My Starter Draft’s a Hot Mess, Now What?

Before I give you the inside scoop on using passes to improve your Starter Draft, I offer this important message.

Finish your starter draft first.

Do not tackle passes until you have, otherwise you’ll bog down as described in, Finishing Your Starter Draft is Crucial to Success.

In addition, please know that passes are not finished in a day, or even a week. Especially for a novel. They take time, patience, and dedication. What they don’t require is perfect solutions.

Passes are about improvement, not perfection. Your stories will never be perfect, so try to release any internal commitments to that unattainable goal. But they can be good. Even great.

Happily, readers don’t require perfection. They want interesting characters they can root for, and an intriguing and emotional journey they can take with those characters. Passes can get you there.

Finally, do each pass in the order listed below. That’s important, as they build on each other, going from broad fixes to detailed ones.

Focus on each pass, one at a time. Also important, unless you want your brain to explode.

Improving Your Starter Draft

For each pass, potential story weaknesses and possible solutions are listed. Scan through your story for each weakness listed, one at a time. If you find that particular problem, brainstorm potential solutions and repair it.

If no solution comes to you in one or two minutes of brainstorming, mark the area and move on. Something later, perhaps during one of the other passes, might spark exactly the solution you need.

Pass One: The Big Picture

Your first pass improves weaknesses in the broader story, such as conflicts that arch the entire journey, pacing, cliffhangers, hooks, and general plot elements that could be stronger. Only concern yourself with the areas that apply to each potential weakness.

Weakness:  The first ten pages don’t launch the broad challenge of the series or book. If a short work, the first two pages.

Solutions: What larger mystery, problem, or conflict can you set up in the first five to ten pages? If you can do that on page one, even better.

Weakness: Main characters are not in opposition to each other. They do not hold opposite philosophies, goals, personality traits, or methodologies for solving problems.

Solution: Brainstorm changes you can make to your character profiles that will achieve these goals. (See Interesting Characters Mean Easier Writing.)

Weakness: The structure does not deliver an engaging pace, or growing challenges at each key turning point. (See Story Arcs.)


  • When characters solve one problem, it leads to a worse problem.
  • Midpoint reveals something surprising and sends the story in a new direction.
  • Main story and secondary stories relate to each other and are cohesive.
  • Main character is changed by the end in an important way for them.
  • If a series, the ending sets up the next book.
  • Add a relevant cliffhanger to the end of each scene. (See Cliffhangers, Not Just for the End of a Book by Jami Gold)

Weakness: Not enough character empathy and distress.

Solution: Brainstorm how to increase the emotional stakes using difficult situations such as forced decisions, betrayal, emotional wounds, undeserved misfortune, or failed plans.

Pass Two: Dialogue

For this pass, focus on one main character at a time. After that, if you feel so inclined, do the pass for secondary characters.

Weakness: Readers may not know who is speaking.

Solution: Clarify speaker through dialogue tags (“Charlotte said”), or character action/internal process. If only two characters are conversing, clarify every third line of dialogue, or as appropriate.

Weakness: Character does not speak in alignment with their wounds, beliefs, environment, and personality.

Solution: Make each line a character speaks reflect their profile and environment (time period, social standing, role).

Weakness: Dialogue is mundane (boring).


  • Cut it.
  • Change to an attack/counterattack pattern, whether hostile, flirtatious, or manipulative.
  • Foreshadow the future.
  • Introduce intrigue/mystery.
  • Add irony or subtext.
  • Substitute with action or internal thoughts and emotions.

Pass Three: Action and Description

In this pass, ignore emotional descriptions for now. Focus on physical action and environment/character descriptions only.

Weakness: Action tells. (Usually passive voice and holds reader distant from experiencing story)

Solutions: Action shows. (Strive for active voice to pull reader into the experience with the POV character)

Weakness: Description is bland and list-like.

Solutions: Brainstorm how description could–

  • Deliver the emotional tone you want for the scene or book.
  • Reflect a character’s traits, wound, career, or social standing.
  • Deliver irony (For example: a violent conflict in a beautiful or peaceful setting).

Weakness: Characters do not interact with their environment (just talking heads).


  • Add physical action that reflects or counters character’s words/internal experience.
  • Add physical action that grounds the speaker in place and time.
  • Add physical action that “speaks” instead of the line of dialogue.

Pass Four: Emotion

For this pass, focus only on characters’ emotional descriptions.

Weakness: There are no emotions, or bland emotions. Characters are flat.

Solutions: Evaluate each scene and the characters in it and brainstorm what they are feeling. For POV character, reflect this internally (through physical reaction and thoughts). For other characters show observable, physical reflections of their emotions. (See Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language on Writers Write.)

Weakness: Emotions are delivered by telling (usually using passive voice or lists).

Solutions: Brainstorm how to show the emotion with physical reactions and active internal conflict or processing.

Weakness: Character emotions do not fit their profiles.

Solutions: Review profile of character and brainstorm emotional reactions which fit who they are and what they want.

Weakness: Character emotional reaction does not inspire reader curiosity (why?), satisfaction (ah-hah!), amusement (LOL), or discovery (They’re lying!).  

Solutions: Brainstorm ways to add intrigue (why), reveals (ah-hah), irony (LOL), and subtext (They’re lying) to characters’ emotional reactions.

Pass Five: Wordsmithing

The final pass is wordsmithing which is the detail work and always saved for last.

Wordsmithing is as important as the previous passes, however. It’s the deep clean before you send your book off to an agent or editor, or before you launch it on Amazon.

Fixing the weaknesses listed below matters. Any of them can potentially pull a reader out of your story and give them a reason to put down your book. Often never to return.

Go through your story and one at a time, in order, look for:

  1. Is this dialogue line, description, or action necessary? If not, cut it.
  2. Is this dialogue, description, or action too long? How can I break it up or cut it down?
  3. Is this dialogue line, description, or action clear? If not, brainstorm how to clarify, shorten, or even cut it.
  4. Are verbs and nouns strong and descriptive enough? How can I improve them?
  5. Do descriptive paragraphs contain too many visual images? Which one works best? How can I expand that one and change, or cut, the rest?
  6. Are exclamation points, all caps, dashes, or ellipses overused? If so, delete and replace with action/emotion.
  7. Are there overused words, such as curses, action verbs (walked, ran), or emotions (glared, eyes widened, smiled)? Replace them.
  8. Finally, read your manuscript backwards. You’ll be amazed by what you find to fix, especially typos.

See you on the bestsellers list.

Article adapted from ScreenwritingU courses, including the fabulous Binge Worthy TV class.