Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 19, 2011

Forcing a Story to Evolve—From First Draft to Finished Draft

Writers In The Storm is delighted to welcome paranormal writer and blogger, Jami Gold! She'll be stopping in over the next few days to answer any comments you have. (Thanks, Jami!)

On my blog last week, I talked about how it’s fascinating to watch a story evolve from a story seed into a full-blown draft.  By the time we type “The End,” we often forget how small the seed started and have a hard time recognizing how the two are even related.

Similarly, stories evolve a great deal from first draft to finished draft—especially when we’re still climbing a steep learning curve.  If we analyze the ways a story can evolve through the editing process, we might know how to focus our revisions.

I’m not talking about the editing we do to make a story prettier, cleaner, or faster paced.  I’m talking about the big picture revisions that change the essence of the story behind the words.

Types of Story Evolution

  • Tone

A story’s tone greatly affects a reader’s experience.  The Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris (source material for the True Blood TV show) deal with many dark subjects, but the tone of the books is light and fluffy for the most part, despite the threat of mortal peril.  While revising, we can control the reader’s experience by changing the tone.

  • Voice

Related to the above point, changing the voice of the story will often change the tone.  A chatty or jokey voice tends to make the story less dark and serious.  This doesn’t mean a serious story can’t have comic relief, but maybe the source of the jokes would be from a non-POV character, or maybe the one-liners would be along the lines of gallows humor.

  • Point Of View

If a scene isn’t working, we might be able to fix it by using another character’s POV.  Or we can try to switch a story from first person to third person, or vice versa.  Similarly, making a third person POV into a deep third person POV affects how a story reads.

  • Motivation

Character motivation is like a magic formula for changing the feel of a story.  Think of all the reasons a character could be speeding while driving: impatience, escaping, rescuing, obliviousness, arrogance, etc.  Each of those would lead to different interpretation for the reader.  Same action, different reader reaction.  Then if we take it to the next level and add complex or competing motivations, or subtext, the story changes again.

  • Theme

When we have a strong theme, our story naturally feels deeper and more serious.  During revisions, we can tweak wording or sentences to accentuate the themes.  If you need help bringing out themes in your story, check out my post for ideas or look at Jenny Hansen's post here on Writers In The Storm, Focusing On Your Story's DNA.

  • Depth

This can mean anything from adding subtlety or subtext to going deeper into characters’ emotions.  Real people are complex and act against logic or their own best interests sometimes.  We have competing needs fighting for control over which way we react in a situation.  Adding that element of unpredictability to our stories helps them avoid being cliché or formulaic.  Readers will believe in characters who do something stupid if those motivations are laid out for them to piece together.

Being Deliberate with Our Writing

When we write, everything we type is a choice.  We not only choose between this word and that word, but also how we use the above elements to affect a reader’s experience.  And even though these aspects seem subtle, they make a huge difference in how a story reads.

So when we revise, now that we no longer have to do the drafting work of puzzling over plot, subplot, and tying everything together, we can go back to the drawing board and figure out what type of experience we want our readers to have.  Do we want the story to feel light or serious?  How intimately do we want the reader to experience what the characters go through?

If the story we want isn’t the story we have, but we can’t figure out why, we might be tempted to toss it.  We might even worry that we’re not capable of doing the subject justice.  But maybe it just means that one of these big picture things is off a bit.  In other words, it’s fixable.  *smile*

Which of the above elements have you changed when revising a story?  Were the changes big or small?  What about the results?  How much did the changes affect the readers’ experience, the essence of the story behind the words?

After triggering the vampire/werewolf feud with an errant typo, Jami Gold moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, where she could put her talent for making up stuff to good use.  Fortunately, her muse, an arrogant male who delights in making her sound as insane as possible, rewards her with unique and rich story ideas.

Fueled by chocolate, Jami writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy tales that range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same:  Normal need not apply.  Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Find Jami at her blog, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Goodreads.

0 comments on “Forcing a Story to Evolve—From First Draft to Finished Draft”

  1. I've found a lot of repetition in my drafts that I've reworked/cut. Also some of the points of view were jumping around too much and I realised I had shifted too quickly from one person to another.

    1. Yes, great point! I received contest feedback about too-frequent POV shifting last year for one of my stories. I'm not sure I agree with their suggestions on how to fix it, but their point was valid. 🙂 Too-frequent POV shifting makes it harder for a reader to get invested with the character. Thanks for the comment!

    1. You are more than welcome, Jami! We love learning from people like you that lay great concepts out so clearly. Your blog ROCKS and I'm so glad you had time to come visit with us here at Writers In The Storm. Some day, I'm gonna entice you over to More Cowbell for a Techie Tuesday. 🙂

  2. Great post, Jami! I've changed POV in several stories and it was just the trick to discover more information and action from a character.However, I seem to have issues with voice. Some of my stories have what you might call a monotone voice if you could hear it out loud: all dark and dreary, all snark or all happiness and kittens; it's hard for me to mix in the less serious with the more serious aspects of a character. Any advice on rounding out the voice or tone of a story to make it more multi-dimensional without losing the original feel of the piece?

    1. Hi Kristin,

      Great question! I've suffered from a monotone voice in one of my stories as well. The problem ended up being related to me not writing in deep-enough POV. The POV character wasn't letting me into her thoughts, so I was reporting the external (which was all doom and gloom). It took me a *long* time to break through her shell, but once I did, I got *her* voice down better, with all of its sarcasm, heartbreak, honesty, and rationalization. So maybe this is a case of needing to get deeper? Hope that helps!

  3. Great thoughts - some of them were things I tend to do instinctively, but hadn't really thought about. This will definitely change my mindset as I work on finishing my next book.

    Question: How much do you think the depth and motivation pieces tie together? Have you ever had a story where evolving one of those has thrown the whole rest of the story off to the point it needed start-from-scratch rewrite?

    1. Hi Jennie,

      Ooo, another great question! 🙂 In many respects, all of these elements tie together, and changing one can affect the others. To address motivation and depth specifically, I could see how changing the motivation would affect the theme, which could then affect the depth. Also if we include competing motivations, one might be revealed more through subtext, so that would affect both motivations and depth as well.

      For example, a heroine says in her internal thoughts that she's doing A because of B. But some hints in the subtext might clue the reader that she's slightly deluding herself, and that there's a fair amount of C in there as well. That motivational subtext adds depth.

      I haven't ever done a start-from-scratch rewrite, but it's been close. If I add up all the revisions to one of my stories, it works out to about a 95% rewrite. In other words, it might have been easier to start from scratch. 🙂 And I still don't think I nailed it, so I might not be done yet either. Thanks for the questions!

  4. After I gave my novel to a writer friend to read and feedback she said "What you've got here is interesting and all that but nothing specific comes to a crisis, no mystery is solved, no concrete question is answered. The novel is the first in a series of nine set during Hollywood's golden years so I was more concerned with the overall arc than the arc of this specific novel. I realized my friend was quite right so I sat down and did a heavy rewrite in which I had a significant secondary character disappear and made the three primary characters go searching for her. And voila! A much stronger novel emerged. BIG writing lesson there! (PS - this is my first time on this blog...LOVE the title!)

    1. Hi Martin,

      Yes, one thing that makes readers keep turning pages is something called narrative drive - that curiosity, need, or desire of the reader and/or characters. So the characters need to *want* something in every scene. As they're driving through the plot, the reader will be pulled along with them. You're right about how that makes a big difference. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  5. Great post! It's pretty cool to watch a story evolve. Working from an outline is saving me in the endless rewrites department. I'm able to play with the scenes before I write them out completely.

    1. Hi Sonia,

      Yes, I do that with some of my scenes, but others I "pants." 🙂 I've learned to trust my muse, as his ideas are usually good. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Found you on Twitter this week. Thanks Jami, for a great post. I believe we need to write those first one million words, have honest readers and learn to "hear" ourselves. Yes, I could tell a story when I was in second grade. In my first written stories I fell into the one-liner, the trap of the "affect" instead of the meat of what I wanted to say, and discovered writing a good book was different than entertaining family and friends with my abreviated tales or jokes. Plots or the abundance of sub-plots plagued me, while my affinity for dialogue became a crutch. The balance of letting the story unfold and not "talking" all the time, was what I learned as I began to rewrite a few hundred thousand of those first million words.

    The best teachers for me are books and movies and reading as many posts like this as I can.

    1. Aww, thank you! Those sound like great lessons. I'm sure I still have lots to learn no matter how many words I've written. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  7. Great post, Jami! I've found that I cannot write in anything but deep third person POV. I've also changed character POVs in several of my scenes to get them to work better. I didn't use an outline originally, and am now going back through and creating one...it's actually pretty interesting to go back and sift through. I've found lots of places to improve and ended up changing my antagonist completely! Go figure ;p

  8. I've changed all of these at different times. I think tone is the one I've experimented the most with. Often, I'll find myself writing the opening sentence out a dozen different ways (book, chapter) in search of the right balance that brings out the essence of the statement. I also tend to write in layers, first thought, refine, add tone, subtext, etc.

    Great advice, Jami 🙂

  9. Hi Gene,

    Sometimes my muse will have me add subtext, foreshadowing, and the like during first draft, and I go with the flow, trusting him to have a reason for that line. But most of that stuff gets added later, after I see the whole story. And you're right that tone tends to evolve over the course of the first draft, so the story openings often need to be adjusted to make it match. Thanks for the comment!

  10. Hi Jami! Thanks for a very interesting and helpful post. I've written three books - all in first person POV. I'm torn between whether I should continue down this avenue or try (do I have this right?) an omniscient POV or is it third person? I don't want to be "in" anyone's head but rather telling the story with the characters acting on the stage. See, I'm not even sure what you call it!!

  11. Hi Patricia,

    Thanks for the question! The book I recommend for *really* understanding our POV choices and the pros/cons for each is The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley. She describes the difference between deep 3rd person, 3rd person locked, 3rd person shifting, 3rd person omniscient with a narrator and without.

    You also might find my post on omniscient POV and how it affects voice helpful: http://jamigold.com/2011/02/what-makes-omniscient-pov-different-from-head-hopping/ Thanks for the comment!

      1. I'm happy to help! Yes, all the different options for POV - and the different depth levels for 3rd person - are confusing. You're smart to get a handle on it before attempting omniscient. As I mentioned in that post, many people *think* they're doing omniscient, but they're really just head-hopping. Good luck!

  12. I'm always learning, especially when it comes to revising and rewriting. It never gets old, lol. While writing the sequel to the first book in my urban fantasy series being published by Harlequin Luna, i made a sudden realization when i got close to the end. So i went back and made a few minor revisions to a character, who, it turns out, was pretending to be someone else for most of the book. It was as if my subconscious knew the truth about this character all along, and the only way to make it believable in the story was to keep me in the dark until time for the big reveal. Gave me chills. I'd never experienced such an evolution in a story I was writing. The best part is that my editor loves the twist.

    You're right about it being important to stay open to changes so you can revise and make the story stronger. Thanks for this great post! 🙂

    1. Hi Karen,

      Oh yes! I love it when our subconscious does stuff like that. It wasn't until *mumble mumble* revisions that I realized my heroine had a phobia, but when I went back through the story, I saw the hints were laid all over the place and all I had to do was bring them a bit closer to the foreground. 🙂 That sounds like an awesome twist! Thanks for the comment!

  13. Wow -- I'd have to say the one element that I always find myself changing is depth. Tone and Voice are pretty easy for me to pick up on once my hands have started flying over the keyboard, and point of view is something that I play around with before actually beginning the first draft - and I really hope it works or else I have to re-write the entire novel from start to finish from another POV <- Something I have not had to do....yet! 🙂

    The changes in depth are fairly large, overall, since my first draft is getting the story on the page and the second draft is adding that depth in there. I often find myself still adding or removing here and there even in the 5th or 6th round of revisions, and the results are usually pretty good by that time. It helps to polish it up a little and some of the removals tighten up particluar scenes to where they seem to fly off the page without leaving the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters behind.

    1. Hi Melinda,

      Yes, I haven't had to change from 1st to 3rd or anything so drastic, but I've definitely struggled to go deeper POV. I'm trying to get to the point where my first draft contains a good amount of depth because endless revisions kill me. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  14. I'm currently rewriting a first draft of a story I wrote over four years ago. While the seed of my story is the same, one of my POV characters has changed. Also, I'm working more depth into the story because my first drafts are always pretty lean. Theme is generally a problem for me, so I'm going to check out your link, Jami. I don't think I've read this post.

    Thanks for a wonderful post!

    1. Hi Sheila,

      You're quite welcome, and I'm happy to help. You make a good point about the story seed staying the same. Often, that story seed is what draws us to think this idea is unique enough to deserve our writing time, so it would make sense that it remains. Almost like it's the core or heart of the story. Thanks for the comment!

  15. The most interesting thing I've ever heard about POV came from Susan Elizabeth Phillips (I'm pretty sure) - she said that the POV in a scene should always be the character that has the most to lose in that scene. It was awesome advice and we use it all the time here at WITS when we meet.

    I'd say POV is where I end up making the most changes. I LOVE to head hop and I have to restrain myself. First person often saves me from this one... 🙂

    Thanks everyone for asking such great questions and Jami for giving fantastic answers.

    1. Yes, Jenny, I've heard that advice as well. About half of my stories are 3rd person locked (sticking with the heroine the whole time), so I have a hard time figuring out when/where I should change with hero/heroine POV stories. I usually think about whose emotional arc (i.e., mini-story) I'm trying to tell in that scene.

      Thank you again for having me here! I've loved the great questions. I might even get a few more blog posts worth of ideas from some of them. 🙂

  16. The most complicated thing so far about the "final edit" of my first novel has been where in the course of the story I want the readers to learn certain details. For example, I may have mentioned "Factoid X" in three different chapters, and now I have to decide which chapter will be the "final" location.

    I haven't had to change the basics of the story very much in two years, so that's good news [ I think 😉 ] .

    1. Yes, I know what you mean about that kind of polishing. You change your mind about when you reveal certain information and then you have to make sure you clean up all the other places. Janice Hardy calls it "revision smudge" on her blog. 🙂

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