Structural editing (or developmental editing) is one of the most crucial yet difficult to grasp types of editing. There’s a lot of advice out there on how to start writing your first draft. However, there’s less advice on what to do after finishing the first draft (or the drafts after this).
Below you can find my steps for doing your first developmental edit.
- Identify your genre/main plot.
- Check if this genre is clear from the 1st 10 pages.
- Identify the conventions & expectations of your main genre/plot.
- Identify the 5 main elements within your story.
- Divide your story into four acts.
- Identify the 5 main elements within each act.
- Note down any changes & write these changes.
Step 1: Identify your genre/main plot.
First things first: you need to read through what you’ve written. Chances are, you’ve been working on your first draft for some time now, so you might be a little hazy on what you wrote exactly in the beginning.
You shouldn’t dwell on little things when you read through. If you know a certain typo is going to bother you, quickly change it or note it down somewhere so you can come back to it later. But don’t spend too much time on it: this step is just reading through, not already editing.
Now that the story is clear in your mind, you try to identify your genre.
I have a post here that can help you do just that. To keep it short: identify what’s at stake in your story. Even if you have multiple sub-plots, choose the one that is most vital to your story.
This is the global genre/main plot.
For instance, is your story purely about survival, with large death stakes? Then it’s an action story.
Is it about a particular skill and mastery over it, such as playing music, running a race, or boxing? Then it’s a performance story.
Once you’ve identified your global genre, write it down, along with the value that’s at stake.
Step 2: Check if the genre is clear from the start
It’s important to set reader expectations early on in the story.
Read through your first chapter or first 10 or so pages. Is the main plot clear? Will the reader know what kind of story this is going to be?
This is also important for establishing the reality your story takes place in.
For instance, if you’re writing a fantasy story, it’s also important to allude to this as early as possible. Otherwise, any magical element will come out of the blue and take the reader out of the story.
If you’re unsure whether your story sets the right expectations, let one or two people read the first 10 pages and ask them what kind of story they think it is.
Step 3: Identify conventions & expectations
Each genre has its own conventions & expectations. When a reader picks up your book, you want it to be clear to them what kind of book they’re reading.
Once you know your global genre, look at the conventions & expectations of that genre. For instance, a romance story always has a “meet-cute” at the beginning. And a crime story wouldn’t be one without a crime.
If you’re not certain, I recommend going to Story Grid and searching for articles outlining the conventions & expectations within each genre.
And read at least one or two books & watch one or two movies in your chosen genre. Write down the different scenes and note what stands out to you.
Then compare: what do these stories have in common? Those are the conventions & expectations.
Step 4: Identify the 5 main elements
Each story consists of 5 elements:
- The Inciting Incident: an event that kicks off your story.
- Turning Point: an action or revelation that forces the character into a decision.
- Crisis: The question surrounding the decision, born from the turning point. The choices are equally bad or good.
- Climax: the decision the character makes. This can also be the decision to do nothing.
- Resolution: the consequences of the decision. Whatever was at stake within the crisis will now happen due to the decision made in the climax.
Decide which global elements of your story fits with these elements. Look if these are in line with your chosen main plot. Do they revolve around the chosen stakes? Are they all related to each other? Do the middle three all follow the same protagonist?
Step 5: Divide your story into 4 acts
You might be thinking: four acts? I thought it’s always three?
And you would be right. Generally speaking, it’s still three acts: the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and the Ending Payoff. It translates roughly to 25%, 50%, and 25% of your novel.
But, we can divide the Middle Build in two parts (Middle Build I and Middle Build II). Have you ever noticed that in every story, right around the middle, there’s this critical moment for the protagonist? (see this post and go to the sign-post called Mirror Moment for more info).
So you could say that’s the first climactic moment of the Middle Build I, and then the second part of the Middle Build starts.
If you’re struggling to divide the story, I can relate. It’s tough to know where one part ends, and another part begins, and there’s really no right answer to it.
Sometimes, a transition to the Beginning Hook and Middle Build, for instance, happens within one scene. That makes it difficult to split it. But, generally speaking, a new part begins when some irreversible situation occurred, or the life of the protagonist is changed in some other irreversible way. The way they thought about life and handled situations doesn’t work anymore. They need to adapt.
Step 6: Identify 5 elements within each act
Now you’ll do the same as you did in step 4, only within each of the acts.
It’s possible that you have, for instance, the crisis and climax in the same scene. That’s totally fine; they don’t always need to have their own scene. But you can ask yourself if you haven’t rushed through it and perhaps can take some more time to develop it.
If you have no idea how even to start identifying these scenes, I recommend picking one of the books you’ve read and trying steps 5 and 6 here first. This will give you a sense of how to do this.
Again, ask yourself within each act whether the elements are connected and if they follow the stakes you chose for your main plot.
Step 7: Note what you want to change & edit
Now that you’ve done the work, you can finally start editing!
You can change your scenes to fit your genre by looking at the larger picture first: the conventions & expectations and the 5 elements, both globally and within each act.
Make sure the stakes are getting higher with each act.
Once you’ve finished with this first round of developmental editing, you can start to dive deeper. Decide your subplots and look at how they relate to your global genre. Go over each scene and determine the five elements. Ask the same questions and determine what needs to be changed.