“The purpose of narrative is to present us with complexity and ambiguity.”
— Scott Turow
If you’re rewriting and a point in your story feels flat, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
1) What does my protagonist want?
2) What is my protagonist’s dilemma?
3) What is happening right now in my story that is urgent?
4) What will happen if my hero doesn’t get what he wants?
5) Why does this moment belong in my story?
6) Can I be more specific about what I am trying to say?
7) Does this scene belong somewhere else?
8) Can I distill what is essential in this scene and layer it into an existing scene?
9) Do I honestly understand what I am saying here, or do I just think it sounds good?
Sometimes the first draft can feel like those Olympic gymnasts running up to the pommel horse at top speed, and then balking and running off to the side. We may write passages where we are bounding toward some deep truth, hoping to hear an echo from the Almighty, but then our idea seems to evaporate into the mist. In the rewrite, we can ask ourselves if there is anything to salvage, and if not, we can happily press delete. These meanderings are necessary because often they bear fruit. In the rewrite, as we strip away what doesn’t belong, our story begins to reveal itself, as well as revealing what still needs to be said.
However, if there is something to salvage, but it still seems unclear, there are some things we can do.
Sometimes we need to step back and recognize that although we don’t quite yet understand what the story is about, there is something valid that wants to be expressed. Let’s inquire into the protagonist’s dilemma at this point in the story. The protagonist’s desire may not change through the story, however, his approach to getting what he wants is constantly shifting. Sometimes what appears to be going on is a smokescreen. Be curious about what is really going on in the scene.
For example: I’ll work with a writer who has had the story churning in his brain for years, and over time has developed some fixed ideas on what his story is about. But upon further inquiry he may discover that underneath the apparent conflict is an intractable inner struggle for the protagonist that drastically raises the stakes.
We must never assume that we know what is going on in our story. Our job in the rewrite is to hold our story loosely and remain curious. Allow a moment of conflict to help you understand the dilemma in a new or more specific way.
For example: I wrote a piece where the protagonist feels guilty because his wife has just died. She ran a red light. He learns early on that she knew about the affair he was having, and stricken with guilt he seeks forgiveness. But the only person who can offer him relief (he believes) is the one who has died.
His dilemma, it seems, is that the more he seeks forgiveness, the more he confronts its impossibility, thus leading to greater pain.
However, in another scene, he fights with his best friend, convincing him to make a meaningful film. They are fighting about their legacies, and what their lives will mean when they are gone.
And as I wrote it, I went back to my idea of the dilemma. I don’t ever try to force a scene into my idea of the dilemma, but rather inquire into how this scene relates to the dilemma.
What happens, if I hold it loosely, and don’t try to intellectualize it, is that I am invited to a more specific relationship to my theme.
Forgiveness and legacy—what do these two things have to do with one another? That was the question my subconscious was seeking to resolve. This question led me to wonder if perhaps forgiving oneself is in fact a necessary act in making a contribution to the world. And then, I wondered if perhaps we are already forgiven, and that the idea of needing forgiveness from someone else might actually be faulty—that true forgiveness can only come from ourselves. Hmm, interesting. All of this arises from inquiring into the connection between forgiveness and legacy.
The story lives fully and completely within us. The desire to write is the desire to resolve something that we seek to understand. By inquiring into the nature of the conflict we are connecting to an emotional throughline, as opposed to an intellectualized idea of the plot.
Again, it is by inquiring into those ineffable impulses that we are led to a deeper understanding of our story. Inquiring does not mean “figuring it out.” By exploring the relationship of two seemingly disparate elements, our subconscious is guiding us toward a more specific relationship to our story.
Trust the aliveness of your characters. Hold your story loosely, while continually making choices. Inquire into the nature of the impulses. And always remember that character suggests plot.