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How to Review Your Plot: Using Your Notes and Outline at Revision

You’re nearing the finish line and feel like you need a final push forward to reach completion. You’ve slogged your way through the long, seemingly interminable middle, and your energy has flagged. Writers often experience self-doubt in this stage (worrying that it won’t come together well), and some have issues with finishing things. Your writing brain, too, may feel weary at this stage.

Writing a novel, a nonfiction book, a screenplay, or a TV script is no easy feat. You and your brain are in for the long haul of writing, and naturally you—and your writing brain—get weary. To push on and stay fresh, let’s discuss a specific way of revising, by reviewing your plot, in this excerpt from Fire Up Your Writing Brain by Susan Reynolds.

Whether you're an experienced writer or just starting out, an endless number of pitfalls can trip up your efforts, from procrastination, and writer's block to thin characters and uninspired plots. Luckily, you have access to an extraordinary writing tool that can help overcome all of these problems: your brain.


Fire Up Your Writing Brainteaches you how to develop your brain to its fullest potential. Based on proven, easy-to-understand neuroscience, this book details ways to stimulate, nurture, and hone your brain into the ultimate writing tool. You'll learn how to identify the type of writer you are, develop writing models that accelerate your learning curve, brainstorm better character concepts and plot points, and more.

Filled with accessible instruction, practical techniques, and thought-provoking exercises, Fire Up Your Writing Brain shows you how to become a more productive, creative, and successful writer—a veritable writing genius!

A Method for Reviewing Your Plot

A great way to get revved up again is to review whatever planning or plotting device or method you used to get started. You don’t have to labor over this; just glance through your notes to see if you lost a thread or missed something important. The idea is to stimulate your memory, marshal your thoughts, and use the refresher as a way to generate new ideas and build momentum as you proceed downwind from the muddle in the middle.

If You Used Note Cards

For those who used note cards, take them out and go through each one, evaluating which scenes made the cut and which did not—and why. If you’ve been using the cards all along, and they’ve worked well in terms of priming your brain for writing sessions and providing a map for the storyline, character arcs, and scenes, then bravo! And even if you haven't been referring to them, reading them now will likely come up with fresh ideas—be sure to jot them down on new cards. Even if you don’t refer back to the cards, the thinking and decision-making process will program your writing brain for the work ahead.

If You Used a List of Plot Points

If you used a list of plot points at the inception, go back and review them, noting where you contracted or expanded events. You’ll likely discover how inventive your brain has been in creating ideas as you worked—and you may be delighted to discover that it’s popping in with ideas during this process. Give your magnificent brain an appreciative nod and jot down any ideas that spring forth from this review.

If You Used a Detailed Outline

If you used a detailed outline (or some sort of plotting software), you’ve probably reviewed it often and know exactly where you are. However, as you move into the final stretches, reviewing what’s ahead is like priming the pump, and you’ll likely reap a burst of energy in response.

Look at the Broad Strokes

You can use the same review process to focus your brain on how all the elements that need to coalesce in the closing chapters are coming together. Note: This is not time to go back and start editing. What you are doing is looking at the overall work in broad strokes to determine if you’re on course—and to fire up your brain for more writing. The goal is to use this exercise as a way to move forward, not to look backward. You don’t want to suffer the fate of Orpheus, who lost his beloved, Eurydice, when he lost faith and turned his gaze backwards.

The point is to spend some time thinking through all the elements that you are prepping to write:

  • The storyline: How has the plot progressed up to this point? What’s missing, what needs to be maximized going forward?
  • The protagonist: Is your hero proactive, multidimensional, and engaging? Is his character arc nearing its peak? How is he growing, stepping up, overcoming the obstacles that threaten to destroy him? What does he need to do (or conquer) to bring the story to a climatic and just ending?
  • The antagonist: Whether it’s an external person (remember that your antagonist needs to be a worthy opponent, as complex as your protagonist) or inner conflict (the protagonist’s failings), is the conflict rising in intensity, repeatedly challenging your heroine in new ways? What needs to happen for your heroine to triumph?
  • Obstacles: Is your protagonist constantly tested and required to conquer multiple, escalating obstacles? Is he proactive in doing so? What will be the final test, and are the stages leading up to the dramatic, make-it-or-break-it contest increasing in intensity?
  • Scenes: What has yet to be dramatized? How can you maximize action, pacing, and rising tension to best dramatize the remaining scenes?
  • Theme: What needs to happen in the closing chapters to strengthen and prove (or disprove) your themes?

I am not encouraging you to delve in too deeply. What I encourage you to do is to prime your mental pump by gaining a fairly comprehensive view of where you are in the broader terms of fulfilling the story and getting clear on what you need to add to bring it to fruition. Once again, you are programming your writing brain for the immediate work ahead: crafting the realized, climactic, and unforgettable ending your story and/or protagonist deserves.

If you spend a few highly focused hours reviewing the elements I’ve suggested, your brain will absorb the fresh input and begin the process of linking your present thoughts to everything you’ve done up to this point in time. Synapses will start firing in new and surprising ways; and you’ll excite your brain—and your mind—for the task ahead.

About the Author:

Susan Reynolds has authored or edited more than forty-five nonfiction and fiction books. Recently, she co-authored Train Your Brain to Get Happy, Train Your Brain to Get Rich, Healthiest You Ever, and Meditation for Moms. She has also authored Everything Enneagram, and was the creator and editor of Adams Media’s My Hero series, which includes My Teacher Is My Hero (2008), My Mom Is My Hero (2009), My Dad Is My Hero (2009), and My Dog Is My Hero (2010). She also edited Woodstock Revisited, 50 far out, groovy, peace-inducing, flashback-inducing stories from those who were there (2009). Ms. Reynolds has a B.A. in Psychology and has often written about psychological concepts, including a blog for In pursuit of her own happiness, Ms. Reynolds uprooted her life and spent a year in Paris, reinventing herself and her career trajectory. Upon return, she founded Literary Cottage, a literary consulting firm based in Boston, through which she edits and coaches other writers in pursuit of happiness through publishing. She is also currently editor of GRAND Magazine, and serves as a judge for Writer’s Digest’s annual writing contests.

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