The Narrative: Break It to Fix It

So the story is struggling along like a winged pigeon. It’s limping here, stopping to investigate this pile of birdseed, fleeing for its life with halting, awkward steps, trying occasionally to fly and only crashing back to the earth.

Something’s wrong with it, but you can’t put your finger on what it is. You like your premise. Your plot is fine. Characters are not bad either. But when you put it all together, it’s sort of like trying to reassemble the bits of a broken vase. In theory they add up to one complete thing, but in practice it just isn’t happening, and never will, because whatever broke the thing in the first place warped it before it broke.

Still, all the writing advice in the world tells you to keep writing even when the writing sucks, so you keep writing dutifully, pounding your face against the keys in the vain hopes that it won’t suck so bad the next time you come back to it, but each time it’s like you slip a little further down the well, you take another step into the unlit basement, you drift a little closer to the waterfall. Meanwhile you’re doubting yourself. The things you’re writing just don’t feel right, even above and beyond the standard-issue writerly self-doubt that affects all who practice the pen. If you’re writing crap, maybe you are crap, and maybe you should stop writing this really crappy crap and get back to the crap you could be doing that might not be total crap by the time you’re finished with it.

But then, a thought occurs to you, like a lone ray of sunshine piercing through a veil of clouds, or like a ping on the sonar detector you thought was dead when you crash-landed on the alien planet. The story isn’t broken, struggling toward its inevitable awful ending on legs that can barely carry it under the weight of its own suckitude. The story isn’t diseased, shambling forward with shaky, poxy steps while a fever of words burns it from the inside out. The story hasn’t died already, drawing flies to feast on its inkblood oozing out through the plot holes left by your incompetence.

It’s nothing so all-encompassing, so fatal as all that. No, there’s just that one thing wrong with it.

And that one thing is poisoning your entire story.

Maybe your protagonist rescued a bunny from hungry wolves in the first act, and that bunny has turned out to be a real pain in the narrative neck since your hero now has to haul it around to meetings and clean up after it. (I read that rabbit pee can actually corrode aluminum. What a jerk of an animal.) Maybe the plot twist you planted for later in the book is about as unexpected as a jab in the opening round of a boxing match, or a hot day in a Georgia summer.

Problem is, you’ve written the story so far with this one thing in mind, and now you see the thing for the insidious venom that it is, you see it scarring the veins of your precious story, burning the heart out with its slow acid drip. To press on, allowing the poison to remain, is madness; it’ll keep corroding the work, no matter how much you’re now aware of it. To double back, try to excise the poison and correct the damage is just as unthinkable: you can’t throw away the work you’ve done, the time you’ve spent, to begin the Sisyphean task of a massive edit before you’ve even finished a draft. What to do?

Cut off the diseased limb.

Writing the first draft is a combat landing. You parachute in with guns blazing, find a bit of cover and pray to god you can make the rendezvous before your head gets taken off by the shrapnel of an exploding real life obligation. You don’t get to go back and say, no, sorry, I borked the landing, let me get back on the plane and try again. The only way out is through. Got a problematic element? Damn the cannons and ditch the damn thing, then pick up your rifle and wade back into combat. Agonizing over the decision will get you shot, or worse, get you killed: you’ll bog down in the existential doubt over your work, and before you know it you just can’t make yourself pick up the pen today, or tomorrow for that matter, and gosh golly the weekend is coming up, and then you’re dead in the ditch with the thousands upon thousands of other would-be writers who just couldn’t do it because of this or that or the other.

The good news is that if you can survive the incursion — if you can finish a draft — you get as many chances as you like to go back and fix it. Make it less crappy. Take out the bits about boring business meetings and toss in more unicorn deathmatches instead. But you’ll never make it through the draft if your heart isn’t in it. Sure, when you get to the end, your draft might look like a civil war armory after a heavy shelling. It might be dripping with blood and bits of brain, it might be hanging together with the flimsiest of threads, it might be written on chicken bones rattling around in a voodoo medicine bag. But if you can finish it, you can fix it later. You have to pull a rotten tooth to put in an implant. You have to break the fractured bone again to set it properly. You have to break your story to fix it, shatter it into a million pieces and then start looking for the super glue when it’s all said and done.

So, what’s it going to be? Suck it up, tie a tourniquet around the poisoned arm and hack it off at the elbow so you can keep slaughtering zombies with your machete hand (Yeah, I’m mixing my metaphors pretty badly, but THERE’S NO STOPPING NOW)? Or throw your hands up, sit back and die while the poison eats you alive?

Tonight I made the decision to erase one of my three main characters from the story completely. Gone like he never existed. He was dead weight, slowing the story down instead of catapulting it forward, and he’s been poisoning the story since the first day I wrote his name down.

What’s poisoning your story? And how are you going to fix it?

4 thoughts on “The Narrative: Break It to Fix It

  1. YES! I have a character in my WIP who has puzzled me for weeks. He is in the bones of the story, providing support in every scene that helps to develop other characters’ personalities, but he doesn’t reveal *himself* enough in those scenes. He has potential, demonstrating a quietly obstructive nature and a tendency to go his own way regardless of his peers plans. It’s not clear if this is done deliberately or through a kind of social ignorance. He’s intelligent, inquisitive, quirky… there should be so much potential here, but it’s got to the point where I really must decide if he stays or if he goes. Can he be saved with some personality implant surgery or should I hack him out of the story altogether? It’s a difficult decision. Meanwhile he still tags along, resisting all attempts to coax out a bigger personality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How long is your current WIP? If he’s been a thorn in your side for weeks, I’d argue that if you sit down and listen to what your subconscious Id-Writer is trying to tell you, you probably already know whether he’s a butterfly waiting to emerge or a weed which must be … well … weeded.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m hovering around 27k words, 46 scenes. The character is present in most of them. I hope he can be saved. I think an experimental scene that separates him and one other character from the group might help to expose new material. If he can’t stand up to the test I will have to admit defeat!

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s a cool exercise I’ve done before, imagining the character outside the world of the story he’s (or she’s) in. It can yield some surprising results.

        Liked by 1 person

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