When the plot twist becomes the new plan

(The title of this post is not a metaphor for anything. I’m literally going to talk about plot twists.)

During the past few months, something drastic happened in my revision process.

I said yes to adding a brand new plot twist. In my fourth draft.

Before I even started this draft, I knew I was going to have to do something different. My first two attempts at revision ended in what I considered to be a pretty sickening failure. In my third draft stage, I was hoping to end up somehow cutting at least 10,000 words. By the time I got about halfway through, I figured 10,000 was an overly ambitious goal, so I settled for 5,000.

I cut 1,572 words.

I finished Draft 3 of my manuscript at 1 A.M. on a school night. And when I was done crunching the numbers and saw the final result… I couldn’t even work up the energy to be disappointed. I just sat there at my desk, in the middle of the night, my head in my hands, my elbows planted on either side of my keyboard, and stared blankly at the screen.

And I remember thinking to myself, “Okay. Am I doing this wrong?”

Jan. 20, 2014 at 1AM: taken immediately after I found out I had only cut 1500 words from my entire 2nd draft.

(Jan. 20, 2014) My brain-dead, revision selfie.

I’ve never revised anything to this extent before. Much like every other fiction writer out there, nobody ever taught me how to revise a novel—I had to learn on my own. So naturally, the thought that followed that first one was the thought that probably required the least amount of work: “Maybe this book just isn’t meant to be short. Maybe it’s meant to be two books.”

I tried many times over to find the place to split it down the middle. I found that no such place existed. Then, in the middle of my despairing period between Drafts 3 and 4, I remembered something: I am mother-freaking queen of the spur-of-the-moment plot twist.

I had an idea. And it was a crazy, weird, wild idea. It was an idea that would require me to do some heavy lifting where rewrites were concerned—and it would possibly change the plot. I wrote about this idea in a previous blog post, back before it was fully developed, but basically it came down to making an illusive character more complex.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Easy breezy beautiful, right?


I began to outline again (because this is apparently what I do to keep myself from freaking the crap out). I went back to the drawing board and did a chapter-by-chapter overview of what would change and would stay the same.

I worked out that in order to make this plot twist work, I’d be rewriting about a third of the book.

I considered this.

Then I panicked.

“I don’t really NEED to write a fourth draft, right? I mean, I was doing okay with my old revision method. Three drafts is good enough. I don’t actually have to rewrite 30% of my book.”

^^ Lies I told myself in February, as I procrastinated tackling Draft 4.

But the longer I put it off, the more Draft 4 started to look like the sky before a tornado—murky and ominous and like it’s about to throw up on you. I felt like that, like Draft 4 was looming and lording over my head, just waiting to freaking upchuck all over my soul.

I let it intimidate me for a whole month. Because I was afraid of doing the work.

Then something clicked in March. As I was gearing up to graduate, figuring out what to do with my life, and sorting through old dreams and new ones, I realized that I could either a.) try this crazy rewrite and maybe pull all my hair out and maybe throw a lot of fragile things at walls and maybe fail hardcore, or b.) give up. Worst case scenario, I told myself, I would throw the whole thing out and go right back to Draft 3.

And maybe, just maybe, it would work.

I was facing a very slim chance that this plot twist could actually make the book better. But if I didn’t take the risk and do the work, I would never ever know. The document would just sit on my desktop and no one would read it but me and my awesome, supah-troopah beta readers from Figment (who read the first draft back when it was 135K words of chaos and confusion).

That is the pain and the beauty of not being published. You are accountable only to yourself.

So now, here I am. At the end of Draft 4, taking the risk I didn’t initially want to take, and doing the work I didn’t particularly want to do—and so far, this new draft is 5,874 words shorter (and that is including the dozens of new/altered scenes I wrote). A number that is still changing.

But no matter what the wordcount ends up being, I will be glad I took this risk. I will be glad I decided to delve more deeply into this secondary character. I now understand her and the story in a way I never did before.

Rewriting is not just about making things pretty. Sometimes it’s about making things even messier than they were before, if only to figure out what’s at the heart of the story. I was afraid to make the mess the first couple of times, but it’s not failure if you learn something. And I did.

Sometimes, you have to kill your darlings. Other times, you have to remake them.

Samantha Chaffin

10 thoughts on “When the plot twist becomes the new plan

  1. Linda D says:

    I can’t wait to read it. Having read the first, and absolutely enjoyed it. I will love reading the new-er version. It will be like getting reaquainted with old good friends, getting to know new ones, and seeing a new side of my friends. What could be better. So, Queen-of-twist, twist away, my mind is itching to unravel

    Linda D

    • Linda D says:

      Great News! I couldn’t be happier for you. Finally, you can release your inner pirate. Tomorrow, September 19, is international (not just national) “Talk like a priate” day. I know! Finally, right?

      Unfortunately for us it’s still not “Act like a pirate” day, so we have to keep all our debauchery, marauding, and pillaging done in secret…for now!!!

  2. Brie says:

    All the weight lifting you are doing with this book is obviously going to make you a stronger writer. I never read the first version so I don’t really know the story like other readers do…but I have read your other stories so I know it has depth to it.

    I’m sorry the duology didn’t work out. I’m excited about the plot twist. I know what it’s like to rewrite a story. I rewrote my Camp NaNoWriMo novella so many times and couldn’t get it to work….I couldn’t even finish it. I think it actually brought tears to my eyes.

    In all sincerity, I am praying over your story. Don’t forget to relax and don’t give up if you feel there is a story you need to tell.

    Okay, on to the suggestions:
    1) if it’s YA write it as adult or children’s. Rethink your audience.
    2)Do more research…look for something that can fuel plot twists.
    3)Use history as your guide. What did historical figures do in the situation as your characters?
    4) what would you do?
    5)just take a break and read more.
    6) create a space for writing (e.g tea,music,early morning,park, etc).
    7) watch your favorite movie and think about why you like it.
    8)work on another project and then come back.
    9)Pray about it (this should actually be number one).
    10)Go on a treasure for hunt for: things,pictures,music,etc that remind you of your story.

    I hope at least one of those things helps. 🙂

    • samchaffin says:

      Thanks, Bri! Your suggestions are great. I’m excited to be able to look back on this 4th draft season soon and say I survived it. Until then… *buries head in words*

  3. maskofstarlight says:

    I really agree! Especially what you said about there not being enough guides about revision; there is so much Internet reference for writing the first draft, but not the rest. As an aspiring author myself, I find this lack pretty strange, so I’m planning to write said guide myself.

    Good luck on revising! P.S.: I’m on Figment too, can’t wait to read the excerpt! 🙂

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