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Structural edit step-by-step guide. Step 3: mapping the scene map and structure to character arcs

At this point in the editing process, I thought I could start working on the MS again. I didn’t. I made myself pause and consider everything that needed to change. Step 3 is all about matching the character arcs to the plot structure. To begin doing that, I needed to revisit the GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) of my POV characters and major secondary characters. Things have changed and the original GMCs no longer fit the plot arcs.

Of course character arcs are about more than the GMC, but that’s where you need to begin. After you know what your characters are trying to achieve, why they want to achieve it, and what’s stopping them, you can begin to look at how those tasks and challenges impact on personal growth.

Step 3: mapping the scene map and structure to character arcs

My process for this still feels a bit hit-and-miss, but it does highlight major gaps in character development.

  1. Print out the scene map, or you can use the original cards for this one. I’ve used both for different books. If I use the cards, I clear a wall and tac the cards up on the wall. Use string placed vertically to delineate where each Act sits, so the relevant cards can go into the correct box. If I print out the scene map, I cut it into pieces and paste it into a book. This method offers more portability but I find I spend a lot of time flipping backwards and forwards with the pages. I don’t have that problem if it’s on a wall.

  2. Separate the scenes into POV characters. Then place each scene in the relevant part of the plot (Act) for that character. If I’m working on a wall, I have horizontal lines so I have clear spaces for each character (see image). If I’m working in a book, I start with Act 1, then place all the scenes for one character in that act, then do the same for the next character, and so on. The scenes get a bit out of order but if you know your story and whose POV each scene is written from, it’s easy enough to locate what you’re looking for.

  3. Focus on one character at a time. Look at the GMC. Each character should have internal and external GMC and might have more than one goal, more than one motivation and/or more than one conflict for each. Map each of the GMCs for the focus character into the part of the story where you see the character focused on that goal, that motivation, that conflict. At each point ask yourself:

    1. How does this goal challenge X (the character)?

    2. Why is it so important right now? What is it about this action that furthers their journey towards their goal?

    3. What is preventing them from achieving their goal at this point? There might be a big barrier to success, but their also needs to be many smaller barriers too that X has to overcome. The best books always have both internal and external GMCs.

  4. This process will identify gaps in the character arc.

    1. You should begin to see places where the character is doing something that makes no sense in terms of the story or their growth. Mark those for removal.

    2. You’ll also identify sections where the character has an opportunity to respond to a significant event in a certain way, but they totally miss it, or what they do doesn’t go far enough and feels dissatisfying. Mark these sections for edit. Be specific with your notes. What does your character have to do so that the reader can clearly see their growth, their emotional response? With this process, keep the word ‘satisfaction’ in your mind. I often play the Rolling Stones on repeat while I’m doing this part. The reader has to be satisfied with what the character is doing and how they’re responding. Janet Jackson’s Go Deep also goes well with this. Show your character’s deepest reactions.

By now, you’ll have sorted out all your plot problems as well as all the problems with your characters’ development. You’ll have notes all over the place on what needs to be done and how to make it all happen. is the first step where you actually start making changes to your MS.

The next step, Step 4, is personalising your structure and creating an outline. There are a few ways to do this which I’ll discuss next time.

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