13-Week Rewrite, Week Four: The Decision

Hi, welcome back! Last week, we explored the counter-argument to your story, the resistance that your heroine faces in pursuit of a solution to the story-problem. This week, you’ll push past this point to the hero’s irreversible decision to continue on this fool’s errand, despite the worthy antagonists and counter-arguments that stand in his way.

The Hero’s Decision

The end of Act One (or the first 25% of your story, if you’re working in a different Act Structure) is where your heroine decides to go forward and solve the story problem set up by the inciting incident. By this time, the heroine has encountered the opposition posed by the counter-argument of the worthy antagonist. As a consequence, notice that there’s an opportunity for a moment of reluctance on your heroine’s part here.

Even though your heroine makes a decision that propels her into Act Two, the fear and reluctance that accompany such a decision are necessary to clarify for the reader exactly what’s at stake here.

Why? Because the decision is irrelevant if your reader doesn’t understand its underlying meaning. You can’t assume that your reader understands your characters’ motives. Unless you provide a context for your characters’ behaviors, your reader will be lost.

Contrariwise, it’s just as important not to spell everything out—your reader has an imagination. So how can you dramatize the meaning in your work rather than stating it outright? If your writing is stuffed full of pedantic editorials, then explore ways to show rather than tell by putting your characters into conflict.

The More Thing’s Change…

Human beings don’t like change. Ask your spouse/partner/kids to hide the silverware on a random day during this upcoming week, and note your response when you reach for a butter-knife or a coffee spoon that isn’t where it’s supposed to be.

Now multiply that feeling 1000-fold. That’s how your heroine feels about this decision. She’s heard the counter-arguments. She’s seen the nature of the worthy antagonist. No bones about it: this decision she faces is about change. Something’s gotta give in order for the story problem to be resolved. Your protagonist is setting out on a journey, even if it’s only a journey into her own psyche. The unknown manifests itself in an infinite variety of ways: a move to a new home, a new relationship, a big promotion, or a job loss. The unknown might mean revealing a damaging secret, or staying silent about one.

Whatever the decision is, the fact of it is less important than the meaning ascribed to it. The decision to commit murder is very different for a mob hit-man than for a divorced suburban housewife. What does that decision mean to those characters? What does the decision facing your character mean to her?

Without showing her reluctance and hesitation to commit the act, we can’t understand her plight. In your first draft, you may have been only mildly aware of what was driving your heroine. In the rewrite, you have to be sure. Invite yourself to become conscious of her motives, and how they drive her toward her decision, and how they hold her back from it.

Ask Your Story

This week, ask your story these questions. Be curious and open to the answers. Follow those answers to new questions, and see how your heroine’s decision evolves.

  1. Is your heroine’s decision at the end of Act One (~25% into the story) as dynamic as it can be?
  2. What does it mean that she makes this decision?
  3. Is the meaning of the decision clear to the reader?
  4. Is the decision conveyed through action and conflict?
  5. Is it clear that this decision is related to the dilemma?
  6. Is there a moment of reluctance for the heroine before she proceeds with making her decision?

Killing Darlings

In a rewrite, you’re always on the lookout for ways to clarify, tighten, layer information, and reorder or conflate scenes. Your manuscript is a living document. It inhales and exhales, contracting and expanding as you move toward a more specific understanding of your story.

There will be scenes that don’t seem connected to each other. Open up the skin and have a look at the tendons, ligaments, and cartilage connecting the bones of the underlying structure. Use your imagination. How do your characters get from hither to thither? As ridiculous as your character’s choices might seem, your ONLY job is to support those choices. By finding ways to support those choices, the character’s inner nature is revealed.

In going back through your first draft, you might find that it’s so bloated and overwritten that you don’t know what a scene is even about until you boil it down to the essentials. It’s hard to cut writing that you like in order for the truth to emerge. Believe me, I know. Insert queasy analogy about omelettes and eggs.

But you must get to the essential truth in each scene. And sometimes, that means killing your darlings to distill those scenes down to their raison d’être. Once you’ve found that fundamental, essential kernel of truth in the scene, once you know what that scene is about and how it serves the story, then you can write new material that fills out that scene.

There Won’t Be Any Science Either, I Promise

There’s no scientific process behind all this. But there’s no mystery to it either. You put in the brute-force time to read, re-read, and re-read again. You go over the scene again and again until you find the energy and excitement in the scene that drives the story forward. Wherever the story feels lifeless—no matter how much you love the sound of your own prose—you get the scissors and start mercilessly killing your darlings.

You need to get past “liking the writing” and feel involved in the world of the story. Strip out everything that doesn’t feel alive and utterly necessary. Do it quickly, without thinking too much. Don’t listen to your darlings, begging you to give them a chance. Cut them quick and clean under the jaw-line, from ear to ear. Clip the carotid arteries as well as the jugular. Show no mercy. Your story is at stake, and these shiftless layabouts and hangers-on are dragging it down. Show them the end of a rope.

Then go back and read the scene again. Does it have a different feel? Has the meaning of the scene been altered? Do the characters seem different?

If the scene works as it is, then leave it alone. If it requires embellishment, add the details that are begging to be written.

Good luck once again! I’ll see you back here next week!

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Posted in Editing, Process, Writing Craft Tagged with: , , , , , ,
2 comments on “13-Week Rewrite, Week Four: The Decision
  1. Adrian says:

    I found your blog posting quite informative. The protagonist in my own work, Cecelia, is going through a similar crisis, so the timing is ideal. She’s faced with a decision to hide from the Warmaster that is hunting her. I’m still fleshing out the consequences of her actions regarding this opportunity to hide, but there are a few ideas in mind. These consequences will prove to be her most daunting challenge yet. I’ll let you know how things turn out.

    Editor’s note: In your second sentence in the paragraph prior to Ask Your Story, you state: If your first draft…I presume you mean In, rather than If.

    Your questions in Ask Your Story are quite fascinating to contemplate. I, as the writer, should be aware of the answers to these questions and make the reader aware. That said, it doesn’t mean that the character, in this case, Cecelia should be immediately aware of these consequences.

    This question of Killing Darlings also has ideal timing. I’ve recently decided to ice a plot line involving Cecelia. In the story, her mind is going through terminal velocity in a vision of the future, but the implications of this power of hers to see the future threatens to accelerate the plot beyond light speed. So, I cut it out and set it aside. There’s a chance I’ll bring it back much later in the timeline.

    All the best! Keep on writing!

    If you’re reading this, I posted it via safari. If so, firefox is the issue.

    • Adrian, thanks for the feedback. Editorial note noted and fixed, good catch, thank you.

      The questions are certainly for you as the author to answer. Whether the characters are aware of them or not is a matter for you to decide, but the sense of those questions and their answers should be available to the reader in some degree.

      If the reader is aware, but the character is not, then you have successfully created dramatic irony, in the old Greek sense, where the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the reader, but unknown to the character.