Revising the Storm- Week 23

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Not quite to the final act of the story, but getting very near. Today’s effort ought to bring us to the moment just before the story’s climax, and then we’ll be well on our way to having this draft finished.

I’ve been expressing a lot of concern about the story’s pacing, trying to tighten things up and wondering if it’s still too weighed down. There is a very tricky balance I’m trying to strike, where the journey needs to feel long and exhausting, but not become a slog to read through. This will definitely be my central focus in the next readthrough.

But for now, it’s time to finish applying this current layer of polish. Here’s the link to the latest draft if you want to see how it compares to this current version.

To the Limit)

“Whatever fuel you’ve got left, burn it now!” Oscar ordered, turning his own throttle up to maximum. With new life his vessel churned forward…then came a jerking halt as the line ran taut and Harry’s vessel dragged Oscar’s back.

“Harry?!”

“I’m trying, I’m trying!” Harry exclaimed. “There we go!” he crowed as his engines came back to life. “Oh wait, no!” they cut out again after just a few seconds, causing the rope to snap taut again.

I removed another iteration of Harry’s engines working and then not working. The point is already made so it was just taking up unnecessary space.

Oscar ground his teeth together. This constant relaxing and tightening of the line would snap it in two. Much as he wanted to surge on ahead, he would just have to pace himself off of what Harry’s boat could handle.

“Is it steadier at lower speeds?” Oscar asked.

“Yes, the engine holds if I don’t throttle over twenty percent.”

“Alright. You keep it there. I’ll tug.”

Oscar slowed his boat down until both he and Harry were travelling at the same, slow speed. Then he accelerated, but very gradually this time. The line eased back to full tension, and the two boats began gaining speed as one. Eventually Oscar was back to full throttle, dragging Harry’s waterlogged hull through the waves. It was working…but they were less than half the speed that Oscar’s boat could have gone on its own.

“Come on, Harry,” Oscar willed the other man’s boat to spring to life. But it didn’t. It just hung there as an anchor, constantly weighing him back into the storm. And he found that he despised Harry for that. “How many sailors have to die under your hand before you’re through?” he muttered darkly.

Oscar turned his attention back to the front, still watching for any sign of the cliff-face or, better yet, of the lighthouse. He saw neither, but by looking so earnestly his mind was starting to play tricks on him, making him think he had caught a glimpse of one or the other out of the corner of his eye.

Was that a moving light?! No, just a reflection of sheet lightning on the rolling wave. Did a rock just spring out of the dark in front of him?! No, just one cloud moving past another.

Once again, I’m keeping the same scene as before, with Oscar looking for shapes in the dark, but I’m cutting it down to about half of its original length.

“Turn deeper, Harry. “Let’s bring it to forty degrees!”

“Alright…if you’re sure…”

“I’m not sure of anything anymore.” Oscar replied, but only to himself. He was surprised that they still hadn’t seen either the saving light or the damning rock. Had he become more turned around than he realized? Were they actually headed away from the shoreline?

“Forty-five degrees, Harry! Make it forty-five!”

The next wave came rolling up from behind the trawlers and tilted them so far that Oscar had to plant his foot against the side of the wheelhouse to keep his balance. They seemed to hold in this position for an eternity, and Oscar’s hands twitched on the helm, ready to throw it to starboard at the first sign of the floor rolling out from under him.

But it wasn’t his boat that started to roll first. Suddenly there came a sharp tug from behind as Harry’s started to fall onto its side, reeling the line in as it went!

By pure instinct Oscar threw his wheel the rest pf the way to port, swiveling his boat to be fully parallel with the wave. The torrent of water slammed against the side of the wheelhouse, flooding over his vessel and threatening to swamp him at any moment! But all that force against the side of Oscar’s trawler made it pull back sharply on the rope, like a kite on the end of a string, hauling Harry’s boat out of its roll and back onto its hull!

I took the description of two waves passing over the sailors and combined them in one. There was a lot of good material here…but it was, in fact, too much. I’ve got to match the pacing in this sequence with the rest of the story. I’ll also be cutting down the following paragraphs by half.

Oscar had gotten them through the moment, but the entire situation was quickly getting out of hand. There were now too many competing forces for him to keep up with: the mad sloshing of water down in his hold, the erratic swaying of Harry’s boat at the end of the line, and the sporadic buffeting of the screeching wind.

“Come on!” Oscar snarled, desperately fighting to take control of the situation. But the more his hands fumbled back and forth over the controls, the more his boat fell into over-correction and only added to the rolling chaos.

The next wave was nearly upon them, and Oscar gave up trying to find a clever maneuver to get back stability. His nerves were too worn down, and he surrendered everything, reverting back to holding the helm for dear life!

Honestly it’s very cathartic to cut long passages down, combining and simplifying them into something leaner and more fluid. Next week the story will enter its climax, where I expect to have less changes to make. Then we’ll be off to the conclusion!

Distracting Goodness

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Do you like to watch the deleted scenes from movies? It’s always been by my favorite sort of Special Feature to check for with a new film. It’s a fun way to extend the story beyond the end credits, and allows me to enjoy the characters and settings a little more deeply.

But while I enjoy them in this removed format, I most often find myself appreciating the good sense that was shown in removing these moments from the finished product. Even when the scene is a “good one,” it is very rare that I wish it would have been left in the story.

In fact often when I watch a film for the second or third time I’ll start to realize that it could have benefited from being pared down even more. Sometimes the scenes that I think need to be excised are even the ones with the best lines or slickest action. Why? Because as awesome as those parts may be individually, they just aren’t contributing to the whole. It’s like a symphony where a world-class soloist that is trying to play a different song from the rest of the orchestra. Maybe they’re impressive, but they’re out of sync and so they lessen the overall experience.

I’ve previously discussed that when it comes time to cut out a beloved scene, you might be able to transplant it somewhere else to grow into something new. But today let’s take a step back and look at how you can even recognize that a scene isn’t fitting in the first place.

 

It’s Too Much)

The most difficult scene to cut is the one that does something better than any other part of the story. Perhaps it is the most exciting, the most funny, or the most sentimental. The temptation is to assume that a story is merely the sum of its parts, that if it is comprised of nothing but high points then the whole will be greater as a result. This simply isn’t true, though. In the end a story might be more than the sum of its parts…or it might be less.

Sometimes less is more. Allowing a single scene to be a little dimmer may allow your overall story to shine all the brighter. There have been times where a story has blown me away just by how satisfying the complete package was, even if no single scene stood out head and shoulders above the rest.

An example of a story that handled its rises and falls with careful precision in this way was The Incredibles. To me that film was endlessly rewatchable and for a while I couldn’t figure out why. I liked all the scenes, but I couldn’t point to a one that took my breath away by itself. Only later did I recognize it was due to how effortlessly the story flowed from one scene to the next, how each of its scenes directly derived from what had come before, how it maintained a steady flow from start to finish. And of course it still had some high points, its climaxes of action and drama, but each of these still felt grounded to the rest of the tale.

Which brings up an important question: what about the climax? Isn’t there always going to be a scene that is more something-or-other than any of the others? The entire work can’t be a monotone after all! Yes of course, but the issue is where these moments feel unnatural. Think of how two waves in the ocean might run into one another to produce a spike taller than either of the previous. So, too, a story should naturally have moments where separate arcs combine into a high point of tension. But if two little ripples are combining into a fifty-foot tidal wave, it is going to feel very off!

 

It Throws but Never Catches)

Another issue that stands out is a story that creates a moment of intrigue which is either never paid off, or never paid off in a satisfying manner. I don’t like to give specific negative examples, but I’m sure you can readily call to mind any number of stories that began with an incredible premise that they then never deliver on.

Obviously if a story has this problem the ideal solution would be for the writer to improve the lackluster resolutions so that they deliver on the promise, rather than just removing the promise so that the beginning becomes as mundane as all the rest. That being said, it’s important to understand that some checks can’t be cashed…by anyone. Every story and every writer has their limitations, and its alright to play within your own.

Sometimes the promise also needs to be removed because the fulfilling of it actually hurts the story. I recently excised a sizable chunk of the novel I’m working on because of how it was distracting from the greater whole. Specifically I intended for my main characters to recruit a dozen workers to come help them work a season in their fields. This seemed like a nice way to evolve the story into a wider circle, but introducing new characters creates an expectation in the reader that they will become a meaningful part of the story. The fact was that I never intended to engage with or develop these new characters because they just weren’t that important to the core story.

I was faced with either lifting the whole story to catch the expectation of the new characters becoming important, or else change the plot so that no new hires would come to join the family. I decided to go with the latter, which meant cutting out significant parts of the plot that I’m still smoothing out. I really do feel it was the right decision, though.

 

It Dramatically Changes the Tone)

The final consideration is perhaps the simplest. One has to consider the times where a single scene interrupts the emotional flow that exists on either side of it. This is different from an inflection point where the entire tale takes a turn into the new act, such as a moment of tragedy that signals the ramping up of conflict. An inflection point represents a permanent change in all of the tone that follows, whereas an interruption is an erratic blip, an outlier in the middle of a sequence of events that are otherwise homogeneous in tone. Though the tone that is established in this errant scene might be moving, it is distracting from the cadence of the whole. As such it should be removed so that the whole may feel more consistent…with one exception.

Sometimes a scene is intentionally made to stick out when its purpose to is foreshadow events that are yet to come. The writer is throwing out a new plot hook which will only be caught sometime later. I am using this particular technique extensively in the novel I am currently working on.

In that story the plot follows the simple day-to-day actions of a family cultivating their future. They have minor setbacks and struggles, but overall the story is very lighthearted and cheerful throughout…except for when the narrator finishes certain segments by detailing his horrifying nightmares. These sequences are drastically different in tone from everything on either side of them, and that is intentional. I know that the reader won’t forget these sequences, and when eventually things turn dangerous on the island, they will feel properly forewarned.

 

In conclusion, just because a scene is “good” does not mean that it is “good for your story.” If it is possible to take the essence that you enjoyed from that scene and transplant it elsewhere in your tale then go for it! But if not, then maybe that idea is best filed away until you can find it a new home. Never forget, just because a scene doesn’t belong in this one story does not mean it belongs in the trash.

On Thursday I will share the conclusion of Harold and Caroline, and in that half there was a piece of sentimentality I very much liked, but ultimately felt didn’t belong in the work as a whole. I’ll explain what that scene was and why I made the decision to cut it. Come back then, and in the meanwhile have a wonderful day!