Tinkering With The Plot

Reading & Writing

Do writers ever truly finish anything? That’s what I wondered as I set about the 14th rewrite of what used to be my play ‘Celebrity’ and is transforming into something called ‘Falling Stars’. I’ve delivered four versions of my section of the movie ‘Bloody London’, of which the director Tom Shankland likes the latest and the producer likes the third, and I’m currently rewriting ‘Bryant & May In The Field’, a short story for the diamond jubilee of the CWA.

But these are all rewrites created before the final version appears. What happens when you continue tinkering afterwards? Famously, John Fowles rewrote ‘The Magus’ in its entirety years after it had been out. Charles Palliser didn’t quite do that with the confounding but dazzling ‘The Quincunx’ – he added a coda that was intended to explain the ending to puzzled readers but only confused us even more (do read it though, if you haven’t). I rewrote ‘Seventy Seven Clocks’, turning it into a proper Bryant & May novel, and would love to do the same with ‘Calabash’, not that anyone read the original.

In the theatre, this tinkering never stops. The other night I went to the Menier Chocolate Factory to see Maria Friedman’s version of ‘Merry We Roll Along’, probably the only musical ever to take cynicism and disillusionment as its main theme, and found it had changed dramatically from the last time I saw it. Based in turn on a Kaufman & Hart play that runs backwards through the lives of three friends who vow never to compromise their ideals and end up doing so horribly, the last version I saw began in a school. Now it starts with a woman being blinded, and has a slew of new sequences. Do they help? I’m not so sure.

This happens when the writer feels that the play in its present form doesn’t work, and attempts to resolve outstanding issues. The new version has in fact been around for a while, and is (for now, at least) accepted as the right one, but without the school scenes the play is hard for newbies to follow. Sondheim has rewritten ‘Bounce’/’Roadshow’ so many times now that I’ve lost count, and it still doesn’t work. At the centre of each is an unlikeable main character no-one can identify with.

And that, I think, is what all this rewriting comes down to; altering the plot and leaving the characters the same is like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.  Not that ‘Merrily’ is a Titanic – it’s miles ahead of most other productions. I’ve mentioned a new version of the Swiss play ‘The Visit’ here before, scuppered first by 9/11 and then an endless series of problems. In this, a rich woman returns to the dying town where she grew up and agrees to help them in return for taking the the life of one decent man. Again, the problem is one of audience identification. She’s utterly unforgiving and cold.

The other night I was talking to Steve Watson, AKA SJ Watson, author of ‘Before I Go To Sleep’, about his upcoming film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman, and the clever thing about Steve’s bestseller is the melding of plot and character (the heroine wakes up each day with no memory of the previous one) which renders it unassailable; change one thing and there’s no story.

This is a tough trick to pull off – most works can be rewritten to include new scenes, but it’s very rare to make something to tight that the removal or addition of any one element wrecks it. That’s where greatness lies, and it’s what we all strive for.

Are there other books and plays that have been overhauled after their initial release?

10 comments on “Tinkering With The Plot”

  1. Bob Low says:

    I read Calabash! It was the first book my wife ever ordered on the Internet, and I got it for my birthday the year it came out.We both read it,and loved it.I’m not sure how Bryant and May would fit in, but I’d be interested to see how it might work. Michael Moorcock was always mucking about with his old stuff-the paperback editions of his complete ”Tale of the Eternal Champion” that came out in 95 and 96 had mostly been revised, but the alterations weren’t too drastic.I seem to remember that he was keen to insert contemporary references and jokes into the books, and I wondered at the time if this might make the revised editions seem more dated in years to come. If I ever get the time, I’ll have to dig them out and read them again.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    This is a good topic. I believe, however, there is a time to stop with the rewriting, but it can be hard to stop, especially if others are involved and money is on the line. Sometimes it’s better to just move on, but of course investors don’t accept this easily.
    If the problem is the main character, then if feasible a step to the side may work by having a secondary and warmer character take the lead – or share the lead – with the former unlikable primary. This can produce greater character discovery.
    Life is full of dropped threads – many become reflective stories in themselves -but it is insanity, once the story flows, reads whole, and has no obvious dangling bits to go over and over reworking a piece, if not absolutely necessary. The perfection inclination should be contained after a while.
    I had a pre-publication reader ask: “But why would the wild boar do that?” Give me a break. If the hero has a wild boar chasing him through the forest must he also consult the wild boar for motivation? No, just run like hell. (Probably babies hidden in the shrubs or his aftershave is irritating.)
    Writers, like film production units, can always however benefit from having a crackerjack continuity girl/boy on “set”, which Skyfall apparently didn’t have, and a researcher, copy reader and editor, particularly on a big project, just look at the dedications and thank yous in big books, for ex. C.J. Sansom’s recent “Dominion” and, yes, he was seriously ill while writing the book. Unfortunately, support staff come costly, so friends are to be maintained and Christmas treats and published thanks given.

  3. glasgow1975 says:

    Also a reader/lover of Calabash here :p

  4. John Howard says:

    I can only say that reading Brant & May and wanting to read more of the author led me to Calabash, Paperboy, Sparky… Do I need to carry on. Don’t be downhearted, we are here to bolster your retirement fund.

  5. Sam Tomaino says:

    J.R.R. Tolkien famously re-wrote the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter of The Hobbit. In the original version, Gollum offers Bilbo a present if the wins – the Ring! When Gollum can’t find it, he agrees to show Bilbo the way out, instead. JRRT revised this to the one we all know after the publication of LotR.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I didn’t know that, but he’d have had to do something to allow for the rest of the story, unless you mean that Bilbo found the ring in the original version as well. The change was a good one because it lets us really meet Gollum and shows us the negative side of Bilbo’s nature, or what the ring does to your natural self, whichever.

  7. Rich says:

    Another one here who read and loved ‘Calabash’. Please don’t change it.

  8. Sam Tomaino says:

    Yes, Bilbo finds the ring, pretty much like he did in the later version, and said nothing to Gollum about it. Obviously, after LotR showed the seductive power of the ring, it would have been ridiculous to have Gollum agree to give it away.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Following plot changes is obviously fascinating, but not too often possible. I have a friend who is enamored of the Bloomsbury group and does not understand an author’s need for an editor. After all, he says, Mrs. Dalloway didn’t need editing, nor did To the Lighthouse. They were in effect self publishing but is there a comment to be made on this? I know everyone has an editor these days and are grateful to them, or at least say in the acknowledgements that they are, but what about those earlier “great writers”?

  10. Rich says:

    Wasn’t ‘Kane & Abel’ given an overhaul about three years ago? I have a memory of there being an interview with Jeffrey Archer on the Today programme.

Comments are closed.

Posted In