Pain. Agony. Defeat. The manuscript you’ve slaved over for months, the screenplay you’ve rewritten seventeen times, is not working. There’s a flaw deep in the set-up that’s preventing you from being able to make the story flow.
You’ve tried everything. Changing the protagonist’s goal, reworking several key scenes, and the thing is still D.O.A. It’s been confirmed by your nearest and dearest writer friends who say, “I love this character, and that moment, but….” But. “Yes,” you want to shout, “I know it freaking doesn’t work! Just tell me how to fix it!!”
It’s easy for me to say, “Don’t despair,” but I won’t. You need to despair. If you don’t despair, you won’t be able to move to the next step, which is to go through the five stages of grief, and then press control, alt, delete.
At some point in your writing life, this WILL happen to you. It may just be your gut telling you the story is deficient, but it can also be an agent or producer or publisher who tells you this. So how do you go about rebooting your baby?
First of all, engage in a total sobfest, complete with chocolate ice cream, tissue, and red wine.
Then, ask yourself…
What’s the story I wanted to tell in the first place? Get clear on this. What was the relationship or theme, or character that made you light up and want to write this project at the start? Reconnect with this original inspiration. Write it down.
What’s the flaw? Figure out the thing that’s preventing this version of your story from soaring. Is the protagonist’s goal unclear? Is the antagonist too weak? Are their goals not in direct opposition?
How can I solve this problem? Brainstorm. Can you give your main character a different goal? Is there another character in the story who is full of life and has specific objectives? Can you make him or her the protagonist and reveal the same theme that inspired you? Is there a different way to set up your main character so his or her transformation is more dramatic and clear?
Dive Back In….
Make a new outline. Start from scratch. Let go of the bandaids. Stop trying to fix the story you have. Be open to a whole new way of approaching the narrative. Imagine your previous drafts don’t exist. How can you tell this story in a completely different way? Once you have a new outline…
Pitch it to people. Is it working? Is there now a stronger transformation for your main character? Do you no longer feel the flop sweat it took to get the previous version moving forward? I’m not saying it should be effortless, but is it less effortful because the characters and goals are working? Make adjustments to the outline based on feedback and your gut.
Take Action! If your story is problematic and your gut is telling you there’s something fundamentally wrong with the idea, stop. Ask yourself what you were trying to accomplish in the first place. Identify the flaw in the current version. Is there a completely new way to approach this theme or character or world?
There’s nothing more horrible than having to reboot. There’s also nothing more exhilarating than rebooting and finally making your story work. If you want to be a professional writer, you need to be able to do this. To be open to shifting gears, seeing new paths, trying new things. Agents, producers, editors and publishers will call on you to let go of old things that don’t fly, and come up with new things that do.
Being underwater, crushed by waves pounding on top of you, sucks. But once you come up for air, climb back on your board and paddle out again. If you don’t, you won’t be able to find that single beautiful elegant wave that was just waiting to carry you to shore.
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