Calculating the Circumference of your Story…

I was reading a book called Infinite Powers by mathematician Steven Strogatz and did you know that on paper, we are unable to calculate the true circumference of a circle? I won’t attempt to recreate his logic here for fear that another mathematician reads this but suffice it to say, we are very good at approximating the circumference of a circle but we don’t have the means to be 100% accurate. The formula for calculating the circumference of a circle is based on formulas for calculating polygons because it is very easy to measure a straight line and if we imagine a polygon with infinite vertices, and therefore infinite straight lines, then we get something that looks at worst, like a slightly bumpy circle. The true measurement can never be achieved so we use infinity to get as close as possible to it. And I am sure I have absolutely no idea why this reminds me of redrafting a script.

When writing a first draft, it’s best if you don’t think about it too much. Let it flow, see where it goes. Try not to feel too self-conscious or you’ll start second-guessing every word you write. We’ve all been there. Typing, deleting, and retyping the first word. It feels like the entire endeavour hinges on that crucial first word. It doesn’t though. What it hinges on is your self-belief and your follow-through. And hey, maybe it doesn’t work out. Maybe you shouldn’t have killed that character? Or a technique you were using doesn’t quite land. That’s okay. The main thing is actually finishing the first draft in all its ill-thought out glory. And then you should really take a moment to pat yourself on the back. You may now begin the all-important second draft.

So, what happens in the second draft?

Let’s start with what doesn’t happen. We do not get bogged down in the minutiae. The countless tiny imperfection that mar your work are not addressed until the subsequent drafts. If something is slightly off and it’s not immediately clear how to fix it, we move on. If you don’t then you may doom yourself to spending an entire evening typing, deleting, and retyping the same line over and over again getting absolutely nothing done, potentially making you hate the project. The second draft is not for that. The second draft is where we correct the egregious. Large structural issues, poor characterisation, loose plot threads, they get resolved here. Or at least, you lay the groundwork so six drafts down the line you can finally put these issues to bed (Writing is fun!). The second draft is where we take the raw material of the first draft and begin to whip the story into shape.

Identifying these issues can be difficult. Speaking from my own experience, I know that once I complete the first draft of something I can’t really make sense of it. I can see some of the problems, but I will entirely misjudge their severity and that works in both directions. Sometimes, the molehill really is a mountain. Lucky for me, I am surrounded by creative types who are more than happy to read my stories and let me talk it through with them for several days. At least I hope they’re happy. These conversations allow me to assess the scale of the problems, what order they need to be solved in and act as a space where everyone can spit ball and talk through possible directions for the work to take. I cannot over stress how much I value the community aspect of this approach to the second draft.

We haven’t discussed yet how to tackle these issues. While how you approach it really depends on the specific problem, we can paint in broad strokes to give you the essentials.

Let’s say that you have written a story where your main character (MC) is a master thief and by the end of the story, they no longer wish to steal because they learn that stealing is wrong. Not a terribly interesting arc but it will do for our purposes. But you notice when reading it back that outside of the climax and a handful of lines, there aren’t many instances of them being confronted by the consequences of stealing. As a result, their revelation at the end just seems to come out of nowhere. My method here is to craft a trio of scenes that contain within them a complete arc.

  • Scene One: while walking down the street, MC sees a man he pickpocketed a large sum of money from earlier being berated by his wife for losing said money, accusing him of spending it all on booze or gambling it away. MC smiles and moves on.  
  • Scene Two: MC is out celebrating after a big score, spending freely their newfound wealth. They go to the bar and who should they find but the man they had pickpocketed, red-eyed and nursing a pint. His wife is threatening to leave him, and the bills are piling up. If he doesn’t find the money somewhere, they’ll send him to the workhouse until he can pay off his debt. That’s right, this was a Victorian pickpocket story all along. Deal with it. MC, confronted by the consequences of their actions, feels bad for the man, but not so bad they’ll give him back his money. MC tells him the next round is on them and walks away.
  • Scene Three: It is just after the climax, where MC chose to save their pickpocketing protégé rather than go for the big score as they have learned that some things are more important than money. They walk down the street and knock on the door of a particular house, leaving a bag of money on the step behind them. The pickpocketed man opens the door looking absolutely miserable until he sees the returned purse on the step. MC smiles from the shadows as the man calls to his wife with the good news.

This requires a little nip and tuck but can be rendered seamless if done well. Where possible though, I will integrate the new scenes with the existing scenes because this reduces the workload. And often, the solutions are not nearly as clear cut as the above example. You may need to take time before putting the pen back to paper. Let ideas mature for a few days and reflect on them. The drafting process should be run as a marathon, not a sprint.

After the large structural changes have been made, you are now ready to get down to the nitty gritty, the minutiae. The single word that stops a good line from being a great one. The line that can be replaced by a small gesture. And the fat. All the repetitive, pointless fat. We cut it all away to create the most artistically aerodynamic version of the script imaginable.

But it’s not perfect and it never will be. Like the round edge of a circle being measured in straight lines, these edits will only give you an approximation of the vision you had when you imagined the story. Through the hours you commit, you decide how many edges the polygon will have and how accurately you depict that initial vision. But it doesn’t matter if you end up making a triangle, a square or a 1,000-gon, it will always be an approximation. That’s a bit deflating, isn’t it? I mean, why bother if you’ll never reach perfection? Because, even though we may never know the true circumference of a circle, the approximation has allowed us to achieve things that we could have never done without it. The value of this approximation is immeasurable and it was only achieved by accepting that though we may strive towards curved infinite, we are human and for the time being must make do with straight lines.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *