OK. Let’s recap. You wrote the first draft. You’ve given yourself a break and you’re ready to look at your work with fresh eyes. That original first draft is saved, hopefully in a few locations… you know, just in cases.
Now it’s time to go through it and make sure you have the all-important plot.
Because the plot is your purpose for telling the story; it’s the glue that holds your masterpiece together.
Stories come to us in fits and bursts. Sometimes they flow, and other times they trickle, and often, the story you thought you were telling when you first started typing is a completely different tale by the time you’re done. Which means you have to go back and make sure that everything is cohesive.
Basically, you don’t want your work to be Rachel’s Thanksgiving dessert from Friends. Ground beef is fine, but not in a fruity dessert. Make sure you all your ingredients make either Shepherd’s Pie or an English Trifle, not some unpalatable combination of the two. (Genre-mashing can be great, but it has to be done smoothly!)
English foods aside, you don’t want contradictions in your plot. With your characters, it can be a good thing, even a grounding thing, as long as you give solid character-based reasons for it, but with plot it can weaken your tale. This means cutting the “ground beef” out. The old kill your darlings quote applies here. You might have a great scene or awesome character, but if it undermines your plot it’ll have to be saved for another story — the one about Shepherd’s Pie, perhaps?
Everything must serve the plot. And if you’ve done your job well, plot and character will overlap majorly. Even in a case-of-the-week TV show, the cases tie back to the main characters’ season/series arcs in some way. In the CW’s Supernatural, for example, at the exact moment Sam Winchester is facing the possibility of having to sacrifice his brother Dean for the greater good, the brothers meet a girl with a werewolf sister who is out of control.
If she can’t tame her sister, she’ll have to make the ultimate sacrifice and take her out. The episode is a tight standalone story, but it holds up a mirror to the brothers’ relationship and hints at what might be coming for them.
And remember, your plot manipulations and machinations and mechanics—and other things beginning with “m”—shouldn’t be obvious. There shouldn’t be billboards advertising “foreshadowing”… it should be subtle AND entertaining. Some of the best stories, the ones that stay with us, only reveal how it’s glued together much later in the story. (The gold standard of awesome plotting is still Die Hard, btw. Just saying).
So in this first pass of editing, focus on removing what doesn’t work. e.g. scenes that don’t further the plot or the character, or slow things down, or take your story off track in some way (no matter how much you love it), add in what’s needed to keep the plot together, and finesse each point so that the reader can’t see the working mechanics of it all. You can do this by making key plot moments funny, or action-oriented, or a major character moment… or distract the reader with flying monkeys… you’re basically being a magician and using sleight of hand, making the reader/audience see one thing, when you’re really doing something else.
For example, in the opening minutes of Die Hard, John McClane’s seatmate on the plane tells McClane that when he gets to his hotel, he needs to take off his shoes and socks and “make fists with his toes” to relax. McClane thinks this is crazy, but when he gets to Nakatomi Plaza, he does it, and it works. You think that’s the payoff… but that’s the moment when Hans Gruber shows up, forcing McClane to spend the rest of the movie barefoot (and to run over broken glass at one point). That throwaway comment was a setup to help make things very difficult for the hero later on — something all plots need to do!
It’s true that characters can change us and scenes can stay with us, but a good, tight plot is what makes us fall in love with everything in the story. No matter what type of story you’re telling, there should always be a bit of romance between the story and the reader. The plot is how you woo them to fall in love with your work.