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Rewriting: What Does the Character Want?

July 27, 2014 by Diane

hand opening red curtain on white.

Behind the curtain again, I venture into the territory of my novel by opening the document on the computer. Immediately, I feel the need to jump up and get a glass of water. Which I do. Then I sit down. I grab my copy of Immediate Fiction, go to Chapter 8, The Second Time Around: Rewriting, to remind myself about this thing called plot.

WANT, OBSTACLE, ACTION, RESOLUTION–these, according to the book, are the elements that build a story. They should appear in every novel, and in every scene. These are the elements to look for on the page, not in your head.  Mark where they appear, if they appear, and if they don’t, then these are the elements to write into the scene. I pull out the hard copy of my manuscript and start looking.

Well…the first scene can be cut. Or placed somewhere else. The second scene is where the protagonist’s WANT first appears. In the 3rd paragraph. I mark it with red ink. This is is her overall WANT that drives the novel. I open a blank document on the computer and set the alarm for five minutes and type up some ideas about why Morgan Malone wants what she wants. I have an “ah-ha!” moment. I discover her motivation. I discover the guilt she carries. Five minutes, and I’ve unearthed a treasure-trove of plot ideas.

Now I’m excited. My nerves are tingling. I need to get up, drink more water, shake off the adrenaline.

No…it’s good! Sometimes adrenaline equals excitement, not anxiety. It’s okay. Keep going.

I set the alarm for another five minutes. I type more notes about Morgan’s want. Why does she feel that things must change? Why now? Where’s the ticking clock? I continue working in five-minute increments, focusing on one thing in each session.

And I realize that the first scene, which I intended to scrap, needs to be there after all. It just needs to be rewritten. Morgan’s overall want is to break out of her mediocre lifestyle, to be a free spirit, to avoid becoming trapped like her mother. But an obstacle strolls into her life in that first scene:

Morgan Malone has a weakness for men who look like Jack Kerouac. So when Daniel Freeman walks into the bar where she’s mixing drinks, she knows she’s in trouble.

Her motivation in the scene is to resist Daniel’s charm, to resist stumbling for a resemblance again. It got her into trouble the first time. I need to move the WANT up so it happens sooner in the scene. I need to strengthen the obstacle to pump up the conflict, and add actions that she takes to overcome the obstacle.

I have a direction. A plan. I have begun.

Takeaway this week:

Print out a scene that you’re working on. Look for where the WANT appears. Does it appear soon enough? Can it be stronger? Can the character walk away from the WANT and not be affected? If so, crank it up a notch. Play around. You might change your mind later as you work through whatever it is you’re writing. But for now, it’s a start.

In case you missed it, my rewriting journey began here.


  1. Sue Wilhite says:

    I *want* more of this kind of post: this was a great breadcrumb (gluten-free/GMO-free/no preservatives added, of course!)

  2. Charli Mills says:

    So appreciate sharing process! Good reminders, but helpful to see how you put it into action. I always forget the water…

    • Diane says:

      Thanks Charli! I appreciate the feedback. This is an interesting process, blogging about rewriting. If anything I’m doing helps other writers, I’m happy!

  3. Great post Diane – don’t you just love the feeling of excitement when you know you are on to something good and things are coming together? Makes the rest of the slog worth it.
    I haven’t read immediate fiction, so will need to check it out.

    • Diane says:

      Yes, those moments when things fall into place are great. And then the slog returns. But shorter lived, I think. Thanks for the comment Lee!

  4. Sounds like you really have something here Diane! I really appreciate the advice as well; so simple but often overlooked. Stephen King’s “On Writing” is my favorite book on the subject and I don’t think he laid it out so perfectly.


    • Diane says:

      Wow, what a compliment! Thanks Scott. I have yet to read King’s book. Everyone raves about it, so it’s definitely on my list of books to read.

  5. Joan merdinger says:

    I’m so happy and excited for you, Diane ! I know how important this is to you. Keep up the good work!!

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