Radical revision: four ways to blow up and rebuild your novel

revise your book

When your ideas stall or you’ve written yourself into a corner, maybe it’s time to do something radical to shake things up and revise your book.

You’re stuck. Something about your book just isn’t working, but you’re not quite sure what it is. Time for drastic measures.

Yes, you could tinker away at the sentence level or rearrange a few chapters here and there — but why not GO EXTREME!? At this point you’ve got nothing to lose.

You can always return to your original stinker of a draft if these attempts at radical revision fail, right? So yeah; you’re totally safe to play around and get your hands dirty.

Here are four things to try when your manuscript feels like it’s falling flat

1. Combine characters
Maybe you’re asking your readers (and yourself) to invest in too many characters at once. Instead, combine multiple people into a single (more) complex and (more) compelling character.

For instance, let’s say you’re telling the story of two sisters who inherited the family restaurant after their mother died. One sister is a free-spirited jazz saxophonist. The other is quiet, dutiful, and resentful of the other sister. Well, we all know how that’s going to play out!

Instead, try telling the story of an only child who feels an obligation to keep the restaurant going because there’s no one else to do it – but who resents this familial duty because it seems like a roadblock to her own goals and passions.

Suddenly all the psychic drama can occur within one person, and we can invest everything in following her struggle.

2. Cut to the good stuff
When does your novel get the MOST exciting? In the middle? Towards the end? Identify it and make THAT section the beginning of your book. It’s the “don’t bore us; get to the chorus” method of fiction writing.

Once you’ve kicked the action off at its most dramatic point, you’ll probably have to do some serious readjusting in order for the narrative structure to feel sturdy again.

But now by bouncing back and forth in time, you’ll create additional tension that wasn’t there in the previous version of the novel. When you’re in the present, your readers will be wondering, “how did things end up like this?” And when you rewind to fill in the back story, they’ll be worried about what’s happening in the present (future).

3. Do it over again, and write towards an uncertain ending
Sometimes a book loses all its steam in the wind-down. This weakness is easy to understand. The highpoint of drama has passed, and your writing starts to trail off the same way the characters or story might. BUT…

You can’t let that happen. Instead, go back to just before the highpoint of your story. Now the hard part: FORGET about the story you intended to write. Forget about what you thought should happen, and write a new life (or death) for your characters.

When you introduce mystery into the process, you might find new inspiration and learn things you didn’t even know you knew. You can keep the new version if it’s magical, or combine elements of both drafts into a third manuscript.

4. Change the tense or POV
Who’s talking? What are we told? And how? Sometimes something as simple (in theory) as changing the tense or POV can introduce a whole new tone to your writing.

The hard part of this, of course, is in the execution. Now that the narrative has been scripted out, you’ll have to go back through and tediously change the sentences, the observations, and the feelings on every page of your book to make them fit the shift.

OK. Those are just four ideas for radical revision. Have you employed any drastic measures to save your prose? Let us know in the comments below.

Images via ShutterStock.com.


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Chris Robley is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."


  1. Thanks for the useful tips! I’m just trying to make one of my endings tighter…..yeah, more mystery sounds good at this point…

  2. That is very good advice. My difficulty is with the “science” part of the science fiction. The technology actually exists today; the novel twists it into a far off-label use (and fills in a few remaining gaps). But to understand it, I feel it needs to be exposed rather than merely used.

    I think, as a result of having read your article, that I’ll show its consequences at the beginning, rather than its use, per se. Then, I can fill in, and make the reader see what I’m talking about.

    It’s a lot of work, but I think you’ve given me a good direction. Thanks!

  3. Or you could dispense with the plan, write the characters as they live and think, and see where they lead you.
    Then when the story’s various threads have twisted up nice and tight to provide the tension, bring them together and release them for the rush of excitement in the last chapter.

    If the writer keeps ‘turning the pages’ to find out what’s happening next….. so will the reader.

  4. This was helpful beyond words. I love writing novels and while I don’t allow many people (aside from a select few) read them, I still love to write them to pass the time. I’ve had three minimum 80k + novels that were a breeze to finish and my friends enjoyed them. However, I wasn’t satisfied. Don’t get me wrong I love them but I needed more. It’s hard to stop writing once you’ve picked up a pen and made a story come to life.
    These last two that thrill me, also stump me. Hopefully you’re 4 tips can help me get these stories where I want them. THANKS!

  5. While I was writing my second sci-fi thriller, I realized that while the first third was exciting, and the last third was exciting, the middle third wasn’t. It wasn’t poorly written, but nothing very exciting happened. I thought about it and decided to insert a new crisis. As it worked out, I was able to split a scene into two parts. (The lead character is about to step on an elevator to leave.) I had a bomb go off just before he enters the elevator, causing the elevator to crash and killing everyone aboard. that ramped up the tension. Three chapters later, after a kidnapping and rescue where the protagonist and a friend were almost killed, the crisis was resolved, He boards another elevator and leaves. It was a simple and elegant way to add some excitement to the middle of the book.

    By the way, the book currently has a 4.3-star rating on Amazon, and some readers have called those three chapters the most exciting in the book, :) I don’t want to get into trouble for promoting my book by name here, but if anyone is interested, search foir my name on Amazon, and look for the book with Mars in the title.

  6. Oh, and in that same book, I used the technique recommended here of starting with a scene that takes place now and then jumping to the real beginning of the story. It can work really well if done correctly. Start with an exciting scene that leaves the reader wondering what’s going on, and then introduce the character(s) in an earlier, more peaceful, setting and work forward. But make sure you let the reader know that those scenes are out of order, or they might get confused. You could start that second scene with something like “Three days earlier,…” or date-stamp the scenes (which is really helpful if you do a lot of flashback/flash-forward scenes throughout the book):

    Monday, June 14.
    All hell breaks loose. (etc.)

    Saturday, June 12.
    The day began with a quiet breakfast…

    • Some good points, Mark, but I’ve found that ‘Three weeks earlier’, ‘The Previous Sunday’, The month before’ or even ‘Last week’ registers better with the reader than a date.
      Readers are ‘words’ people rather than ‘numbers’ people.

      I sometimes jump from location to location within a chapter, writing scenes that are happening simultaneously. With these major changes of location, flagging up that it’s a different country helps the reader too, even though it might be mentioned a few lines into the scene.
      (Just naming the country works fine, then mention the town or village in the text. It then helps readers whose geography isn’t so hot. – One of my test readers didn’t know that Nouakchott is the capital of Mauritania. Heading the scene ‘Mauritania’ solved that one).

  7. My problem is I get this really great opening scene(s), but then the story either gets to a point where it needs to go in one or more mutually-exclusive directions–it’d be nice if i could write both ways and vote, but whichever way I go, the “road not taken” keeps butting in and fouling the path I’m trying to write. That, or I get through the really strong scenes, and can’t seem to get past a vague idea of where to go next. (I’ve posted more than once about this batch of characters that’s been sitting around their fire for a few years now, refusing to do something for me to write about. They’ve dealt with their first obstacle, but obviously have a lot more to do before the overall plot line can be even close to “resolved.”

    • “it’d be nice if i could write both ways”

      Wendy, why not write both scenarios, then save them. Then write other random scenes to save.
      Later on, you’ll come to the perfect place in your story to slot them, or parts of them, into your book as required.

      On the other hand, at some point you might hit a brick wall as far as the plot goes. That’s the time to look in your ‘scene bank’ to see what can be adapted, or even dropped straight in, to give your story new direction.

      Don’t be too anal about following a pre-planned plot if it isn’t going doing what you hoped. Let the characters lead you. If you’re at a deadlock and can’t think what they would do next, then make them do something… anything… even if it has nothing to do with your plot. You’ll be surprised where it might lead you. You may end up with a different ending to that which you expected, but you won’t be bored and hopefully neither will your readers.

      In my first novel, I wrote a character who was based on someone I’d worked for who was a complete arsehole. However, no matter how much I visualised this bloke as I wrote him, he ended up with redeeming features that have made him quite likeable – I wanted him to be a nasty piece of work, but he wouldn’t go that way.
      He remains, even after appearing as a minor character in four books, as a flawed but well respected man who just happens to be on the baddies’ side rather than being one of the good guys.

      As I said in my earlier post: “If the writer keeps ‘turning the pages’ to find out what’s happening next… so will the reader.”

  8. Great points!

    I especially like the one engaging a different ending. With my present WIP for #NaNo2015, I’ve the ending already in mind and plan to tuck in another mystery clue leading for my fifth book of the series. Thanks for the excellent piece. And you’re right: If what I write makes me want to know what happens next and races my heart to get there, the reader will want this, too.

  9. 3 out of 4 drastic revision techniques were already on the go, I just missed out on a full house by not combining any characters. But I like the sound of that and I’ll add it to the arsenal for future use. So, yes… I would definitely second this list. Thumbs up!

  10. I am definitely going to use suggestion #2 when I revise my NaNoWriMo2015 novel – the beginning is kind of draggy, so I’m going to add the Big Dramatic Thing from the third act to make things more exciting, then flashback to the events leading up to it. Thank you so much! I’m so excited to get started on the editing – it’s going to make my novel so much better!

  11. I’ve done #3 and #4 and actually had a friend, critic go from saying that the characters were flat and that (a chapter she was helping me with) made no sense and that the emotions didn’t fit the scene to her saying that wow and that she didn’t know what it was that I did but it was something magical. :D The switch from third person to third person deep pov did it. Woo hoo. You wouldn’t think that a fantasy book would need that kind of pov, but not that I think of it, it’s a dark fantasy with elements of a thriller and a horror at times. :P I’m revising the whole book now and am at chapter six and kicking it into shape. :) (I have 48 chapters now total and am nearly done. The chapters are Wattpad chapters mind you so, one chapter is u sally about 10 pages average some much longer others shorter.)

  12. I am working on a romance adventure story that is my story
    and i am wondering how to deal with tense.
    I am writing in first person
    and am wondering what is the most effectual
    to write in present tense
    or past, present future?

  13. Wow! What a topic to have looked up. Thanks for writing about it. I imagined my whole fiction story while I was young. I have had wee true anecdotal stories published in magazines and sometimes won prizes for them. The best one I missed out on a prize but someone liked it so much and thought it would be so helpful they interviewed me and put in their own longer version. My one moment of fame. I have done lots of things in the writing line (mostly non fiction) but never a fiction novel. Finally ten years ago I wrote book 1 and book 2 of my original story. With a lot of additional research, thought and planning. Then I shelved it for five years until yet another child started school. This year I am back into it. It started when I read something about the word “that” being mostly superfluous. Sorted “that” and as my original draft had already been critiqued by an author and had grammar, punctuation, repetition, ambiguity and contradiction sorted. It worried me why the excessive use of “that” hadn’t been noticed. I wondered what else would need dealt to. Research began. Since then I have learnt about POV (the head hopping problem), story structure, outlining, evidence for characters personalities etc,, forensic analysis for what is on the page that should or shouldn’t be and when, showing not telling, ineffectiveness of writtenese, overuse of adjectives, use of power words, passive tense, “glue” (extra small connecting words, double negatives and stage direction which need taken out) and last but not least scenes and how to structure them. I had nailed some things in some places but so much has fallen so short of what is good writing as in what people want to read that a good story has failed before I even thought about publishing. That is my goal of course. If anyone is going to write a story of any length the advice is study the craft of writing first and don’t start with a series (Stories with their own arcs but a larger overall arc connecting them. So difficult to write first off.) I am facing such a lot of editing, adding extra scenes to avoid boring patches of narrative, limiting POV, balancing the story structure, chopping out riveting information that detracts from the story, upping the drama of some scenes. I’ve received much advice from very supportive people who have not told me to trash the whole thing but have hit the nail on the head about the deficits. Refreshing honesty. What a lot of work ahead. Mine is a cautionary tale: advice to anyone in this predicament. Don’t Give Up! Take even negative feed back as steps to follow to perfect something worthwhile.


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