This is Raina’s second question after my appeal for questions, written on December 4, 2019: How do you approach fixing big-picture story issues that run throughout the entire book (characterization, worldbuilding, voice, theme, etc. Especially characterization) without rewriting the whole book? To use an analogy, I’ve always thought of plot issues like working on a Lego project (everything is connected, but each scene is more or less a discrete part, and many times fixing the issue is just a matter of rearranging the blocks or adding/subtracting/”remaking” new ones), small scale, line-edits like sanding/finishing a woodworking project (you get up close and fix little things one at a time with relative ease), and big-picture issues like a single (or multiple) wrong thread in a knitting project: one bad yarn runs through the entire thing, connected to everything else, and it’s embedded so deep that it’s impossible to pull out the yarn without unraveling the entire thing. Any tips?
A few of you responded.
Erica: I don’t know. I really hate editing my stories (no idea why), and so when I have big problems like that, I usually just start over.
NerdyNiña: No, but I love your analogies.
future_famous_author: Maybe just read it over one time fixing one specific mistake? If your story is really long, though, I’m not sure how you would go about that.
I, too, am a fan of Raina’s analogies. The knitting analogy is particularly great when it comes to characterization (I’m assuming this is a major character), because character and plot are, so to speak, woven together.
Sometimes the problem is that our character isn’t by nature someone who will follow the track of our plot. When a plot turn has to happen, he’s forced to do things he wouldn’t, often things that unpleasantly go against reader expectations.
Let’s take as an example Prince Charming from Cinderella. He’s our MC. Cinderella is important, but she’s on the sidelines. We need a character who is on board with the idea of three balls that are being held expressly to find him a wife. We want readers to like him. We want to like him ourselves, so we craft a prince who has opinions, friends, challenges, whatever they are–maybe the kingdom is badly governed or he doesn’t get along with the prime minister. When we get to the balls, halfway through our book, he just isn’t cut out to care about them, much less notice Cinderella, no matter how beautiful she is, no matter how interesting and perfect for him she is.
We may have to do a lot of writing to make this work, not only revising him but also our plot. What can we add or subtract from him to make him open to the wife marketplace that the balls really are?
Naturally, we can make a list!
∙ Charming has a warm, loving relationship with his parents, which we have to build. The balls are important to them, so, against his inclinations, he takes them seriously.
∙ We make the ball especially hard for him. He has a stutter, a twitch, a bunion–something physical (another list). He doesn’t care about the ball, but he’s unwilling to fail at anything. We revise to show this quality in our story up to now. We show what happens to him when he fails.
∙ He’s a wonderful friend. Think Darcy’s friendship with Bingley in P&P. We build loyalty into him. Charming’s best friend is making a fool of herself at the ball. He gets involved to save her from years of regret, and Cinderella enters the picture.
∙ More that you can make up.
The strategy here is to look at our plot as well as the one character who’s driving us crazy. We may have to revise both for our story to work.
Often there’s a moment when the character first reveals what he’s like and starts behaving in the way that doesn’t work for our story (though we don’t recognize it at the time). When we find that moment, we can adjust him and move forward from there. Of course, as soon as we change him in that spot, there will be ripple effects. The thing that Charming said that led his friend to an action, he won’t say, so the friend is likely to do something else. And Charming himself will be dancing off in an unfamiliar direction. At that point we look at the new trajectory of our story and see what will have to change and what we can hold onto.
Sometimes what we can hold onto isn’t much. Starting with Ella Enchanted, there have been books that have forced major rewrites on me for one reason or another. I wrote two hundred pages of Ella and had to go back to page twenty and start again from there. In that case I veered down a very long plot cul-de-sac. In Fairest, I couldn’t get the POV right and rewrote it three or four times before I found my way. The Two Princesses of Bamarre was supposed to be “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” and I had to discover an entirely new story. I still don’t know what I was originally trying to do with Stolen Magic, which I agonized over here on the blog.
On the other hand, some books have seemed to want to be written and have almost written themselves, like the first five of the six “Princess Tales,” and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Others have fallen in a mid range of difficulty.
Regarding other big-picture issues, if the plot is affected in a big way, the changes that we’ll have to make are likely to be big, too. I just finished Part One of my Trojan War fantasy. My MC in the first part is Cassandra, who, according to Greek mythology, is a priestess of the god Apollo, but I don’t know much about what it meant to be a priestess in ancient Greece, based only on short passages in two books on daily life during the period, so I sketched that part in very vaguely, and my writing buddy said that’s inadequate. Through another friend, I connected with an archaeologist who’s working in that region, and she recommended an almost three-hundred-page book on the subject, which I will tackle very soon.
Depending on its contents, I’ll face a dilemma. If reflecting actual history upends my plot, what should I do? I can design a fantasy priestesshood that conforms to my plot and let readers know that what they’re reading isn’t historically accurate, or I can do a lot of rewriting. I think it will depend on two criteria: what I decide will make a better story and what seems more interesting and fun to write (as in the have fun that I end each post with).
If the worldbuilding issue isn’t earthshaking, it will be more in the Lego category. We can search our document for whatever we have to redo, make the change and move on.
But voice and POV are also big-picture issues. They may not change our plot much, but they will change its presentation, the lens through which readers view events. For example, some plot points may rise in significance and others may sink. A significant rewrite will probably be called for.
Writing isn’t for lazy people. If we wanted cushy lives, we would have chosen to be astrophysicists.
Writing also (sigh) encourages humility. And learning. We learn to be better writers our whole lives. That’s a great thing.
Here are three prompts:
∙ I’m thinking of time-travel movies like Peggy Sue Got Married and Back to the Future, when an MC gets transported to a different time. The MC is the same; some aspects of her world and some of the people in it are also the same, but a great deal is different. For this prompt, write a scene that takes place in ordinary 2020 during the sweet-sixteen party of your MC, Doneta. Introduce an element of conflict–a disagreement with a parent, an argument with a friend, a disappointment from a romantic interest, or something else–you decide. The next morning, she wakes up in a different world, and it’s again the day of her sweet-sixteen party. This world may be forty years in the past or future or may be on a planet that circles a bright blue sun. Some characters will be the same, some different. The party tradition will be slightly different–you decide how. Write the party scene in this new world and revise the conflict in some way. If you like, keep writing.
∙ Take the Prince Charming who doesn’t care a pin about the ball. Don’t change him to make him care. Write the first ball and what follows. Introduce Cinderella and her stepfamily. Cinderella is still pretty and a decent person; the stepmother and stepsisters are still horrible, each in her own way. Your story doesn’t have to follow the fairy tale, but it can wind up there if you want it to. Keep writing, and keep Charming center stage.
∙ Choose one of your stories that you’re happy with and deliberately fool with it–but first save the original. Change the personality of your MC or a major character. Rewrite at least the first five pages. If you like what’s going on, continue. At the end, you may have two distinct stories or two variants that you can choose between.
Have fun, and save what you write!