Art Holcomb on Rewriting Your Novel or Screenplay

The 6 Most Common Problems
in a Rewrite

By Art Holcomb

Okay, so . . .

You’ve just finished your first draft – or maybe your 10th draft – of your work-in-progress and you suddenly realize that there’s a problem you haven’t considered. You’ve become so intimate with the characters and their actions that you can no longer see where the potential problems are. You’re wondering now what errors you can no longer see but will be evident to the first editor or agent you send this to. You’re afraid you no longer have the perspective you need to see the story clearly.

Take a breath and relax.

You’ve read Larry’s books and posts. You know that the rewrite is where all your knowledge of story and craft must come into play. You’re ready to make the next pass at the work – the one that brings it all home.

So, let’s start with the basics that professional writers use before the rewrite process begins:

DO NOT show this draft to anyone: You’re not ready for a critique by others until you give it this final review now. Make sure you save your very best efforts for your first reader.

Start by letting the story cool for a while: You need some real distance from the story, so plan to put it away for a while as you turn your attention to your next project. A month would be great but set it aside for at least a couple of weeks – just long enough for your conscious mind to see the story anew. You’ll be surprised at the difference it can make in the rewrite.

Print it out: I find that editing is always better when I can feel the paper, physically take my red pen to the manuscript and give myself permission to carve the thing up by hand. It’s all too easy to start moving words and paragraphs around on the screen before you see the story in its entirety.
Read it out loud: I know of nothing more important to the rewriting process than hearing the words I’ve written. By reading the whole story out loud, you can hear whether the dialogue and the descriptions are working. You’ll identify all those phrases that you thought were great but that now just sound silly in the light of day. The problems on the page become instantly clearer when your brain translates these thoughts to actual sounds.

Have at it! The time has come (if you haven’t done it before) for you to be ruthless about the changes you know in your heart need to be made. What isn’t working? What sounds bad when you read it aloud? Where do you stray from the story’s mission? The time has come to kill your darlings! Consider removing all those passages that you absolutely love but which lead your story astray. Strike out anything that simply isn’t working. What remains will be the framework you need to make the story so much better.

The question now is – what else should I be looking for?

What problems are there likely to be that I’m just not seeing?

I’ve been writing for more than thirty years and have seen a lot of problem-ridden stories: by my students, my peers and by my own hand. And while there are always difficulties that are unique to each piece of writing, problems and blind spots occur which are common to all writers.

Below are the six most common – and typically missed – problems in a rewrite:

1. The protagonist does not have a strong enough goal: Does your protagonist burn? Does he need so badly to achieve his story goal that it feels like a life-or-death moment for him? Of course, it doesn’t have to be actually life-and-death, but you need to have your hero feel so strongly about his goal that, should he fail, his life and/or the lives of those he cares about will never be the same. If your hero is wandering around your story, working toward a goal that he, quite frankly, could take or leave, why should the reader be emotionally involved enough to want to turn the page?

2. There’s no urgency to the protagonist’s goal: Urgency means tension and tension means suspense – which leads to the ever-important CONFLICT. The panic, resolve and determination that your hero feels as he faces ever-increasing trials and dangers is contagious for the reader. Your fans want to feel that emotion right alongside your hero. Is there a looming deadline or impending cataclysm on the horizon for your characters? Make it plain, sing it loud, rewrite it passionately to make sure that both reader and protagonist are on the same page.

3. The characters don’t have enough arc: You’re writing a novel – not a play or a script for TV. You have all the room in the world to complicate and develop the emotional change you’re planning for your hero. It isn’t enough to take him from his naïve self in the beginning (Point A) to the more evolved creature you’re planning for the end (Point C). That kind of simplistic arc is hard for the reader to buy into. Instead, make the sure you include at least Point B – the point when your hero is at his lowest, ready to just lay down and die because the journey so far has just about killed him. Take your hero to the absolute depths of despair before you show him a way out. Torture him! Torment him! Lead him through Point B – the darkest moment of his life. That’s the way you build a story people will want to read.

4. The stakes are too low/ the obstacles too easy to overcome: We’ve talked here before about Goals, Obstacles and Stakes – the Holy Trinity of Character Development – and you need to take a good, long look at these last two factors. Did the hero really have a good enough reason to enter this story in the first place? Did he easily overcome the problems you threw at him? As with the discussion of goals above, a weak set of obstacles and a mediocre motivation equals a frail and pointless hero, no matter how well you’ve written him. You have to amp it up! Let the challenges the hero faces grow in both intensity and consequence as the story goes on. Make the stakes involved as close to a do-or-die scenario as you can possibly manage. Your readers will thank you for it – by buying your next book!

5. The characters’ dialogue sounds too similar: I see this all the time. Beginning novelists and screenwriters alike often end up with characters you couldn’t tell apart in the dark by their dialogue. They either all sound like the writer himself or they are subconsciously written like caricatures – and is so doesn’t need to be that way.

One secret from writer/director Joss Whedon of Buffy/Avenger fame is to perfect 5 or 6 different sounding characters – or archetypes – from different walks of life to inhabit ALL your stories in the beginning and then tweak them as needed for the individual situation. Start small: a working stiff, a southern gentleman, a rich and snoot aristocrat, a lost teen, a world-weary senior, and an “Everyman/woman” – whatever combination makes that most sense to you and your style. You don’t need many to start with and you can use these foundational archetypes to build new powerful and individual characters.

6. The dialogue lacks subtext: Nothing is more boring than a character who says exactly what they’re thinking and feeling every time they open their mouth. Don’t do that! You want to avoid that like the three week old Chinese take-out that’s still in your fridge.

One rule of thumb is “Dialogue is what they say. Subtext is what they really mean.” So imply, hint, infer, and deceive! That is how people really talk, and anything you can do to get that kind of dialogue out of your characters will build the bond between your hero and the audience, leaving them constantly hungry for more for your literary creamy goodness.

So get back in there and get to work – your story needs you!



Frequent Storyfix contributor Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and comic book creator. His most recent comic book property is THE AMBASSADOR and his most recent project for TV is entitled THE STREWN.  His new writing book is tentatively entitled “SAVE YOUR STORY: How to Resurrect Your Abandoned Story and Get It Written NOW!” (Release TBA.)


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6 Responses to Art Holcomb on Rewriting Your Novel or Screenplay

  1. Jody

    I’ve been a novelist for more than 30 years, with five novels published by major companies. Yet, I still found this list of revision suggestions very insightful and useful. I’m in the middle of my newest, and I can immediately see that I’m at risk with numbers (1) and (2). Thanks!

  2. This list is exactly what I need, as I’ve just started to rip apart an old story to see where I went wrong. Thank you so much!!! Sharing on FB, too, for others to enjoy.

  3. I love lists that help ensure I’m not missing something obvious. This goes in my rewrite file.

    Speaking of me missing the obvious, does #4 sort of include #1 & #2 or am I missing some subtlety?

  4. Art Holcomb

    @Joel: all of these points are similar in that they all address weaknesses, but when using them to address specific problems, I find it best to make the question under consideration be as specific as possible.

    I usually end up doing a specific pass at the manuscript for eash issue. That way, I’m surr I don’t miss anything.

    Thanks for writing.

  5. Art: Thanks for this list. I needed to hear these again. Far too often I edit on my laptop instead of printing it out (like I did in the beginning). Also, reading out loud is a killer tip I don’t take advantage either! Thanks, straight up.

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