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I'm ready to enter the final act, Act 3, of my (first big) story and by now I'm pretty sure I'll have to rewrite 50-70% in ACT 1 and 2.

I outlined the whole story but it is clear that my main hero is boring, his motivations (and story arc) change every few chapters and basically the whole script now feels like a mess. There's even a sinking feeling that my actual hero is one of the allies: i.e. the one who actually does stuff. My main char just 'gets dragged along' and doesn't decide a thing and if he does, it's the allies that do what he tells that should be done (he's a retired general).

Everyone keeps advising me to 'write until the end' and then rewrite. But writing act 3 will probably feel like a drag (which was already starting to happen near the end of act 2). I'm pretty sure nothing of it will make sense because nothing I'll write in act 3 will be in-line with how I (think I) need to rewrite the first two acts. I've been staring at a blank page for a week now not sure if I should actually write this last part.

So the question: should I keep writing these last 20k words that are most likely very useless. Or is it (finally) time to go back to the 'drawing board' and fix what needs fixing and then write act 3, knowing what I know now.

Thank you in advance, Tim

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    Wow, these are all very insightful and useful answers. For now, I'm going for the 'fix it now' for a while and see where I end up. If that fails I think Mr. Baker's advice will be followed. Thank you all! – Tim Dams May 10 '17 at 17:47

10 Answers 10

34

Fix it now.

If you realize you made a mistake, go back and fix it now. Not, I stress, because the last 20K would be "wasted," because no writing is wasted, but because it's clearly blocking you and you don't want to write it.

Carve off whatever pieces aren't going to fit and put them in a slush file. I like this method because it feels less painful than outright deleting, and because sometimes I can reuse or repurpose character beats or even specific sentences or phrases somewhere else in the book.

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    #1, good advice, especially the emphasis on why to take this action. #2, I can't get over your name :) – Jeff.Clark May 10 '17 at 20:09
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Stop writing and put it in a drawer. Go write something else for a while.

There is no point in continuing when you know, as you clearly do, that this story is off the rails. It is not going to yield either usable prose or usable insight.

At the same time it is clear that you have not yet had the positive a-ha moment that reveals what the true story actually is. You have only had the negative realization that you don't know what the true story is. Going back and starting revisions immediately without that a-ha moment is not likely to make things better.

Some will advise that you should keep plowing on in this circumstance, hoping that the true story will reveal itself if you just keep working the problem. That's a good Protestant Work Ethic approach, but I seriously doubt its artistic validity. A good story emerges when you get that glorious click in your head and all the pieces of your vision fall into place. After that it rushes onto the page with effortless excitement.

Writing is sometimes a way to get to that point, but it sounds like that is not working for you at the moment. So the other alternative is to put it aside, work on something else, let your subconscious work on it in the background, and come back to it later.

If there is something real there, it will tug at you and tug at you until you are forced to go back to it. If there isn't, it will sit in the draw forgotten and unmourned and you won't waste any more time on it. You are too close to it know to know which it will be, and the only way to find out is to put it aside and wait for that spark of excitement to return.

10

I'd like to add to Lauren's answer: whenever you realise that the story has problems, whether it's in the plotting, character development, or whatever; whenever you realise there is a problem, go back and fix it now for several reasons:

  1. as you write, you are exploring possibilities but, in this case, you are exploring bad possibilities (and you already know it)

  2. keeping no. 1 in mind, you are not exploring the possibilities that could help improve your story

  3. As Lauren said, not fixing the problem makes the whole story feel wrong, which makes you want to give it up on it all together

  4. it's a waste of time (sorry, but having such a limited amount of time as I do for writing, wasting time is a great sin in my book)

Moreover, think of this as a long drive. If you realise you're going in the wrong direction, what do you do? Carry on or turn around as soon as possible to get back on the right track?

Most times, the answer is to turn around and and get it right. However, there are a few times when the wrong road is doing something for you (you are enjoying it, it's helping you relax, it's sparking ideas, whatever), and in those few moments it is a good idea to continue. But that is not the case here: the OP is not enjoying the 'ride', he isn't learning anything from it (storywise), he isn't getting ideas, nothing. So turn around and search for the right road.

7

Some say you should stop writing this story altogether. Others that you have to fix what is wrong or finish it first. These might all be valid options. But from what I hear, 'fixing' this story is pretty much the equivalent of writing a new one.

Might I suggest considering this story you have written some research material into your setting and events? And write a new story, with the ally that is actually getting things done as the new protagonist? This way you are not actually throwing away anything. The parts you have written can act as examples, alternative viewpoints and background information for the real story.

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    I agree with the idea of writing a new story but, if the goals and even most characters are the same, just a different POV or giving the role of main to another character, then it's not really a different story (IMHO). The way I see it, fixing a deep problem might mean writing the same story in a completely different perspective, which can be fundamentally the same as writing a new story with the same idea. – Sara Costa May 10 '17 at 14:06
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Having been in this situation a few times, what I have done is gone back to the start and begun again, not throwing out everything I have written already, but learning from what I realised works and doesn't work. For example, in one story I changed the gender of a main character, which was very significant. In a play, I changed the number of characters. Another time I changed from the third person to the first person perspective. In each case, there were many similarities to what I started with, but they weren't the same texts -- they were better.

Be prepared, however, for something that has happened to me several times: you get to the third act and realise what you have been writing just isn't good enough. This happened to me recently. I needed a play with fifteen female characters that could be acted by thirteen year olds for a performance for a mixed twelve year old audience and lasted for fifteen to twenty minutes. I wrote ten minutes worth of draft and realised it just wasn't good enough. I re-started with a completely different premise.

2

This is more of a comment on your off-hand remark but I feel it’s worth mentioning:

There's even a sinking feeling that my actual hero is one of the allies: i.e. the one who actually does stuff.

This doesn’t have to be bad. In fact, it sounds potentially exciting!

One of the best stories I ever read — but unfortunately cannot remember the title nor author of — did something similar: The story was about a young adult embarking on an epic adventure, and his sidekick. In the last act the protagonist was suddenly killed, and the narrative perspective shifted to his sidekick. It was entirely unpredictable, it caught the reader by surprise, it was different from anything I had read before (and since), and it was sheer brilliance: In hindsight the sidekick, always getting dragged along, suddenly had a lot more depth than the nominal protagonist.

I have no idea whether this is useful in your story but unintentional dynamics between the characters can be salvaged and made into something unique.

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I would fix the story before continuing writing with a bad theme. That could be "right now," as one poster suggests, or after you've put it away and come back to it sometime later, as another one suggests. But in either case, "before continuing."

A relatively easy fix is for you to try recasting the former hero into something else, like the narrator, Nick Carraway style. Then make one of the "allies who actually does stuff" the real hero, like Gatsby.

This is a technique to save a "central" character that is not a good "main" character. You can still see the world through his eyes, except that he will be telling someone else's story, not his own. Then his "getting dragged along" will no longer be a fault. It's called "making a virtue of necessity."

2

Start over; new file, using what you have as a reference. I've actually done it, put aside nearly 200 pages and begun anew.

Your story problem is what I think of as the original "Star Trek" problem: It is completely implausible for the Captain of the Ship to personally engage in fist fights, away missions, spy-type infiltrations, etc. Star Trek used red shirts to to take the damage, but in real life, military leaders haven't led the troops into battle since the middle ages. (Negotiations, ambassadorial work, attending conferences, all okay).

Generals are like CEOs, that is not where the action is. In the old Mission Impossible series, each show starts with the orders from the top: we only follow the "away team" and their subterfuge, danger, etc. In Saving Private Ryan, we hardly care about George Marshall giving the orders; for most of the movie follow Tom Hanks and his hand-picked crew, the guys with the guns.

Same comment about 007: "M" is the person giving the orders (Judi Dench; then later Ralph Fiennes), but we hardly care; they get a handful of lines: We follow the best secret agent in the field.

All the action is in the field, not behind a desk.

I obviously don't know your story, but you probably can follow the General as a well thought out Secondary character (instead of just a cardboard walk-on); just like General George Marshall in SPR, or M in 007.

But most of your story should focus on the highest ranking (or most experienced) character that is naturally still in the field, dodging bullets and punching the bad guys.

You can still open on the General, just keep him in his natural environment, in command and making big picture decisions. If you do that, be sure to introduce your hero by reference; Somewhere in the first 2-3 minutes characters need to be at least talking about the hero, preferably as a top field operative.

To me writing is an exploratory exercise in finding a story. It sounds to me like you found a story, or at least a compelling hero. Have no grief over the lost pages, they did their job on you. Perhaps they also helped you clarify the plot and invent other characters, traits, settings and descriptions you can use.

If you write a hundred pages to get five good ones, at least you got five good pages! Eventually those add up to a complete story.

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I would suggest a way to work with @MarkBaker's advice:

Write something different that still relates to the story.

This could be a subplot or some backstory to one of your characters, or something about the society or whatever.

Sometimes you're lucky.

You start out by writing something seemingly insignificant, which suddenly can be used to connect important events/plot points/characters, or make your current 'hero' more important.

You may also realize that you were right all along.

He doesn't need to be the one who does everything. There are many stories about rulers or war lords and how they rule/order or advice their people and armies.

Although your current main character isn't "the most active one", he's might still be the hero because he is exactly what is necessary for the succes of his allies. His background is key. You may have to make a bigger deal out of the qualities of your main character in order to make him seem more important.

Of course, if it ends impossible for you to make your main character more significant to the story, a more thorough rewrite might be unavoidable.

Good luck!

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It's not at all unusual to discover what the real story is through the process of writing the first draft. One way you could proceed is to write Act 3 as if you had already rewritten Acts 1 & 2. When you get to the end, you should have a very good idea what you need to rewrite. This approach will save you from rewriting Acts 1 & 2 only to discover that Act 3 still has problems.

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