When my first draft is dead on arrival, I have to edit my story back to life. This is how I slice out the borrowed elements from my work and stitch something original together.
Reanimating the Corpse of Your Story
My early screenplays were full of placeholders, cop drama clichés, stock dialogue I had every intention of replacing. The margins were littered with comments like, “IOU one clever retort here,” or “IOU one line of romantic sentiment,” or “IOU one well reasoned argument to show the hero has learned a lesson.” My scripts looked like algebra equations. Editing meant scratching my head, wondering what to substitute for “X.” I knew what the result should feel like, but lacked the variables to get there.
The stories hinged on melodramatic scenes. Without the words to communicate the characters’ emotions, I went for longwinded declarations. Tender moments devolved into bloated monologues that read like essay answers, not revelations. The words didn’t come naturally. I wasn’t putting myself in the shoes of my characters. I was reckoning what they’d say based on things I’d already heard. My point of reference was not my life, but what I’d seen on TV.
My beta readers asked, “Why would the hero do something so completely out of character?” My answer was always, “The story needed him to.” The writer’s hand cast a shadow over the text.
My first drafts were nearly dead on arrival. A script doctor couldn’t save them. They needed a surgeon. Someone to remove the wordy wisdom-teeth, trivial tonsils, and asinine appendix. Someone to dig their gloves into the gooey schmalz and pull the bare bones out. Someone to take the hackneyed heart and infuse it with new life.
My second drafts limped along on life support. I was too attached to the work to gut it. Making minor alterations to the dialogue, I tried to punch lines up rather than shift conversations around. I tried to define redundant characters rather than combine them. I tried to justify entrance and exits scenes rather than slice them out. I used contractions to lower my word count rather than sacrifice one line of precious description.
Have you ever watched a movie that felt like one long montage, where no scene lasted longer than two minutes? The camera would whisk you from set to set, never stopping long enough to let you settle in. The story wasn’t pulling you along, it was tugging. These stories don’t stop moving long enough to find dry land. That was my problem. I was big on sequences and small on moments. I wrote a ninety page script with eighty-three scenes.
It took a while for the extent of my problems to sink in. My scripts hinged on scenes that needed to be cut. Needless characters had been made invaluable by their lone contribution to the story. The scenes were so short that the composer could stretch one song across ten of them.
I didn’t need to write a third draft. I needed to redo the first.
My placeholders had infected the story. All of those phrases like, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” or “I can’t believe I’m saying this, (insert the name of the villain here) has a point…” and “You should see the other guy,” stuck out.
These were the sayings I always passed over during my second draft. They weren’t my lines, but they had the whole of film history behind them. They felt secure, despite being hollow. They were safe investments, filler dialogue while I waited for the characters to speak for themselves.
Something happened when my characters got more refined. Their dialogue didn’t suit them. Han Solo didn’t fit into the stories I was writing. Mine was a universe where the plucky rogues couldn’t charm their way out of harm’s way. My heroes couldn’t afford to be this smug in the face of danger. They knew better than to engage in banter in the barracks. They lacked the confidence to wink as they rode into battle.
My first few drafts took an original premise and played it out with familiar heroes, settings and events. They’d make fine trailers, but terrible movies. My third draft had to honor that original premise with original characters and sequences. I had to gut the parts that felt safe. Rather than file down the jagged edges, I sharpened them. My third drafts were Frankenstein monsters, built from dangerous material.
Applying this approach to my novellas, I’ve discovered story elements along the way. Digging myself out of plot holes, by writing chapters in-between chapters.
Deleting the serviceable filler lines, I replaced them with something with genuine. This meant, holding back the zingers when they’re out of character, or inappropriate to the situation. This meant stealing from life experience, if not my own, then the accumulated experience of my peers. Challenging my character assumptions, my friends discovered plot holes I wasn’t looking for. They’d say, “Why doesn’t he just do this?…” or “What’s to stop the bad guys from just doing this?…”
They forced me to think of these ideas not as stories, but as events in my character’s lives. Donating the limbs my monster needed to stand on, they helped me rebuild it from the ground up.