are consistent with the overall story, and that there is a strong suggestion throughout that something could change dramatically at any moment.

    A lot of the time, though, a shift in tone or mood is unintentional. These make it harder for your readers to connect with your characters and can leave them feeling confused or put off.

    Shifts in mood or tone need to make sense. Your readers should feel like they’re on an emotional journey with your characters. While you’re self-editing, pay close attention to changes in mood or tone. Are they logical? Do they feel natural?

    If not, some tweaking is in order. You might need to add another scene somewhere or some more details, or to cut some things and go in another direction for a while (or for the rest of the story, sadly).
  • Weak Transitions between Dialogue and Action: Yet another area where writing is a balancing act. The interplay between dialogue and action needs to be natural and seamless. You don’t want talking heads floating in space, do you?

    …unless some of your characters are talking heads floating in space. Even then, though, there needs to be a connection between their dialogue and the, er, space around them.

    While you’re self-editing, pay close attention to the relationship between dialogue and the world around it. Is the dialogue grounded in your story, or does it look more like you’re reading a script?

    Incorporate some action into the dialogue to make it less floating-heads-in-space-y, to anchor it into the story. Have your characters interact with their environment. Show their body language (Kindle version) (non-Amazon link), expressions, and emotions. Immerse the characters and your readers within the story’s world.

    You don’t want to overdo it—it’s fine to go, “Blah blah blah,” Bobzo said, or to skip the dialogue tag every now and then! But if the dialogue has script-itis or floating head syndrome, flesh it out some.

Conclusion

Plot is only one of the important elements of a story. Without a consistent, coherent plot, your story will lack the framework it needs to take your readers on a wonderful journey through your imagination.

Oh, they might still make it from Point A to Point B, but they won’t enjoy traveling in a busted-up jalopy of a tale nearly as much as a well-tuned sports car.

Do your story proud by making sure its plot is coherent and consistent, its structure is sound, and every scene and plot point flows into the next.


How are you at handling plot in your stories? Is it something you struggle with? What about structure, or scene transitions? Tell me in the comments below!

The second part of the Self-Editing Series, Character Development and Depth, goes up next week!

While you’re here, need some advice on where to get feedback before you shoot for publication? How about some tips on proofreading business blog posts? Or would you like an experienced professional proofreader to take a look at your stuff? I’ll proofread up to 400 words of your writing for FREE!

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