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Guest Post: Book Dissection, Plot Boards, and Revisions, OH MY! by Nicki Pau Preto

Today we're pleased to welcome Nicki Pau Preto,
an aspiring writer who's about to embark on the query process!

If you’ve gotten past that title, clearly you don’t mind a bit of cheese now and then.

I like you already.

Now, what I’m about to present to you is a mish-mash of years of googling, Twitter-stalking, and good ol’ fashioned trial and error. While the old adage that every book and every story is different (and provides unique challenges) is certainly true, I want to share a crucial (to me) exercise that has helped me throughout my writing process.

This is a jumble of a few things, including book dissection and plot boarding, all meant to make the jump from WRITING to REVISING much, much easier.

Book Dissection / Story Summary

This is the single most helpful tool I’ve ever stumbled upon – the love child of book dissection and plot summary – and it’s the perfect way to transition from the last words of your WIP to the first stages of revision.

So, you’ve written your 800+ epic fantasy (or 200 page contemporary romance) and now you’re ready to dive back in and REVISE. Problem is, you’ve been writing the thing over several months in the wee hours before bed or the fifteen spare minutes you get at lunch, and you don’t know where to begin. That outline/synopsis devil you wrote half a year ago bears no resemblance to your actual story, and you’d rather start writing that shiny temptress of a new idea than work on this hot mess.


Open two documents on your computer. The first should be your manuscript, the second should be a blank document. This will be your book dissection/story summary.

Zoom your manuscript out to two pages across (if you can fit it, otherwise just view it zoomed out a bit), and SKIM IT. Don’t be tempted to edit comma placement or rewrite passages. I find zooming out makes it easier for me to skim, but maybe you’d rather print it or change the font – whatever works for you.

Now, in that second document, make a point form list (or a table/chart), recording what happens in each chapter. Divide the action into plot threads. Here’s an example:

This block is a summary of my chapter 7. I’ve assigned three colors to represent the three major plot threads in my book.

Red = romance
Green = plot points that move the story forward
Blue = back story, world-building, and character development

I like to stick to basic story threads initially because the more detail I get into, the longer this process will take, and I find these three categories cover the overall concept of my book. I see the romantic relationship as a separate plot thread from the main plot (which is represented in green), and the blue color is for stuff that isn’t necessarily essential to the plot, but is essential to understanding the world or character motivations. If you don’t want to make a table, just highlight the text (or the bullet before it) in the appropriate color.

I also find it helpful to make each scene or action a separate row in the chart. See how red is there twice? Rather than summarizing everything romance-related in the chapter into a single point, this shows me that the chapter opened and closed with romantic plot elements, but also that there is more romance than world-building in this chapter, and more world-building than active plot elements. By making each scene a separate bullet, you get a more accurate representation of which plot threads dominate which chapter. By using color to aid in the process, your brain will have an easier time understanding the ratio between each plot element.

The more colors you add, the more complicated your dissection/summary will be; it’s up to you to decide what will be most helpful to you.

Once you’re done, you’ve got a miniaturized, succinct summary of your massive novel, easy to peruse for details or to spot plot problems.

If you’re really on the ball, you could be writing this story summary as you go. Maybe once a week, or at the end of every chapter, open up your summary document and record what you’ve written. This will save you time later, and will likely be an asset as you move forward. But remember: don’t be judgy. Just record what’s there, the fixing part comes after.

The List (or, the fixing part)

So now you’ve got a list or chart documenting your book. You could print it, or simply peruse it. What do you see? If you’re anything like me, certain problems jump out at you right away: chapters of back story and infodump, or the complete loss of your romance subplot for half the book. It will also become really easy to see what should be cut. When it’s listed in a point-form, abstract way, it’s easier to detach yourself from how much you love that scene with the kitten that serves no purpose, allowing you to give it the axe.

As you go through, add a column to your book dissection with problems and/or solutions for each chapter. Example:

You can simply list your thoughts as you read through, or scribble in solutions or things to consider. By doing it like this, your notes are directly connected to the chapter in question, and you’ve got an easy to-do list to begin your revisions.

Another option is to make an entirely new document for your changes. YA Highway’s own Veronica Roth has a great system for dealing with local and global plot problems.

Plot Boarding

I’m an extremely visual learner, and that’s where the whole color-coding thing begins – but not where it ends! The last tool I’d like to talk about is plot boarding. Some people do this with markers and white boards, post-its and colored pens, or on programs like Scrivener. I’ve always liked to build these things digitally because I find scribbles and mistakes distracting, but I use Word to compose my novels. 

Here’s an example of a plot board I made using Adobe Illustrator (graphic design does come in handy from time to time):

As you can see, here I added in an extra color for the antagonist, and a thick purple line for cliff-hanger chapter endings. I also highlighted the chapters where important things happen in grey. I’m going to go ahead and say that MOST chapters in a book should have important things happen, and this image clearly shows where my story lags (a lot).

But, your book dissection/story summary can easily be turned into a chart (if it’s not already) and then printed and sliced up for a similar effect. Example:

A plot board allows you to visually represent your story in a bigger, all encompassing way, and to see it as a dynamic thing rather than a list of incidents. More than that, by dividing up your chapters, you can easily reorganize them and see what your new story will look like. If you can put them on a whiteboard like I did, I was able to add additional notes around the chapter breakdowns, noting problems or highlighting subplot arcs. If not, use post its or a separate notebook.

All these tools allow you to pull apart the story you’ve actually written to see what’s there. It’s amazing what you can see at a glance, and how illuminating these types of exercises can be. For someone visual like myself, my writing process was forever changed. I do a book dissection for every draft, and find the process of creating them makes the actual changes to the draft so much easier.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes, or tell us about your methods in the comments.

Thanks for reading!


Nicki Pau Preto is a twenty-something graphic designer by day and aspiring YA author by night (and, well, sometimes by day, too).

She’s been reading and writing YA ever since she first picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and considers J.K. Rowling the bar to which all literary efforts should be measured against (it’s no wonder she often cries herself to sleep).

She lives in Toronto, Canada, and is currently gearing up to query her first book. You can find her online at her blog or on Twitter @nickipaupreto.

If you would like to write a guest post for YA Highway, submit a proposal here!

Kate Hart

Kate is the author of After the Fall, coming January 24, 2017 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A former teacher and grant writer, she now owns a treehouse-building business in the Ozarks and hosts the Badass Ladies You Should Know interview series.

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  1. Wow. This is fascinating. Sending a link to a friend of mine who is just embarking on a journey to Revisionland with her first novel :-)

  2. Thanks Paula! Tell her to check out the guest post by Kendra Leighton, too, it's been helping me on final edits as well:


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Item Reviewed: Guest Post: Book Dissection, Plot Boards, and Revisions, OH MY! by Nicki Pau Preto Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kate Hart