I’ve always been something of an idea guy. It doesn’t take a whole lot for me to conjure up a “high concept” idea for a story, script, whatever. What has always been an issue for me is execution. Which is why, for the past week, I’ve revisited an old concept and tried to write the story from scratch in order to take full advantage of my new skillsets and not rely too much on the old. This strategy is something I’ve read about in several books on writing/screenwriting and never really bought into. It seemed like a lot of work for not a lot of upside. Basically, you write something and then immediately get rid of it. Assume it’s all shit and rewrite it from scratch. You should retain your structure and any greatness that may have been in the first draft, but improve on everything else by virtue of already knowing the story and being unencumbered with “darlings.”
Again, I never really bought into that. I liked the idea of heavily revising what was already on the page because it seemed less drastic. But, for my purposes now, I wanted to take a concept I liked but haven’t looked at in a few years and see what came of it. In college I was a dark soul and wrote a short story about a kid who may or may not have killed himself and ends up deep underground where dancing skeletons perform for him the things that led to him killing himself to begin with.
Before rewriting I didn’t bother to look at the old version (now almost five years since the last revision I can find) in case it influenced me. I just started writing.
Now that the new one is in a draft, I wanted to compare the two. The one thing I have improved on drastically is my sense of pacing, my word choice, and the way I substantiate things within the story. I also rely much less on ambiguity. The writing is tighter, cleaner, and more streamlined while also being more substantive. Part of this might be because I already knew the story but considering my other recent writings, I think it’s just the way my talents have evolved since college. There is also a stronger sense of metaphor.
I will say, however, that now that I’m a more calculated writer the story lost some of the emotion that pushed me through the old draft. The language and wording is better, sure, but I’ve lost some of the urgency and the youthful hurt I brought to the old one.
Take this section from one of the first dances my protagonist, Peter, witness. This is from the 2009 draft:
Lifting his head there were two more skeletons standing between the flames. The skeleton to Peter’s right wore a mask of his former best friend. The tone of the skin was dark, the hair short, the facial hair underdeveloped. The eyes were hard, challenging Peter for everything and daring him to accept. The lips curled on one side into a half smile, a half smile Peter hated.Peter stood and tried again to step forward, wanting to attack. To tear apart his closest enemy bone by bone. He struggled ferociously to get his ankles out of the mud, until he noticed who the skeleton was holding hands with: Peter’s only love. She had left not too long ago. Rather, it seemed like it wasn’t too long ago to Peter. In fact, it was over a year before.She was gorgeous. Her dark hair hung to her chin, her brown eyes burning through Peter’s chest and warming his breath. The skirt she wore was long, welcoming. He felt her skin was perfect, when in reality there was a mole that Peter remembered she had always hated. He wanted to outline her face with his fingers, his lips, as he had done when they were both alive, before she had killed them. Tracing the curvature of her jaw with his fingers to rest on her lips which would slowly kiss them in gratitude. Her smile was teasing, flirtatious. She used to smile at him with that smile and lift her eyebrows only a little bit, letting Peter wallow in her beauty while he wished he could hold her forever. He wondered if she now did the same for his best friend.He screamed. He didn’t want anymore. He couldn’t take this memory, this truth. It was too much for his emotions to handle in life, why would it be any different here? He broke down and sobbed. The skeletons started to dance to the tango music that came without warning. They held each other closely, staring into each others eyes as Peter could do nothing but watch. The skeleton that was supposed to be his best friend twirled his ex-girlfriend and then pulled her in close to him so that their faces were almost touching. They turned their heads toward Peter and began taking steps toward him. He screamed again, louder than the first time but he couldn’t hear himself over the music. So he kept screaming and fighting to lift his feet out of their prison. A desperation overcame him as he screamed and fought to free himself. He clawed at the dirt in front of him, behind him, below him. There was no getting free. He would have to watch.He screamed again, this time hard enough that he felt pieces of his throat tear off. His eyes swelled with tears. His mouth filled with blood. His fingers shook with the urge to feel her skin against his. Snot and tears covered his face, mixing with the mud and in thick drops falling to the floor. Peter’s head hurt.The dance continued. With each movement the two lovers seemed to get closer until they became one. Suddenly they stopped dancing but the music continued. They only writhed together, their bodies one but their faces unable to follow suit. Peter wiped the muddy substance from his face, spitting blood toward them. His chest heaved. A thick rage consumed him now. An unforgiving, non-understanding rage that enveloped his entire being. He hated them both. He hated them for being happy at his expense. They stopped writhing and turned their heads toward Peter. Almost as if they sensed his anger they backed away toward the fire, leaving bits and pieces of themselves behind. Peter stood still, breathing heavily, his eyes reflecting the flames the two skeletons inched towards. Finally, the flames engulfed the monstrosity that tortured Peter’s emotions.
Compared with a similar section from the 2014 draft:
A crackling sound brought his attention back to the flame. It was larger now, dancing with the shadows it made on the cavern walls. Then, as if the voice of God Himself, it spoke:“PETER, THANK YOU FOR JOINING US FOR SUCH A SPECIAL SHOW. WE KNOW HOW MUCH YOU LOVE THEATER AND DANCE, SPECIFICALLY, SO WE DO HOPE YOU ENJOY WHAT WE HAVE PLANNED. FIRST UP, A MUJRA!”Peter had never heard of a Mujra before and found himself backing away from the talking flame. As he backed away he unwittingly found his feet becoming encased in mud and then hardening like quik-dri concrete. His legs locked and he fell backward. He realized, then, that he would be forced to watch whatever was about to happen.The orange flame grew larger, crackling and sparking, until a person would be able to fit inside its center. Then, right before Peter’s eyes, a figure did appear in the center of the flame. A skeleton holding itself, its skull faced downward pensively. The flame died down, leaving the ivory person standing by themselves in the middle of the cavern floor.Another flame burst from the ceiling. A spotlight. The skeleton lifted its skull and Peter retched. Over the white bone was flesh that hung loosely, as if an ill-fitting mask. Even so, she was recognizable. Peter’s ex-girlfriend, Lucy.Despite the circumstances Peter still felt drawn to the features she retained. Her chin-length brown hair. Her green eyes. The mole at the bottom of her chin. Beneath the veneer of this grotesque caricature Peter thought he could see the girl he still loved.The music started. It sounded Indian in nature. Lucy began to move, slowly at first. She gyrated her hips, lightly tapped her feet on the floor.“A MUJRA IS AN INTRICATE DANCE THAT ORIGINATED IN PAKISTAN DURING THE MUGHAL EMPIRE. ALTHOUGH ORIGINALLY CONSIDERED AN ARTFORM, THIS DANCE SOON CAME TO BE ASSOCIATED WITH WHORES.”Figures, Peter thought as he watched Lucy move her arms in delicate, intricate, and highly choreographed movements. The music sped up and with it, Lucy’s movements. She moved her hips rhythmically, hypnotically. Memories washed over him; How he liked to kiss her chin, how she pet him at night, how they sat on the roof of his car and looked at the stars…Peter found himself searching for stars in the cavern. As he stared at the cavern ceiling he began to wonder if he’d ever see the stars again. Considering what he had done, and where he ended up, he doubted it.The music began to subtly warp. New notes fought with the old ones. Peter brought his gaze back to Lucy who was now gyrating and thrusting around a new, giant, green flame. Inside the green flame a new body arose.It stepped outside of the flame and Peter immediately felt his sadness melt away and be replaced by a lividness he knew well. Like Lucy there was no flesh on the body, but the mask was olive skinned, with brown eyes, and cropped black hair. His former best friend, Brutus.“AND NOW, PETER, BRUTUS AND LUCY WILL PERFORM FOR YOU A TANGO.”Peter found himself pulling against his cement shoes, trying desperately to get to Lucy and Brutus. The music started, a cliché latin tempo, and Brutus pulled her into a close embrace. The thought of their betrayal, one of the reasons Peter found himself in the woods with a gun in his mouth, brought to him the taste of blood. He scratched and clawed and fought against the mud holding him in place but it was of no use – he would be forced to watch.Brutus and Lucy danced gracefully, each hitting the notes and practicing the choreography as if they were seasoned pros. Their feet moved in complex patterns, Brutus leading and dipping Lucy. Peter couldn’t help but admire the skill with which Brutus whisked her from her feet. Eventually, though, they began to eschew the standard tango in favor of something sexier, riskier, and less elegant.Brutus pulled Lucy in close and they rubbed against one another. Peter felt a scream enter his throat. He pulled himself toward them as their bodies became intertwined. Peter could taste the blood in his mouth and he thought of how he would do anything to feel Lucy’s skin against his one last time.
They rubbed together so fiercely that their bare ribcages caught and locked together. But they didn’t try to free themselves. They accepted it and continued to pull into one another. They turned their horrible masked faces toward Peter and he could swear he saw them smirk.
Clearly, the new draft needs some work. Brutus, really? I haven’t quite lost my heavy-hand but I am more aware of it. But this section goes to show the differences in the way I write now as opposed to then. It’s worth mentioning that this section also takes place earlier in the new draft than in the old, a decision made to emphasize importance in Peter’s decision to kill himself.
I think what will be best for the story is to combine aspects of them. I would love to retain the raw emotion and more poetic aspects of the original, but the new story is better-written and more substantive. I don’t know how the end product will ultimately turn out – I still don’t feel wholly comfortable with prose, partially because I can’t seem to discover my voice – but as with most things, I think there is progress to be appreciated between the drafts.
I liked this strategy. I have a lot of old stories I liked the concept for but either never finished, or finished and didn’t care for the execution. Who knows, maybe with this strategy I’ll be able to salvage some stuff and try my hand at getting published again. It’s worth a shot, regardless.