There will be occasions in your writing journey when things will be going well, when words will come easily on paper and you’ll like what you’ve written.
But these occasions are rare. As a writer, most of your time will be spent on getting into trouble and then getting out of it, turning a dull or uneven scene into a compelling force.
Writing is rewriting. In this article, I’ll try to explain what rewriting is, how to do it, how to know when you get it right and everything else you need to know.
What Is Rewriting?
First, you need to understand that rewriting is not the same as polishing. When polishing, we change words, phrases and sentences to make the story read smoothly. It’s a surface problem that we are solving.
Rewriting, on the other hand, is reworking larger aspects of a story to make it more urgent and dramatic.
To keep the readers invested in your story, they should be able to identify with and care about your characters. Identification is how the audience experience a character, feel his feelings, and become the character as they immerse in the story.
In addition, they should always be feeling that the story is moving forward, that it’s going somewhere. Otherwise, neither you nor they will be happy with your writing.
So when rewriting, we make decisions on changing, cutting, or adding scenes, characters, subplots and other elements.
How Many Rewrites It Takes?
You keep working on draft after draft to get the story right. But how many are enough?
That’s a tough question to answer objectively. But maybe we can look at an average. Keep in mind that no one can get it right the first time.
From my experience, research and interactions with other writers, about 10 drafts seem reasonable. Aristotle is known for rewriting some paragraphs as many as 80 times. Tolstoy worked on War and Peace about 10 times, Hemingway wrote about 60 drafts of a single paragraph.
It’s also notable that not the entire story will need the same number of rewrites. Some paragraphs or scenes may require more or less rework than the others.
And if you’re really satisfied with a scene or paragraph (which is rare), you can also leave it untouched.
The idea of rewriting is not to do it just for the sake of it. The point is to take every opportunity you can to get your story right.
How To Know When You’re Done?
When you rewrite a scene or paragraph many times, you realize that it’s getting better and better. Then why not keep doing it?
After all, if you’ve made it so much better in the 5th rewrite, imagine what could it become in 15th or 19th? Maybe perfection is just another rewrite way. How can you tell?
Here’s a rule that can help: You’ll know you have worked on enough drafts when your last one isn’t as good as the one immediately before. When you’ve have started making your story weaker than stronger, it’s time to stop.
Now, this rule may help to some extent, but it’s difficult to apply considering the loss of perspective from working again and again on the same story.
The more you rewrite a story, the better you know it. It’s your story. The twists and turns don’t shock you anymore. No surprises. It’s all predictable.
As a result, you lose perspective and can’t judge what’s good and what’s bad anymore. Only when you have regained some perspective that you can tell which draft is better and pick one.
And the way to do that is taking time away from the story. When you don’t look at it for a week or month, you’ll be able to have a fresh look at it when you come back.
In case of a long piece, like a novel, it’s easier because you rewrite from start to finish. By the time you finish working on the ending, it’s already a long time since you saw the beginning. So you can return to it with a fresh mind and rewrite well.
However, even with a novel there may be parts that you rewrite over and over. So it’s possible to fall in the same rut and lose perspective. When that happens, as always, take some time off and come back later.
Checking The Basics
When things don’t seem to be making sense, when you lose your way, the first thing to check is have you adhered to the basics: conflict, action, resolution. When you do that, you’ll find your way back into the story.
If these 3 elements aren’t setup properly, nothing else will work. You can try fixing other things, but it’ll be a wasted effort. When things don’t seem right, go back to CAR (conflict, action, resolution) immediately.
Conflict (Intent + Obstacle)
The audience can’t identify with a character unless they know who he really is. And nothing reveals who he is better than what he does.
But to make the character do something dramatic that reveals more about who he is, he needs a conflict. When there is an intent and an equally strong obstacle, you have a conflict. Let’s break them down.
Want – As you work on your story, check what each character wants. What’s the intent? If there is no want, that’s a problem. That’s because no action can take place without a want. Does the want or intent appear as early as possible?
Whatever the want or intent, it should be strong enough to propel the story. How do you make sure of this? To your character, it should be a matter of high stakes, preferably life and death.
Your character must feel strongly that things need to change, urgently. He cannot be in his current situation any longer. He must be driven, determined and desperate to satisfy his intent and won’t settle for any less.
If there’s any chance that your character can put up with what already is, and if it’s a matter of choice, than the intent isn’t strong enough. It won’t push the character to its limits.
A real conflict emerges when something of great value is at stake. If the character doesn’t care much about what he wants, the reader won’t either.
Also keep in mind that the want may not always be explicit at first. It’s there, even buried in case it’s already satisfied, but not obvious until denied or compromised.
Barriers – Check the obstacle. Without an obstacle or series of barriers against the intent, you can’t have the dramatic tension required to propel the story. Does the obstacle appear as early as possible?
In a good story, things keep getting worse and worse, with layers of conflicts appearing in every scene and chapter, until they start getting better towards the end.
How do you check if the obstacle is strong enough? Just like the intent, it should determined, desperate and driven to oppose or deny the intent. If the character can ignore the barrier and get away with it, then it’s not strong enough.
Both want and obstacle should seem equally strong. If one is stronger than the other, than there is no conflict. If the want and obstacle aren’t such that the character is worried or scared, you don’t have a conflict.
Ideally, you should keep building conflict after conflict, making things worse with ever scene and chapter.
If there are two scenes or chapters in your story with a lot of activity, but things haven’t gotten worse, your story isn’t moving. Each step should lead to more trouble and threat for the character.
Once you’re sure the conflict or a chain of conflicts is in place, check what the character is doing to resolve the conflict, to overcome the barrier and fulfill intent. In other words, check the actions.
Anything a character does isn’t action. He can do any kind of ranting, running or smashing, but unless it’s an attempt to resolve the conflict, the readers won’t care. For an action to really count, it should be a straight attack at the obstacle or problem. Or at least defense against it.
For the readers to identify with a character, a story is supposed to reach the limit, or get to the bottom of the character. That’s why we need to push them and pressure them with intense conflicts, and let them respond in an authentic way.
With each scene or chapter, the character must be stewing and wrestling and fretting with what just happened, contemplating options as to what he’ll do now. The scene works when it has moved the character to a worse, new place, where he is even more worried and scared than before.
The more difficult you make things for your character, the more extreme his actions, and the more is getting revealed about him. So the audience can really experience the character.
Romeo loved and pursued Juliet with all his heart. Hamlet agonized enough over his issues. Ahab went all the way to get Moby-Dick. All these characters took steps to overcome intense hurdles, and in the process revealed more of themselves.
One reason people love reading and watching fiction is to live through the extreme experiences that hardly come in real life. So a great storyteller pushes his characters, conflicts and actions as far as he can at every chance.
In fact, every choice, every action that you’re contemplating to put in your story should be checked against this rule. It must be revealing. When stuck with 2 or 3 choices, for example, ask yourself, “Which reveals more character?” And go with that.
Even when two characters are having a conversation, it should be confrontational. There must be differences and conflicts of interest, like one character trying to persuade the other. So the friction reveals more about them and move the story forward.
Confrontation doesn’t always have to be challenging or threatening. It can be also be gentle. But there should be something important at stake. If the outcome isn’t vital to the plot, we can do without it.
Check where the action appears on the page. Could it happen sooner? Is there anything more the character can do? Is he pushing himself to the limit? If not, how can you make that happen?
Action doesn’t necessarily mean physical action. Even thinking can work as action if it’s about attacking or defending against the obstacle. And when action happens, the obstacle must counter with a equal force.
If you have intent, obstacle and action setup properly, the resolution is simply a matter of a victory or defeat. It should not be a problem.
Many aspiring writers think that endings trouble them. But when you’re struggling with your ending, the ending itself isn’t usually the problem. It’s the beginning.
Ending is difficult when there’s no real beginning – an intense conflict between want and obstacle. When you have two equally strong forces going against each other, you have a strong beginning.
When one of these forces beats the other, you get the ending. The ending is resolution of the conflict, which can be either victory, defeat or a compromise.
Emotions, while not a building blocks of a story, are more of a seasoning that should be all over the story.
As much as possible, the reader should be aware of what the character is feeling, which on page means his thoughts, dialogue, physical changes, actions or all of them.
While in a novel you have more freedom to go deep inside a character’s mind and thoughts, a TV or film script will rely more on physical expressions, dialogue and actions.
A character’s actions and his inner thoughts may not always be the same. If the actions are different from inner thoughts and feelings, you can capture both at the same time in a short story or novel.
In a screenplay, you’ll have to think of some other way to reveal, for example, that the character is being polite to someone’s face while secretly despising them.
In order to get to the emotions of a character, ask what are his worries, hopes and fears at each vital moment. Anyone struggling with a threat will be afraid and worried of what may happen, and hoping something can be done to overcome the problem.
That’s where the ultimate connection and identification happens, when the reader becomes the character he is reading about. Otherwise, the reader will just detach from the experience.
The last thing you need to check, as far as the plot is concerned, is whether you are showing as much as possible rather than telling.
Showing means creating an experience, making something happen word for word and moment by moment instead of describing or generalizing it.
If conflict and action are in place, then your story will be moving forward. You will not be stuck. Storytelling is about sticking to the basics.
So the first thing in rewriting is to check for these elements in every scene and chapter. Once you have the basics working, you can go over to the other, more complex aspects.
Every part you write should never just stick to doing one thing. You can have it do a lot more. For example, when you’re setting a scene, don’t wait to finish describing the setting in order to start the story.
You could be revealing the character at the same time if the setting has some connection to him. The setting can somehow advance the story, or triggers a strong emotional response in the character, or both.
When the setting is a necessary element of a story, the character will react to it in a way that reveals more about him.
When you’re choosing a setting for a scene, there must be some reason why you chose that one and not something else.
If a character is going to a party, for example, he can’t be going just because you held a lucky draw in your head and picked out that the setting should be a party.
The character must have some kind of feelings towards parties. May be he’s the kind of person who hates parties, revealing more about him.
And since you’re setting the scene and revealing character, for the same effort you can also hit the 3rd target: move plot.
The character is going to a party, a setting he doesn’t like, but he’s still going because he plans to meet a prospective client he’s been eyeing for a long time and convince him to join a business project.
The client doesn’t give him an appointment to meet at work, so the character thought the relaxing vibe of a party might just help him get under the radar.
So there’s a reason he’s going to a party. There’s an intent, an obstacle and he’s taking action towards it. He needs to be at this party. If he doesn’t, then he shouldn’t.
Nothing in fiction is random, or by accident. There’s a reason for everything, which brings me the next part.
Everything Should Connect
In a good story, everything has an objective. Everything contributes towards a purpose. Nothing is supposed to happen by chance. Nothing is just there.
A common rule of thumb is that if something isn’t helping the story, it’s hurting it. For example, if a character is accusing his brother of stealing his money, the reader may need to know why he believes that the brother stole the money.
But the reader doesn’t need to know whether the brother is married, how many children he has or what he wanted to become in his childhood, unless required by the story.
Many aspiring writer go on and on about describing a place in the name of setting the scene, or covering a character’s physical appearance or history in the name of character development.
But the way a character acts in the present and deals with conflicts is better development than anything else. Think about your favorite characters. Do you know everything about them like where they went to school and how many siblings they had?
The reader needs to know only what’s necessary for the plot. You can break this rule, but only when you know you’re breaking it and why.
For example, you may want to thrill the reader with a brilliant, poetic description of something for no purpose of plotting but only for the artistic beauty. And if you can pull it off, you should certainly go for it. At the end, creative writing is more art than science.
In some cases, something you write may not have a connection with anything else for now. But as you write further, you may get an idea to connect it with the plot.
When you make everything a necessary part of the story, you’ll end up with a richer and deeper story. So as you rewrite your story, pull out things that don’t fit, or make them mean something.
Sprinkle Background Information
We already discussed that if there is information the reader should know, you have to ensure that it is necessary, or make it necessary to the plot.
But even then, you can’t go page after page just giving information and not moving the story ahead. The reader will notice things going nowhere and get bored.
The trick here is to not cover the information in one long stretch. Break it down into quickly and easily digestible chunks and spread the chunks throughout the scene.
Let the information naturally emerge in the chain of events happening in the plot. When you feel the need to write a flashback scene, for example, first check if it can be avoided. If not, you should never just stop a thrilling scene in the middle to go into a flashback, like this:
Can you see the mistake? You started with high tension, but the reader doesn’t know who’s Bob and who’s Will and why Bob is yelling at Will. So you stop the action and take the reader through a flashback.
But even then, the reader doesn’t have full involvement because you quickly told him what happened before. You didn’t take him through the experience.
Instead, it’s better to begin from the beginning when Bob discovered what Will was doing with him. That should be the first dramatic event building up to the event we saw in the example above.
It’s often possible to eliminate the need for flashback by simply starting the story in an earlier time. When the story flows forward in a straight and simple timeline, the reader can go with it easily without being confused.
If you really need a long flashback, then write it all the way in one of the previous scenes or chapters when the stakes are still building up. Write it as a subplot with its own conflict, action and resolution.
When writing or editing dialogue, you should always look for opportunities to reveal more character.
A character should not only express and reveal himself, but also push the other characters to do the same.
If possible, have each character respond to every line of the other characters. That doesn’t mean you have to keep what every character says to every other character. The idea is to be able to see and come up with as many opportunities to reveal character.
Go as far as you can. The more matter you have to work on, the better. You can later cut out the dialogues which are unnecessary or don’t make sense. Here’s an example:
From the above dialogue, the reader is getting a sense of characters to some extent. But it’s nothing compared to how much more of the characters you can reveal if there’s a response after every line. Here’ a rewrite:
Okay, may be I went too far, but you get the point. This version gets more out of the characters than the previous one.
Everything Should Make Sense
While reality has its coincidences, chaos, and unresolved questions, in fiction readers want order, reasons and explanations.
When something happens in your story, the reader should be clear on what, why and the how of it by the time he finishes the story.
Of course, asking why and trying to explain every single line goes a bit too far. But my point is that fiction is more about getting to answers to the questions you raise.
Even the things we don’t question in real life may need explanation in a story. For example, if Frank is depressed because his friend died, in real life no one asks why.
But in fiction, readers look for the root cause. They want specific and personal reasons, the exact experience. Nothing it taken at face value.
So you may want to explain how the death affects Frank. May be he really loved his friend and miss talking to him about his experiences. Or may be he owed him money, which he’ll never get back. Or may be he isn’t depressed at all and just pretending.
When you run through your story, consider asking questions at every line and checking if they need answering. By the end of this, you’d have written a deeper, richer story with complex characters.
So I have given you most of the techniques you need to self-edit your work. But that’s not to say that you shouldn’t seek feedback from others.
The point of reworking is doing as much as you can yourself before showing to someone else. It helps you learn and develop.
When you solve most of the problems on your own, you’ll avoid the confusion and distraction that can result from seeking critique too soon.
Making a mess is inevitable. Sooner or later you will get into trouble. What matters is how quickly you get out of it and get back on track. And I hope this checklist will help you do that.