Every writer experiences this event at one point or another. The unmistakable gut wrenching feeling that something is wrong plants its seeds. The uneasiness grows and grows until all you want to do is burst into tears and bellow “Mommy, I broke my story! Fix it!” Unfortunately, no amount of tears will bring someone to magically fix your manuscript. You swallow the heartbreak and wonder where you should start to save everything. The answer is a little bit more complex than “Women and child first.”
It’s not a mistake!
The first thing you ought to come to term with is that a story that doesn’t work isn’t a mistake. Trust me. It isn’t. A broken story is part of the writing process.
You’ve started out with the perfect tale/characters/themes. You’ve outlined (or not). You’ve written quite a bit before the nagging feeling that something ain’t quite right grappled you. The more you write, the more the words/plot/motivations seem wrong until you get to the point where the story looks broken. Why it happened? Because despite the planning (or lack thereof), stories change as they are written and the original course of action becomes obsolete.
That’s what we call iterative work. We do it all the time in video games. I do it with my writing too.
You try something. You see what works and what doesn’t. You improve. Repeat as needed.
It doesn’t mean the story or the writer is bad. It’s not a mistake. It’s the natural process to make amazing things!
Do not panic!
The first reflex that comes to mind when we realize the story is broken is to hit delete on all or a part of the project. Do not do it! You’ll regret it!
The second reflex is to think all is wrong and start changing a bunch of things at once. Do not do it! You’ll lose track of what’s wrong and alter what was good!
The third reflex is to stop writing until the problem appears clearly. Do not do it! Chances are you’ll never finish that manuscript!
More often than not, the bulk of the project is perfectly fine. It’s just missing a few key ingredients to make it shine and feel right. I’m not saying chapters never get thrown away and plotlines never require a major rework. I’m saying that an overhaul is not the way to start fixing things.
Find the broken bone!
The first step is obviously to find where the story is broken. Sometimes, you can do it right away by analyzing what you’ve written. Other times, you get the nasty “it doesn’t work” feeling when it’s too early to tell why. Keep writing! You’re not losing your time; you most likely won’t have to throw it all away. If you can’t find what is bugging you, keep writing until the trouble emerges clearly.
When you search for the source of the problem, proceed with caution and precision. Doctors don’t amputate limbs by default for a broken bone, do they? Well, neither should you.
It’s usually pretty easy to pinpoint where the trouble starts. “Things get messy after chapter X.” Congratulations! You have figured out which limb is broken. Now you can start patting it to find where it truly hurts.
Gently ask yourself as many questions as needed to find which bone is broken. Is the pacing working or does it drag along? Are all the characters necessary or is one of them completely useless and just weighing down the story? Are the characters’ motivations clear? Nothing is safe during this process. Not even you’re favorite comic relief. You need to challenge everything. If it’s good, keep it. If it’s wrong, highlight it. Notice that I didn’t say “change it”. There is a reason; oftentimes, the highlighted wrongs are symptoms of something else. Make sure you compile them all before altering your work. It’ll allow you to devise the most efficient path to a good story.
By now, you know what hurts. Awesome. Take some X-rays, put them on the light board and you should see why it hurts. In non-metaphorical words, follow the hints of the things you’ve highlighted until you find the true/hidden/underlying problem. Yes, you have to be that precise. You cannot heal a leg without knowing the ailment. Even if you feel an unnecessary character is the problem, cutting him out might not be the solution. If he’s superfluous because his motivations aren’t clear, you won’t perform the same surgery than if he’s just decorative.
At this point, you’ve probably realised that a couple of tweaking here and there, cutting off a scene or wedging in another is all it takes to make it all better. Do it!
Make the minor changes on a new copy of your work (always keep the old one safe, you never know!) and re-evaluate the story. It doesn’t matter if there still are bumps and bruises. We’re in the writing process. All you want is to set the general course straight so you can finish the manuscript. Polishing will come in the editing phase. Just stop the bleeding. Test the viability of the solution by writing some more of the story. If the “it’s broken” feeling persists, restart the process.
Excerpt from my life
This week I had problems writing the last fourth of my work in progress. It felt broken. I didn’t know why. As I continued writing, I realised that one of the secondary characters and quite a few chapters appeared to be filler. They all lacked tension and a sharp sense of purpose. My 20k last words were an utter failure. Or were they?
I knew I had to get my main character through that particular ordeal in order to lead her to the end. And the end worked. The secondary character was vital in my story for various reasons. So why did I hate that story arc? Why didn’t the secondary character come across as important?
Upon analysis, I noticed a weird thing. Though I kept mentioning the bad guy, the dude himself was nowhere to be seen. Hence the lack of tension. Hence the feeling that the actions taken by the characters were meaningless. Everything sprouted from that problem.
The solution? I added one 300 words scene within a chapter. I stuck the bad guy in there. He looks like a sore thumb right now. That’s alright. I have a feel of where I’m heading and it’s way better than where I was. In my “watch out for” list I make for my future editing process, I noted that the strengthening of the bad guy’s presence was a must. I’ll add pieces of him as early as the second chapter (right now he appears in the tenth one). Probably just two lines but he’ll be there and again later on. The bulk of the scenes won’t even need to be tweaked. I haven’t thrown anything away. I just sprinkled the bad guy where I needed him.
What seemed like a huge mistake was in fact a very little misrepresentation.
In a nutshell, fight the urge to go “Mommy, I broke my toy!” and weep. Most of the time, if you’re Transformer doesn’t unfold as it is supposed too, it just needs a few screws tightened or loosened. 😉