“Good writing is rewriting” is a lesson I learned early in studying the art of fiction. Some successful authors go through 3 or 4 complete drafts, some do many more.
But what exactly is rewriting and how do you go about it? More importantly, how can you be sure rewriting makes your story better?
There lots of good books out there on how to write fiction. My latest favorite is Immediate Fiction, published in 2002 by Jerry Cleaver. Cleaver boils down fiction writing into a model that I both find both easy to understand and compelling.
Cleaver’s model shows a story as consisting of three critical elements:
Conflict is further broken down into characters wanting something and facing an obstacle. To this equation, Cleaver adds two other elements that support dramatic storytelling: Emotion and Showing.
I will probably have more to say about Cleaver’s model in future posts, but for now I’m going to concentrate on how it applies to rewriting.
In the chapter on Rewriting, Cleaver explains that you need to start with Conflict (Want and Obstacle) and Action. Make sure they are working in every scene and section. As you rewrite every page, focus on these questions:
1. Who Wants What?
What is the character’s goal? Can it be stronger? Can it appear earlier? Is the character as determined and driven as possible to get what they want? Can you raise the stakes?
2. What is the Obstacle?
What is thwarting the character’s want? Can it appear earlier? Can it be stronger? Can the character ignore it without suffering? If Yes, it needs to be tougher. Fiction is dramatic when it shows characters struggling with troubles.
3. What is the Action?
What is the character doing to overcome the obstacle? Is it an all-out attack on or defense against the obstacle? Can the character do more?
It’s also important to note that “thinking is action.” In some scenes or narrative sections, the action might be to show the character planning and struggling with how they will solve the problem. That too is drama.
The Other Elements
What about the Resolution? Cleaver says that if you have Want, Obstacle, and Action worked out sufficiently, the Resolution becomes obvious. The character finds victory or defeat, and this moves us on to the next scene or section of the story.
But it is also critical to remember the last two story elements. In laying out all this drama, you need to remember to Show the want, obstacle, and action. And you need to show not only what the character is thinking and doing, but what they are feeling.
Remember: people read fiction for engaging experiences with characters they can identify with. And that is about Emotion.
This graphic summarizes the process for rewriting as laid by Cleaver.