Re-Writing

Table of Contents

Chapter 6

RE-WRITING – WHAT WE REALLY DO

  1. Buried ordinance.
  2. Real-time editing.
  3. Editing in detail.
  4. Typical problems.

 

It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and THEN do your best. – W. Edwards Deming

 

  1. BURIED ORDNANCE

Once the basics are in place … premise, character, setting, and roughed-out events … the storyteller’s task now switches to fixing, reworking, and cleaning up the mess—tossing out the garbage, adding new (and better) material, and polishing every element.

Ernest Hemingway was famous for claiming to rewrite every paragraph at least 50 times before releasing anything for public consumption.  This might be overkill in an age of spell-checkers and other digital tools, but it does serve to illustrate the point.  Everything we write can benefit from rewriting … or said the way that it comes to mind … we call our earliest draft a ‘rough draft’ because that is what it is.

‘Fixing, reworking, and cleaning up the mess’ is easier said than done because rewriting is more like walking through a minefield than any sort of certain process.  Trying to fix a work of fiction can just as easily ruin it.  So, inasmuch as how I don’t normally define anything by “what it is not” – the best way to describe the rewriting process is by pointing out the more common buried ordinance along our pathway for success.

In the rest of this chapter, I’ll address these difficulties in the order that they afflict my own writing…

 

  1. REAL-TIME EDITING

While writing a new story, I am aware from time to time how my creative process very often excludes the critical objectivity needed to notice mistakes along the way.  While typing right now, for instance, I am taking my best shot at saying what I want to say – but not until I switch into detail-editing-mode can I see how this is okay or not.

With practice, I am better at real-time editing – rapidly switching modes between creating and editing.  And I am getting better at detecting excessive repetition and other common rough-draft problems.  My internal sense of rhythm and pacing (when I create versus when I edit) now keeps me from making too much of a mess before I take a first crack at reworking the very newest material.

My spelling is terrible, and I am all thumbs on the keyboard – but this is no reason to stop creating when I’m on a roll.  In real-time editing mode, only the worst of what I write gets hacked out immediately.  The rest is processed after I’ve written several paragraphs.  And only after writing a complete scene do take a more circumspect look at the details.  It’s a hard balance to find.  I can’t go too long before a quick edit.  Yet, I also don’t stop after every word or phrase to clean up what I’ve just wrote.  Too much of a stop-and-go writing only serves to crash my concentration – which is pointless – given how I can fix anything later.  But I can’t write page after page without pausing to critique the content or else I could wind up with a mountain of material than ran off the rails.

Nonetheless, as pointed out below, I still wind up with first-draft writing quality that is all over map that requires detailed revision that may continue for days, weeks, months, and even years.  For example, I can write the rough draft of a novel-length story in 30 days.  Yet, it typically requires several years of re-writing before I can make it ready for publication.

 

  1. EDITING IN DETAIL

Before I say anything more about ‘editing’ – by far, the most important point to keep in mind on the topic of editing is as simple as it gets:  You are the editor.

We can hire professional editors, but they will never see the story as clearly as we do, or understand how to best rewrite a section that needs work.  At most, an editor can flag obvious problems and offer feedback that helps the storyteller focus on what needs attention.  Once editors begin to re-write sections of my story – they are no longer ‘editors’ – they are co-authors – and no matter how well they understand my story, they can never know it as well as I do.

For this reason, I never hand a mess to an editor.  At most I send nearly finished work to an editor.  As the storyteller, I remain in charge, and I use feedback from the professionals to polish my own work.  Feedback is essential.  But it does not include relinquishing my authorship.

In detail, editing often involves removing repetition and replacing words and phrases with better terms and expressions.  Sometimes I rearrange the order of sentences, paragraphs, and whole sections if needed.

Sometimes I let a storytelling project sit for a few days, weeks, months, or even years before I attempt to polish it into a final form.  Printing it out or having the computer read it out loud to me can help.  One of my favorite approaches is to publish a rough draft on my website and then read it on-line with a browser.  Somehow the sense of publication allows me to see it with a fresh set of eyes.  More recently, I’ve been publish my best ‘final’ drafts as ebooks on Kindle – knowing that I can update these any time I want.  Having a story that is already being purchased is perhaps the best way to force myself to find any last minor problems that need fixing.  No project is ever done.  It just reaches the point where the effort to polish far exceeds the value of the polishing.

A video game can be released and then later revised.  I have released updates like that at times, and as long as the original release is decent and the updates not too often – this can be a way to release the best possible content.  Yet once a game is ready to play, the story is entirely embedded and is unlikely to change.  So – on the point of ‘stories in video games’ – releasing an updated draft is not going to fix much about your story because it’s typically too late to fix your story in a game once the gameplay elements are in place.

Another useful trick I play on myself is to make promises about when I will deliver my material to someone else for comments and feedback.  This self-imposed deadline seems to kick in a different way of looking at my work since now I am on the hook to actually show this to someone.  In fact, this sense of deadline is almost always my main motivation for publishing anything.  Without an audience expecting my work, I might never finish anything.

 

  1. TYPICAL PROBLEMS

Ham-handed editing is one of the more popular ways to mangle a story.  But not the only way.  Sometimes I am too conservative.  Sometimes too witty.  Often I write something that makes perfect sense to me – but it makes no sense to anyone else.

The minefield of editing is littered with all sorts of potential disasters – any one that can mangle my story.  One of my favorite expression involves a meat cleaver – ‘when in doubt chop it out.’  But even this gets me into trouble because I sometimes chop out something that should have stayed put.  I keep old version, of course.  But once a major section vanishes, even if it should have stayed put, it isn’t always easy to work it back in.

Here are the most notorious landmine tripwires.  Among all the ways editing can go awry, these are the most common ways to blow up a story…

Dialogue instead of Action

Dialogue is no substitute for how the characters act and react to success and failure.  Dialogue should mostly only confirm and punctuate what we already sense about the characters.  Dialogue should color their personalities and round out the edges of who they are.  Dialogue helps us see what we already know in every other way.

This does not imply that characters should never speak.  It means only that the writer must show what happens before anything meaningful can be said about it.  Dialogue, in fact, is almost always most meaningful in the context of action.  Han Solo’s pithy remarks in Stars Wars, for example, best reveal his bravado-laced insecurities when he’s in the heat of battle, whereas these sorts of remarks would very likely drop dead on the floor if nothing much were happening at the time.

The best example of dialogue reinforcing what we already know comes from the famous line … “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” which, by this point in the story was a foregone conclusion.  When Rhett offers this parting statement to Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, he is offering nothing more than a giant exclamation point.

The popular notion of ‘stories in video games’ tends to imagine a host of dialogue-rich cut-scenes movie clips and other non-interactive material that, in effect, removes the player from the action.  Instead of being pulled into the story by the added detail, the game-playing audience is instead pushed out of the story by having the information spoon-fed to them.  Screenwriters work hard to avoid this sort of experience in movies – often citing the catchphrase “show, don’t tell.”  In a video games, ‘showing’ also includes keeping the player roleplay mode rather than sitting through a passive cut-scene.

In my mod, A Keeper of the Prophecies, I assembled a ‘round table’ of player experts to critique my proposal for the last major section of the series.  My original concept for this section relied heavily on something we call a ‘canvator’ – where I planned to attach the players’ viewpoint to an invisible moving platform to take in the final events.  The players would simply have watched the last 15 or 20 minutes of the game out without interaction at all.

My committee rejected this proposal – insisting instead that the players should remain involved for as long as possible.  In the end, I produced two brief canvators to wrap up the story, while most of the end-stage portion of the game involved active roleplaying.  In movies and video games– where anything can happen on-screen – actions always speak louder than words.

If you do include a cut-scene in your game, the character dialogue or narration should never be used as the main storytelling vehicle.  A cut-scene should always contain action and return the player to roleplaying mode as soon as reasonably possible.

In short – tell your story actively through events, immediate situations, and time-limited sequences that do not offer a respite for the characters (or game player) to kick back.  Let the audience (and the game player) work out the story from what happens in the story.

Don’t spoon-feed any information that matters using dialogue.  If we learn something important through character dialogue that we don’t already know through the earlier actions of the characters – the story is off the rails.

Sacred Cows

Many writers get started by jotting down a powerful scene or sequence of cool dialogue – and the rest of the story gets written around this core – and refuse to edit this, almost like a sacred cow.  Yet, sacred cow rarely wind up supporting the goal of proving the premise, and they tends to drag the whole story down, no matter how well-written or beloved by the writer.

By ‘a sacred cow’ I am mainly referring to those trite and often unbelievable contrivances that we see in many bad stories … the totally implausible subplots and lousy dialog that exist to hold the monster together while it writhes through the projection machine, or across the pages of a book, or through the course of some terrible computer game.  It winds up like glue that is not part of the story.  Sometime a sacred cow is more like an encapsulated tumor that has no connection to the story at all.

As a personal aside on this point, what I am writing today started when I jotted down a diatribe that had little to do with editing.  Once I got back to making my case, I realized how those initial comments added nothing to the points I had planned to make – so this space is now filled with something else.

Sacred cows become a growing problem the longer a writer keeps running with them.   Eventually, a sacred cow can become part of the story in the writer’s mind – even if it has no reason for existence – and often the writer can no longer imagine the story without it.  Yet, until every last sacred cow is deleted, the story cannot function properly.

This is not to say that writing loose scenes is a bad idea early on.  I write a lot of rough-draft ideas in search of new ideas – but once I know what I want to say, I set anything aside that doesn’t fit.  Anything that’s worth keeping will leak back in, and the rest will leave for good.

Once you know what you want to say, toss out the sacred cows and rewrite everything with the premise centrally in mind.  Amazingly, once the cows are no longer cluttering your story, the old sacred cows won’t hold a candle to your newer material.

High-Concept

High concept replaces the premise with a quirky situational setting.  A ‘high-concept premise’ almost always takes on the form of a “what if…” statement like… “What if suddenly there were no gravity?” or “What if there were a volcano in downtown Los Angeles?”  Many situational comedies are high-concept in nature involving unusual (and highly unlikely) scenarios among people… “What if a communist and a right-wing fascist were roommates?”

The problem with high-concept storytelling is found in the lack of a true premise.  A premise is a statement of fact (if even untrue).  High-concept stories never attempt to prove anything, and instead, are a device to explore a situational vignettes that force characters to behave in unconventional and often embarrassing ways.  High-concept attempts to tickle the audience with a disorienting experience.  High-concept is like riding a roller coast.  There is no point other than the ride itself.

The high concept does not make a point – yet it takes on the role of the premise as though there were a point.  It is a fixed situation that cannot be challenged in any fundamental way.  One character is a communist, the other is a fascist, and there isn’t much that will change without ruining the gag.

There are rare examples of movies that start as a high-concept story which later prove a premise – mainly because the story really does have premise.  Men in Black is very much high-concept in storytelling style… “What if the tabloids were true?” But this story works because of how the concept is retooled as a premise – the tabloids are true, and what you read really does happen.  Rather than one repeating situation, the whole structure of Men in Black drives to a conclusion that proves this point.

A high-concept production always fails to prove anything beyond showing how many ways this situation creates a confusing mess in the lives of fictitious people.  This may be all the audience wants – a good laugh at the expense of tormented characters.  Yet, typically, it could be much more satisfying as a complete story – and still deliver the laughs.

If you want to write the best story for a game, movie, novel, play, or TV show, make sure that you are working toward proving your premise.  And if you don’t know what your premise is.  Stop.  You may be writing a high-concept story that winds up going nowhere.

Melodrama

Melodrama happens when character are at most 2D stereotypes with no particular reason for being in the story.  Typically, these characters overplay their rolls trying to fill a void created by the lack of fully fleshed out 3D characters.  Stereotypical characters placed in the role of the main characters exclude an excessive presence because the audience can tell that they have no business being there.

Soap operas are melodramas.  Everything happens in endlessly overt detail.  Everyone overreaches and overreacts because nothing much is really happening.  The stories drag on to where nothing is left to the imagination.  Everything is pumped up way beyond larger-than-life. The patient has cancer, a bad heart, liver trouble, bankruptcy, girlfriend problems, a twin brother found dead in jail, and a contract on his life – all at the same time.  And yet we still don’t care about this person.

Melodramas are charades that masquerade as stories.  There is no premise.  There isn’t any real attempt at establishing a clear dilemma.  The entire point is simply to push beyond all plausibility to make impossible papier-mâché characters face impossible papier-mâché situations.

Under very narrow circumstances, melodramatic methods can be made to work.  A deliberate farce, for example, is a melodramatic device used to illustrate a point through excessive exaggeration.  Yet, any sort of overplaying like this should take place sparingly, and should always focus on proving your premise.

Anticlimax

Just prior to the climactic scene, the temperature crashes to 0 then races all the way to 100.  Until the audience sees this signal, they will wait for the story climax.  Your story reaches an ‘anticlimax’ when the temperature peaks too high prior to your real climatic scene.   Because your real climax cant’ exceed the temperature of your real climax, you will not convince the audience that the real climax has arrived – and they will keep waiting.  Meanwhile the story will suddenly end.  WTF?

I once had a great moment midway through a screenplay where the protagonist escapes doom in a dramatic fashion.  But the scene was so powerful that it killed the rest of the movie.  I couldn’t find any way to produce a climactic scene that exceeded the earlier peak.  Only after I toned down the earlier scene could the story conclude with a climactic scene that felt like it really was the climax.

If you have a scene that genuinely proves the premise in a convincing and fitting way, and it is the strongest scene in the story – then it either needs to be set at the highest peak of the concluding sequence of scenes, or else it needs to be trimmed back so that it does not overshadow the rest of the story – and even kill your ability to end the story properly.

And anticlimax can also happen when too much is put into an epilogue.  The audience may begin to suspect that the story isn’t really quite over after all – like maybe a surprise ending is just around the corner.  And while the epilogue peters out with nothing much happening, the extended material mainly drains whatever good feelings the audience may have had about the climax.

The last part of the Lord of Rings series of books does just that, where the heroes return home to the Shire and mop up a situation left over from the main events.  It was a slog to read and not worth the effort.

In short, stick to the temperature curve and avoid anticlimactic scenes.

Explaining

Stories should never stop to tell the audience what is happening (except perhaps as a comic gag).  Everything during an action scene worth knowing should already have been pre-planted earlier.  For example, in James Cameron’s movie Titanic, there is an early scene where we learn about the technicalities of how the ship sinks from a modern computerized perspective.  Later, when we see this actually happening in the past.  Because we already understood the basic physics, there was no need to freeze-frame the film while somebody explained how the ship breaks in half.  The story just keeps on rolling because we already know how this works.

If anything needs to be explained – do it very early.  And if the explanation is taking too long, either simplify it or see if you can leave it out altogether.  Audiences are always smarter and more insightful than we image, and sometimes we need to have faith in their ability to dig into their own experience.  And beyond this, it’s also a possibility that our audience won’t care to know the technicalities.  For example, is it really necessary for George Lucas to tell us in Star Wars: Episode 1 exactly how ‘The Force’ works? …or show us a cute-looking kid who will one day turn into the big bad Darth Vader?  Good grief!!  Give it a rest.

If you must introduce a technical concept or some other complex point – for the sake of your audience – only explain what really needs to be said.  And do this early so that it doesn’t slow down the action once things begin to heat up.

Incestuous Writing

I am always nauseous to hear music played about musicians, paintings painted about painters, or poetry about poetry.  And I get more than a little nervous when a computer game makes a game-playing ‘comforter hacker’ the hero of a computer hacking game.  This is what I call ‘incestuous writing’ where the storytelling media is the topic of the storytelling experience.  For me, feels like the artist is so sheltered and disconnected from the real world that they can only write about what it feels like to be disconnected from the real world.

Of course I tread close to this self-imposed taboo by writing this non-fiction series on the topic of writing.  But I will won’t write a story about the life of a person writing a story – unless, perhaps, it is the life of a unique and interesting person who has something going one that is far more important than the writing – like the struggles of Virginia Woolf, where she happens to be a writer and there’s no avoiding that connection.

If all of your ideas revolve around sitting at a keyboard – then the time has come for you to see the real world.  And when you return from your real-life adventures you may have something fresh to say about our human experience.

Storytelling is Always about People

Perhaps the biggest and simplest mistake we make in writing happens when we forget that all complete and genuine stories are about our human nature and how it reacts to events.  Stories must be anthropomorphic, which means that no matter who the characters are, they are humans.  This is just as true for ‘aliens’ and robots and walking trees as it is for actual flesh and blood people.  The characters may be very odd humans in terms of how they appear and how they think.  Yet, as a parting shot in this chapter, I cannot emphasize my final point here enough:

Stories are always about people.

 
Next Time: Can a Great Story be told in a Game?

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