There’s a simple editing principle many writers miss. But when you understand it, when you truly master it, you have the power to craft your absolute best story. Here it is:
When you’re doing a developmental edit on a story, you can change absolutely anything.
It sounds obvious, yet it’s so hard to do. In this article, I’ll show you why—and share a simple three-step process that will give you editing superpowers.
A few weeks ago, I invited my friend Kim Kessler onto the Your Next Draft podcast. She sent me a scene of the novel she’s writing, I read it and prepared some notes for her, and then we got on a call for a developmental editing session to talk through my feedback and make a plan for her to revise the scene.
It was such a fun episode, and if you haven’t heard it yet, I really recommend you go check it out. Click here to listen to our full scene edit »
I’ve been thinking about that episode a lot since then, and hearing what listeners have particularly enjoyed about it.
There’s one specific thing about the process of editing a story that episode illustrates really well.
So in this article, I’m revisiting Kim’s scene edit to share something I don’t want you to miss, something that can be truly transformative for your editing process—if you let it.
One Transformative Editing Concept
Here’s the concept I want to explore with you:
The events that happen in your story are so, so malleable.
You have complete power to change all of them. You are not locked into the first idea you put on the page. You can change literally anything that happens within your story.
I know—sounds simple, right? After all, that’s what editing is. It’s changing the words on the page of your story.
But see, even just saying that right there, I’m pointing out the problem. Changing the words on the page of your story is fairly straightforward.
But changing the content those words communicate, changing the literal actions that happen, changing the events in your plot, that is hard.
Editing Your Story Is Hard
I know it’s hard because I see it all the time with writers. You walk into your scene to edit, and you make line edits. You make tweaks to the style. You refine your paragraphs to make them a little more polished, adjust the dialogue to make it a little more realistic.
And honestly, I know it’s hard because I know how challenging it was to learn this myself! It took me years to practice looking beyond sentence-level changes and start editing the story underneath.
All those tweaks to the lines, to the paragraphs, to the word choice in your dialogue? Those are great edits to make. But they’re not developmental edits. They’re stylistic edits.
They will make your writing prettier. But they won’t fix your story.
Fixing your sentences is nice. It’s a legitimate, important stage of the editing process.
But I want to share with you how to developmentally edit your novel. This is the step that comes before the line editing—the step where you make sure you have the story right.
And when you’re editing your story, you can change literally anything. You are not locked into the actions and events that you typed out when you were writing your first draft. You can make the same actions way more intense. Or you can change the actions to something completely different.
You can change anything.
How to Change Anything In Your Novel
All right, so that’s a liberating, powerful statement. You can play God in your story world. Everything is up to you, and everything can be changed.
It also might be a little overwhelming. When nothing is set in stone and everything can be changed, how do you figure out what to do?
This, by the way, is one of the reasons I think we gravitate towards line editing. Because that’s super specific—“tweak this sentence until you like these words better.” It’s a lot more challenging to identify, “What is the best action that should happen in this scene?”
In order to effectively edit the action in your scene, you need a process. In order for Kim to effectively edit the action in her scene, she needed a process.
And so that’s what I walked Kim through in that scene edit episode. I guided her step-by-step through the process I use to identify what the absolute best action is in a scene.
The 3-Step Process to Edit Your Story
Here’s how it works:
1. Identify the goal of the scene.
First, you identify the goal of the scene.
What is the purpose of this scene within your story? What is it meant to accomplish?
What changes in this scene? Why does that matter?
What are you aiming to communicate to the reader?
2. Evaluate what’s currently happening.
Then, you evaluate what’s currently happening in the scene.
When a change happens, there’s a “before” and an “after.”
Where in the scene is that change clear?
Is it clear what the “before” side of that change is? Is it clear what the “after” side is?
In what ways is this scene effectively serving its purpose and communicating what it should to readers?
In what ways is that message getting lost?
3. Brainstorm new possibilities.
And finally, when you know the goal and when you know where that goal is and isn’t being accomplished, you brainstorm.
What actions could your characters take to make the “before” side of that change really clear?
What actions could they take to make the “after” side just as clear?
What would be the most powerful, most dramatic, most interesting way to illustrate that change happening in your turning point, crisis, and climax?
Melt Your Story Down and Recast It
I like to visualize it like this:
You have your original draft of your scene. That’s your raw matter. In my mind, it’s some kind of metal—maybe a little metal figurine.
You take all of that, and you put it in a pot, and you melt it all down. And then you cast it into a new form. A new figurine.
It’s the same material. But this time, it’s clearer, sharper, more complete, more beautiful, more interesting.
But you don’t get to that stunning second statue by taking a file and shaving off a few uneven edges of your original statue. That’s my analogy for line editing, in case that wasn’t clear.
In order to get to that second, better figurine, you have to completely melt down your original figurine and explore ways to shape it into something new.
Example: Kim’s 3-Step Scene Edit
Now, maybe that sounds scary. But that process is really good. It’s so much fun. It’s so exciting.
Let me share a few clips of how that worked for Kim.
Step 1: Identify the Scene’s Purpose
First, we identified the purpose of her scene.
In her scene, this woman, Kim’s protagonist, is escorted to a private plane. She’s clearly really unhappy. She gets on the plane, sits down, and starts mixing herself a drink.
And when she’s been on the plane for a few minutes, another woman gets on the plane and starts screaming at her that she’s responsible for the deaths of both their husbands.
So our protagonist downs her drink and some sleeping pills and curls up against the window and tries to fall asleep as quickly as possible.
And then, right at the last second, right as the plane is lifting off, she opens the window and looks outside and takes in this final view of her home that she’s leaving behind.
Want to see all this in action? Fill in the form below and I’ll send you Kim’s scene so you can read the full piece.
Kim and I started by identifying her goal for the scene. Here’s what her goal was, what she wanted the scene to communicate to her readers.
KIM: Are you going to believe them? Whether they tell you that you’re okay; it’s not your fault. Or you aren’t; it’s absolutely your fault. Like, either way, it’s still them telling you what to believe about yourself.
So it’s not about, “Oh, but they’re telling me I’m good, so I’m going to agree with them.” Or, “They’re telling me I’m bad and I’m going to agree with them.”
It’s about: it doesn’t actually matter what literally anyone is saying. What are you going to believe about yourself?
And trying to do that thing, and doing that thing, trusting yourself to do that thing. That’s my answer.
Step 2: Evaluate Where That Purpose Is Unclear
Once we knew what the scene was meant to accomplish, we evaluated what Kim had written. We talked about the places in the scene where that goal was clear, and the places where it wasn’t.
Here’s a sample of that discussion:
ALICE: I wanted to see more of a crisis response to the ball-of-fire woman walking in the plane.
Because it felt like [the protagonist] got on the plane. She asked for the Coke. She pulled out her sleeping pills and her rum. She got the Coke. She drank just enough of it so she could pour in the rum. She pulled out the sleeping pills.
This guy comes up to give his condolences, so she’s gotta hide her sleeping pills and her rum. And as soon as he walks away, she goes back to pulling them out, opening up the pills, getting her pills out, holding her rum and Coke.
And then this woman walks onto the plane and starts screaming at her, and . . .
KIM: Yes! But in the end, she ends up just doing the thing that she was already going to do anyway. She just did it faster, which isn’t really a shift, right? Like right. So what is the actual . . . Which I think is why I was like, well, it’s this internal thing.
But there still should be a good external crisis. Like, what is the crisis?
And is it whether to go talk to her, whether to apologize, whether to . . . I don’t know. What is the crisis?
I actually have no idea what it is. So that’s a really great question.
So at this point, we knew the goal: this scene is about this woman deciding what she’s going to believe about herself.
And we knew where that message was getting lost: when someone came onto the plane and screamed at her, this protagonist didn’t have much of a response. She kept doing what she was already doing, just faster.
What needed to happen in that scene was for the protagonist to start off carrying all this weight of all the things she believes other people are thinking about her, or what they would be thinking if they knew the truth she knows. Just feeling really crushed under all that weight.
And then, when this accuser walks onto the plane and starts shouting at her these horrible things, things that the protagonist is afraid might actually be true, she needs to make a choice.
She needs to have a response that demonstrates whether she is internalizing what the accuser is saying about her, or whether she’s throwing all that off and choosing to believe something different about herself.
Step 3: Brainstorm New Possibilities
And once Kim and I identified all of that, we started brainstorming. We talked through a bunch of different actions that could happen in the scene that might make that change more clear.
Those first two steps, of identifying the message and where it was getting lost, were the melting-it-down steps, if I take us back to that analogy about a little metal figurine.
We took Kim’s figurine of an unhappy woman on a plane, and we melted it into a pot, stirred it around, and examined what we found in there.
And then, in the brainstorming part, we imagined all the possible molds she could use to cast a new figurine. We designed a new figurine for her to create, one that’s clearer and sharper and more beautiful and more exciting.
Actually, we didn’t even design the specific figurine she’ll create—rather, we came up with dozens of options for what that figurine could be, and now she gets to go choose the ones she likes the best.
Here’s a sample of that brainstorming.
ALICE: What are her options that she could do?
Idea for you, if there’s nothing that springs to mind . . . well, if there’s nothing that springs to mind immediately, then you just get to go brainstorm some.
But if there’s nothing that springs to mind that’s something that she specifically would do as a result of this woman, you could add in somebody else who comes up to her and is like, “Excuse me, would you like us to move you? Or would you like us to arrange another flight?”
KIM: Or somebody else could come up to her and ask her for some kind of response.
ALICE: Exactly. If there’s nothing that comes to mind that she would do to that, a choice that she would have as a result just of this woman, you could extend that turning point by having somebody else basically ask her to make a choice.
KIM: Okay. That is cool. So what’s interesting, and I guess I’ll just list out things, but I’m like, well, how would that change the scene? How would that change the story?
So it’s like, what sort of external crisis comes up? This sort of binary, do this, do that kind of thing.
Does she argue with her and try to defend herself?
Does she agree with her immediately? “You’re right, you’re right, you’re right. I’m sorry.” Like, does she just own it?
Does she just say it out loud?
Does she go try to like, give her a hug?
Does she . . . what does she do? You know, like, what does she do?
So that’s one moment in the scene where we explored some new possibilities for the action that happens within the scene. If you’ve been listening to my episodes on scene structure, you might notice that the moment we were workshopping there was the crisis, which is arguably the most important moment in the scene.
Here’s another sample of our brainstorming:
ALICE: In terms of practical changes in the scene, you could adjust the progressive complications a little bit if you wanted to.
I’ll just describe this scene idea that’s coming into my mind, and you can draw from it the kind of concepts that I’m illustrating here, and you can use the actions or not.
I’m imagining: what if when she got on the airplane, she was seated midway through the aircraft. And the row where she was sitting, the window was stuck.
So she tried to open it up, but she couldn’t open the window. So then she can’t see the casket through that window. You’d probably have to find a different way for her to see the casket, whether it’s out the door or something else.
But she’s at a position where she doesn’t have access to this piece of good.
But when the woman comes in and is being seated on the plane, her reaction to that could be to call the flight attendant and say, “Could you please seat me at a different point in the plane? Could you move me farther away from this woman?”
And so she gets moved up to the front of the plane. And there the window is wide open and it works. And so then she has access to then look outside the window, which she wanted.
Maybe she wanted to do that unconsciously or was suppressing that sense of I don’t deserve to. Like, maybe when she was seated by the window that didn’t open, she felt this sense of disappointment that she no longer had the option to look, but she wasn’t planning to look anyway. She was trying to shut herself off from that anyway.
And then when she’s moved to the front of the plane or moved to a different seat, she has the option to look. And at the last moment she’s like, I’m taking it. I will look. I’m now in the seat; I have the window; I will look.
KIM: Mm-hmm. What’s interesting is as I was thinking, I flipped it in my head. Like, what if it’s stuck open and she can’t close it?
And she’s stuck there and it’s open and she can’t get it shut. And then when she moves, she closes it immediately. And then she’s like, you know, oh my God, I’m gonna look.
And here’s another moment of brainstorming. I particularly love this one because you can hear how Kim is deep in thought, now considering all the possible permutations of this scene.
Because there are just so many options once you melt the scene down into the pot and you’re dreaming of all the possible figures you could cast it into.
Here’s what Kim says:
KIM: So when she gets on the plane, if she’s seated . . . yeah. Seated in the middle of—in a seat, whatever, she’s there, she’s seated. And then the woman comes on the plane.
Yeah. It’s interesting. I’ll have to run through the different scenarios.
Like, what if the other woman’s already on the plane and sees her come in? Or doesn’t see her come in and then ends up walking by her, you know, whatever.
Like what are the circumstances in which she and the woman cross paths? And all the variations that you could have.
And then therefore, which one really is the best, the best progressive complications, that lead to her actually having a choice? Which is, “What are you gonna do?”
I’ll stop there, but I could pull more of those moments. Kim and I went on like this for probably twenty minutes or more, brainstorming dozens of possibilities for what could happen in her scene.
2 Truths About Changing Absolutely Anything
There are two things I want you to hear in this conversation:
1. The possibilities are endless.
First, there are so many possibilities. Once you identify what your scene is really about, or even what your story is really about, then a whole world opens up to you in terms of all the things that can happen to make that purpose clear on the page.
Your characters can do literally anything! You have all the power here to change everything.
You are not locked into the actions on the page simply because you wrote them there a few days ago. You can imagine absolutely anything into your scene.
And your guide is just knowing what the scene is really about.
2. This is fun.
And the second thing I want you to hear is that this is really fun.
This is not overwhelming or scary or bad or painful. (I mean, I guess it could be, if you wanted to make it that, but that seems like an unpleasant choice.)
This is the space of creation and invention and imagination, and isn’t that why you’re writing in the first place?
If you’ve read more than a few articles of Your Next Draft, you know that I LOVE editing so, so much. It’s my favorite thing. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that in a bit, so let me just say it now: I LOVE editing. Absolutely adore it.
And this right here is a huge part of why. This invention, discovery, creativity, exploration.
I think a lot of writers feel that in their first draft process, when they can write absolutely anything they want, but they don’t feel that in the developmental editing process.
This is what I feel in the developmental editing process. It’s all the first draft exploratory fun, but now with just a few boundaries to give you clarity on what you’re doing. You know your goal, the purpose for your scene, so now you have a guide as you imagine all the possibilities.
My favorite part of my conversation with Kim is the next part I’m about to share with you. Because this is the point where it became really clear that Kim felt all this, too. Here’s what she said:
KIM: Okay. That is so fun. You’re really good at this, Alice. I just want you to know. Like, this is so fantastic. I feel . . . I’m so excited. Okay.
ALICE: I’m so glad! I’m so delighted.
KIM: I love that I have no idea what I’m going to do because I’m so excited to figure it out. Like, it’s not a stressful problem. It’s like, oh, what do I really want? What is the story really about?
Because it’s—you know how you said, “Oh, I think we did it.” Like, it’s that thing. You work it out, you talk it out, you write it out, revise it out until you go, “Ah, there it is. There it is! That’s it.” Right?
You get to that place where everything just sings. Like it’s just humming and everything’s singing the same song.
And that’s how you know you did it, right? You’re like, it feels so good.
Kim ended our conversation with no idea what she was going to do, and she loved it. She had so many options available to her.
And she had so much more clarity about what the scene is meant to do. So she had a way to evaluate all those options and decide, which of these actions will most clearly communicate that thing that the scene is here to do?
Find the Freedom to Edit Anything
This is what I invite you to do in your own editing. I invite you to find this freedom, find this power, find this open-ended exploration of all the possible things that could happen in your story.
It is hard, so hard, to look beyond the sentences in a scene and start playing around with the actions underneath them.
But once you find your way to that level of editing, it’s so much fun. And it’s so rewarding, and it will enable you to craft your best possible story.
Your Turn: Change Anything in Your Scene
So here’s what I want you to do right now:
I want you to pull out a scene of your writing.
I want you to read it, and I want you to ask yourself:
- What is this really about?
- What is this meant to accomplish in your novel?
- What is the most important change that happens in this scene?
And then, once you’ve done that, I want you to pick one moment in your scene. It can be anything—the inciting incident, the crisis, the climax, anything at all.
And I want you to brainstorm at least five alternative things that could happen in that moment.
What if your protagonist made a different choice? What if they encountered a different problem?
What if they were seated at the back of the plane instead of the front?
Or the window was open instead of closed?
Or they asked the flight attendant for a drink rather than pulling out their own flask?
Or another passenger was mean to them instead of kind?
Write down at least five different possibilities for things that could happen in that moment.
And then ask yourself: which one of those possibilities will most clearly communicate that ultimate purpose of your scene?
Apply the 3-Step Editing Process
Remember, there’s a three-step process here:
First, you identify the goal of the scene.
Then, you evaluate what’s currently happening in the scene to see where it is communicating that goal and where that isn’t being accomplished.
And finally, with all that in mind, you brainstorm all the possibilities for what could happen in the scene that would communicate that goal.
If you want to see what this three-step process looks like in full, I’d encourage you to go listen to my full conversation with Kim.
Click here to listen to the full scene edit »
You can also download Kim’s scene and read what she originally created, and compare it to all this feedback and these ideas we came up with. Fill out the form below and I’ll send it to your inbox:
The Challenge and the Joy
And now, go, be empowered to take your scenes and create absolutely anything you want within them.
Examine your figurine and figure out why it matters. Melt it down into its component parts. And then pour that material into a new mold that you create, your new, improved, gorgeous figurine.
That right there is the challenge and the joy of developmental editing.
I hope it brings you joy like it does for me.