Friday, June 20, 2014

Graph Your Novel (Seriously!), by Amber Keyser

If writing a first draft is like trying to out-run an avalanche, revision resembles digging out with a shovel. Any tool that can cut through the details and provide a panoramic view of the shape of our story is useful. Try a graph—seriously!

Pick 1-3 things that you want to focus on and that you can rate on a 1-10 scale. Some examples include voice, pace, likeability of a character, emotional intensity, conflict, fluidity of language, narrative coherency, moving plot forward, or a character’s transition from one state to another. If a critique partner is doing this for you, asking if s/he’s “lost” will help analyze backstory components. One of my critique group members analyzed the “turn the page factor” on a scale from 1, completely uninterested, to 10, can’t stop to pee.

Next make a graph that has all the chapters of your book on the X-axis (that’s the bottom line) and the numbers 1-10 on the Y-axis (vertical line). Read each chapter and try to give a gut-level rating for each of your factors. Connect the dots with a different color pen for each factor (e.x. red for conflict, blue for emotional intensity).

Patterns will emerge. For example, if properly plotted, conflict should trend upward (zigging and zagging a little on the way) toward a peak at the climactic chapter and then resolve downward quickly to the end. One recent novel analyzed this way showed three distinct peaks at the end. The author gave equal weight to the resolution of three major plot lines. The book felt like it didn’t know where to end. A line tracking reader’s involvement of the story will identify flabby chapters.

Graphs like these can be powerful tools to help writers identify the parts of their manuscript that aren’t doing enough work or aren’t doing the right work. They help you see where to focus your revision work. And they’re pretty cool—seriously!


Amber Keyser is the author of five books for young readers, including a picture book, three nonfiction titles, and a forthcoming novel that is part of Angel Punk, a transmedia storyworld. More at and

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