Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Progress and Revision Note Cards

Song Playing: Wrong to Love You by Chris Isaac
Quote: “You have written a scene when something important changes.” Holly Lisle

So! Lots of progress was made over the weekend by yours truly on the editing front.

On Sunday I spent just about the entire day working on my revision note cards for my book Masquerade. I am taking a revision class (Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel), and this is one of the early steps of revision. If you have never used note cards for revision, well, allow a recent convert to sing the gospel. Revision note cards are different than plot note cards you use before you write a book.

Basically, you write one note card per scene, and condense the scene down to one very important sentence. You write the setting, protagonist, antagonist, the conflict, and the twist of the scene in one sentence. It’s difficult to get the hang of at first, but once you get it down, the process goes rather quickly.

So, for example, a complete scene might look like “At Suzy’s apartment, Suzy and Kyle argue about who will get to use the time travel machine first, but then an elephant comes out of the machine.”

Suzy’s apartment is the setting, Suzy is the protagonist, Kyle is the antagonist, their argument is the conflict, and the elephant is the twist. You don’t have to set it up in the same “setting, protagonist, antagonist, conflict, twist” order every time, but I did. It makes the scene easier for me to dissect, even if it made for some awkward sentences.

Allow me to briefly explain those elements. You all know what setting is, and the protagonist is the protagonist of THAT scene, not necessarily the protagonist of the entire book. So if you have some scenes from the book’s antagonist POV (like I do) then they become the protagonist of the scene, because it’s their needs and wants we are currently concerned with. A scene from the POV of your serial killer, for example, will place the serial killer as the antagonist, because it’s his needs we are currently wrapped up in, even if the serial killer isn’t the main protagonist of the book. Likewise, if you have secondary characters, and the scene is about what they need and want, then they are the protagonist for that scene. You as the writer gets to decide who the protagonist of each scene is, and the POV character isn’t always the protagonist of the scene, but they normally are.

In my opinion, save for rare instances, the POV character SHOULD be the protagonist of the scene, because if not, why are you writing the scene from their POV to begin with? If you are writing something from the POV of a secondary characters, like Watson is for Sherlock Holmes, then make sure you keep the focus on the protagonist, not the POV person. Through Watson, we clearly care about what Sherlock wants. It also helps that Watson’s and Sherlock’s goals are normally the same.

The antagonist is the primary character or motive power opposing the protagonist. So if someone is shooting at the protagonist, he’s clearly the antagonist. If a character’s mother isn’t letting her go to prom, the mother is the antagonist. If your character is stuck on a deserted island, then the elements are the antagonist.

The conflict is need of the protagonist against the opposing need of the antagonist. So, for our example, the argue is the conflict. The conflict can also be subtle, like a man stuck on island. That’s subtle conflict because nothing is actively opposing our stranded dude. Sometimes the conflict of the scene isn’t what you think it is, as I discovered with my book. The main character might be arguing with her parents, but the real conflict of the scene was she knew her parents would never approve of her love interest.

The twist is the element in the scene that changes, taking it in a new direction and surprising the reader. Another way to look at the twist is the plot advancement. Every single scene in your book must have a reason for being, must advance the plot in some way. This plot advancement is called the twist by Holly Lisle (and I personally like her take on it). The easiest way to figure out what the twist of the scene is to add “And then.”


Mary and Carl were walking down the street, and then…
Mary was hit by a bus.
Carl threw her into traffic.
A large pterodactyl picked them up and carried them away.

By the way, I was really happy I got to look up "pterodactyl" on wikicommons. I don't think there are enough dinosaurs on this blog. Not enough at all.

And so on. You get the point. The reason why you were writing the scene about Mary and Carl walking down the street was so they could get picked up by a pterodactyl, because you needed to explain how they got to the Land of the Lost. In thrillers and mysteries, the twist is also when we get new information about the killer or the crime being committed.

So much for a brief explanation… but I wanted to explain everything in enough detail that if someone wanted to try this out for themselves, they would have enough information to do it properly. Or better yet, if you really like this idea, and want to know more, you could PM and ask me about the course. I would recommend it to anyone looking to streamline their revision process. I know one person’s methods aren’t going to work for everyone, but I like to find other methods of revision so I can refine my own.

Back to the revision note cards: If you are missing one of these elements, you put it in brackets at the end. So if you have a scene where the character just thinks, you put “At Suzy’s apartment, Suzy thinks about the time travel machine.” [no antagonist] [no conflict] [no twist].

I went a step further than the lesson said, and highlighted each scene element with a separate color (I am using white index cards). So I highlighted the setting green, the protagonist yellow, the antagonist blue, the conflict pink, and the twist orange.

Then, I spread out all my note cards and eyeballed my book in miniature. It was very telling. I could tell there was something wrong with some scenes while I was reading through the book, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Now, looking at my book on note cards, I can see I don’t have enough conflict, or weak conflict in a lot of the scenes.

This process sounds arduous, but it actually didn’t take too long to write everything out on a note card and highlight the different elements, and it was a lot of fun to see the end results. I moved onto the next lesson, which had you label the note cards as “Plot” for the scenes that directly related to your main story, “Subplot A” Or B, or C, whichever subplot it is. I currently have two subplots, so I have some note cards labeled Subplot A and some Subplot B. Last, for those plot lines you threw into the book, hoping for something cool but fell short, or subplots you planned that actually have nothing to do with your book (I am guilty of this one) you labeled “Not Plot”.

After I finished labeling all the cards, I pulled all the similar cards (all the cards for Subplot A, and Not Plot A for example) and laid them out in order of what happens. I could clearly see the story arc *cough* or lack of, for the main plot, each subplot, and the Not Plot.

Now I can see exactly where I dropped the ball. And let me tell you, it’s much, much, MUCH easier trying to analyze a subplot by itself, than to try and weed through the entire novel in order to catch my mistakes.

I made notes on a worksheet about any missing action, any leaps from one place to another, and any development and progression I left out. I am really excited about revision. I feel like I have a handle on the bucking bronco that is my novel.

My next step is to develop my subplots better. I think once I get them smoothed out, most of my conflict problems will go away.

I also need to strengthen the internal structure of the novel. As I mentioned earlier, I wrote this book a little over a year ago, and I have learned a lot about novel writing since then. So some of the essentials steps in novel writing I skipped and wrote by the seat of my pants. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I salute those of you who can wing an entire novel and not spend a year revising it into something readable.

What about you guys? Does anyone use note cards for brainstorming or revision, or I am the only one single-handedly keeping office supply stores in business? Does anyone have any nifty revision tricks they learned and now cannot live without? Who else thinks I need more cowbell and dinosaurs on my blog?


  1. I am concerned with the suggestion that every scene should include a twist. A twist is easy to include but difficult to do well. The expectation of a twist in every scene not only invites poor twisting but exhausting the reader. The best twists rely on the trust the author has established with his/her reader.

  2. Ah yes, I had I feeling I would explain the twist poorly. There are several lessons to explain it, and I just summed it up. So my apologies.

    I completely agree that you shouldn't just make things explode or shove a hackneyed plot device into every single scene. Exploding objects can be the twist, but for the most part, the twist of the scene is the reason why you wrote the scene to begin with. Whatever part of the scene moves the plot forward, whether it’s new information on the killer, or the gaining of a minor magical artifact, or missing the school bus. All of those are examples of a twist. Think of the twist as plot complications. Like, the hero getting thrown in jail, or getting run over by a bus, or any number of elements that moves the plot forward.

    Basically, for the twist, you’re looking for the reason the scene has to exist, which is why every scene should have one.

    Another name for the twist could be “plot complication”. The twist acts as a bridge between the current scene and the next scene, because in most cases, the “twist” or the plot complication sets up the logical progression for the next scene.

    I should do a whole post on this, just to make things more clear. Thank you for pointing this out!

  3. I don't like the word twist. I will replace it with push. It's the event that pushes the story forward.

  4. Since it's been 8 months, I was wondering if you still recommend this method? It's appealing to me because it is better organized than my current approach, plus I'm a sucker for any idea that suggests multiple colored highlight markers. :)