[Warning, spoilers ahead on the Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter]
So probably everybody has read the Robert Frost Poem, The Road Not Taken. You know, it’s the one that starts off “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” and goes on at length about the narrator’s indecision about which path he should take. At one point the narrator acknowledges that he would like to take both roads, but that “knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back.”
And the dude is right — about paths taken in life.
Not so much about paths taken in writing.
The great thing about writing stories is that you can go back and take the other path if you want to, and in a lot of cases, you probably should. That’s what rewrite/revision is all about.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of writers, especially beginning ones, have a hard time considering the path not taken when doing revisions. I know I certainly did. For some writers there doesn’t even seem to be an alternate path. We think the story is what is and that’s that, and our revising is actually more editing, aka fixing minor issues, polishing the language. In other words, not really doing anything to improve on the story itself.
But guess what, folks — there’s always an alternate path. Something else could happen. [SPOILER ALERT] In MockingJay, Katniss could’ve decided not to shoot President Snow. In Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer could’ve decided not to go the whole killer-baby-nobody-dies, there-are-no-consequences-ever route (and think about how much better the story would be if she had). And in The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry could’ve decided to let Sirius and Lupin kill Wormtail.
[SPOILER OVER] Now, I’m not saying that if these writers had chosen a different path that the stories would’ve been better. Clearly, that’s not the case with the Harry Potter example at the very least. But what I am saying is that if you know there’s an issue with a story you’re working on, considering an alternate path might very well be the solution.
Now the key to recognizing the existence of alternate paths is distance from the story. And the only way to gain that distance is to stick your first draft in a drawer and let it sit there for a period of time. Stephen King recommends a minimum of 6 weeks, and he’s probably right. At the very least, give it a month.
I know it’s hard, and I know you don’t want to, but you really, really should. Once you’ve achieved the distance, you’ll start to see not only the issues with your story but the ways to fix them, very often by letting the story take a different path. And as an added bonus, you’ll gain the ever important practice of learning the art of patience. And if you’re writing to publish, patience is a virtue you’re really going to need. That is, if you plan on staying sane.
Good luck and happy writing!