For Writers: Re-writing

by Nancy Oliver, playwright, screenwriter, and TV writer

You have an unexpected half-hour free to write in your journal. Remembering the trashy bodice-ripper you skimmed in the doctor’s waiting room, you wonder, could I write like that? You give it a try and come up with something like this:

Nicole looked at Lance in horror. His eyes flashed with anger as he bared his white teeth in a grim smile. “You knew what I was when you hired me,” he drawled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she protested. She tried to inch slowly toward the door, but he grabbed her tight with his tan muscled arms. All those long summer days breaking mustangs had made him strong as a lion. Her startling blue eyes pleaded with him. “Let me go,” she begged. He drew her closer, bending his mouth to hers.

Not bad. People publish paragraphs like this all the time. Still, to a writer, if there’s one thing inevitable as death, taxes, and unemployment, it’s rewriting. So where do you start? Let’s go back to your journal and break this paragraph down.

“Nicole gazed at Lance in horror.” Well, it’s not criminal, but “gaze” is a little over the top and not really the right use of the word as it implies a steadiness that Nicole clearly does not possess. And is “horror” too strong a word only a few sentences before she succumbs to her desire? Looking at Lance or watching him nervously could do the job.

“His eyes flashed with anger…” When was the last time you actually saw somebody’s eyes flash? Avoid clichés unless you’re making a point about clichés. Try some real observation of the expressive possibilities of eyes and you might come up with something fresh. “…as he bared his white teeth in a grim smile.” Oh, mercy. That’s a lot of action and description for a sentence that says nothing new we need to know.“He smiled” is plenty.

“You knew what I was when you met me,” he drawled. Does Lance need to drawl here? Chances are he’s been drawling all through the rest of the book and in this scene specifying the drawl weakens the punch of the dialogue. In fact, when your dialogue is sharp, clean, and in character, it’s not necessary to describe the way things are said; we’ll get the point.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” she protested…” Again, the protest is implicit in the dialogue, something like “lied” would be more interesting. “…her heart beating wildly in her chest.” Okay, we’ll let the “wildly” pass for genre’s sake, but “in her chest” has to go since everyone already knows where hearts are.

“She tried to inch slowly toward the door…” The verb “inch” already tells us she’s moving slowly. “…but he grabbed her tight with his tan muscled arms.” First, there’s no need for “tight” since you can’t grab something loosely. Second, the imminent embrace demands that “tan muscled arms” appear somewhere in this scene. But to use them after “grab” is lame–what else is he going to grab her with, flippers? Best to mention those arms somewhere before our paragraph begins, at the top of the scene.

“All those long summer days breaking mustangs had made him strong as a lion.” This is pretty good except for “strong as a lion” which is another cheap cliché. You also don’t want to mix your animals within a few words of each other. Why not try something more straightforward?

“Her startling blue eyes pleaded with him.” Surely we’ve heard about the startling blue of Nicole’s eyes on page one and every few pages since then. This is not the time to bring it up again. And why does she bother pleading with her eyes when she’s going to plead with her voice in the next sentence?

“Let me go,” she begged. Nicole really shouldn’t be begging or pleading at all at this point. As a bodice-ripper heroine caught in a dangerous embrace, she should be feisty, not passive. The idea is to increase the physical tension of the moment, and all she’s done so far is inch. We need to remind the reader that Nicole, too, is flesh.

“He drew her closer, bending his mouth to hers.” You can’t really draw a woman closer when she’s fighting like a tarpon. Now is the time for Lance to pull her in tight. However, because mouths don’t actually bend, maybe he should just kiss her, but in an unexpected way.

So a rewrite might go something like this:

Lance raised his tan, muscled arms and threw the pitchfork into the hay. Nicole watched him, suddenly nervous. The color of his eyes seemed to change and he smiled. “You knew what I was when you hired me.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she lied, inching toward the barn door, but he moved swiftly and grabbed her. All those long summer days breaking mustangs had only made him stronger, leaner, harder. She twisted her body, trying to break his hold as he pulled her tight against him. She stopped struggling. “Please,” he whispered and kissed her softly for a long time.

Your version would probably be quite different. It doesn’t matter. These are the sorts of questions to be asked and answered as you learn the art of the rewrite.