While trying my hand at teaching high school back in the fall, I spent so long away from my current rough draft, I forgot half of what I'd written. So I've been going back to read through it. In doing so, several issues with the rough have been jumping out at me, but they all stem from one factor common in rough drafts, lacking conflict.
Readers have their favorites, and they don't enjoy seeing them put through the wringer, but at the same time, what are the chances they would be so fond of those characters if they never struggled? No matter if your story is plot driven or character driven, without conflict, there is no story.
My story has conflict. I have a villain and everything!
Great! That's a start, but simply having an antagonist that makes things difficult now and again isn't enough for a compelling story. A typical hero's journey has anywhere from ten to twenty "trials" along the way. Having all of them tied to the antagonist gets predictable and kinda boring. Internal conflicts work. Interpersonal conflicts among friends or family members work. Flat out bad luck can work too depending on how you use it.
Okay, I messed up the protagonist's day fifteen times. I'm good.
Not necessarily. How badly did you mess their day up, and how difficult was it for them to get out of whatever jam you put them in?
Taking your main characters to the brink, stacking the odds against them, and then finding a way for them to at least squeak by with their lives is not only hard but nerve wracking. That's why it's such a common thing for writers to take it way too easy on them the first time around, even if they're trying their best not too. That's not something to be ashamed of or even necessarily a bad thing. It's a rough draft. It's purpose is to get the bare bones of the story down and bring the big picture to light for the author. Sometimes you need to see the tamed down version before you can imagine where it needs to really go to be dynamite.
What should I do?
First, make sure you've finished your rough draft before you try to fix anything.
I still have a good ten chapters to go before finishing the rough, according to my outline, so I'm not about to start trying to fix it just yet. I've learned the hard way what happens when you jump in to fix one thing without being able to see the picture as a whole. You end up causing more problems, and the rewriting and editing process takes far longer than it should. So I'm simply making note of the places my characters have it too easy and maybe noting ideas of how to make their lives a bit more difficult.
You want to have the complete picture, so you can work out when, where, and how you need to make additions or cuts and how to tie them together.
Once you have the completed rough draft, you can begin the one big, "easy" step to improving your manuscript.
When in doubt, add more conflict, by which I mean, make it harder for your protagonist to reach their goals. Don't make the same mistake listed in the action movie "logic" meme above. Yes, there's such a thing as natural talent, but training counts for something! What good is your antagonist if they and their minions can't seem to actually do anything?
Unless your protagonist has some magical ability to make everyone suddenly completely incompetent, crack shots should remain crack shots unless something else is going on. An evil genius should be difficult to outwit. Jobs demand you show up on time for your shifts, and college classes don't care what you have going on, class time is class time. No one masters a skill in a day, week, month, or often even a year. Happy coincidences are so rare, they're almost mythical, unlike unlucky coincidences, which seem rather common.
Leave the rough alone for a few weeks to a couple of months before you go back through it. Spend that time writing something else, taking classes, or working on some other skill or facet of your business. (Writing is a business if you want people to read your work. This is a good time to start working on your platform if nothing else.) Time away gives your mind time to clear and helps you take a step back from your manuscript, which leads to greater objectivity. If you keep writing or take classes, you'll improve your skills in the meantime, which can only help.
After you've had your time away, read back through your manuscript. Highlight anywhere things are too easy for your characters, antagonist and protagonist alike. Try to think about what is going on in their lives in and out of the story in the same way your readers will.
Make them work for every little victory. Make them lose now and again. Force them to grow and improve to have any hope of getting what they want, and then make them work even harder.
I promise, your manuscript will come out the other side of the rewrites many times better.
A. B. England is a small business owner, mom of two, novelist, all around geek, and avid crafter. She loves mythology, fantasy, and all flavors of science fiction.
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