When to Let a Story Go

burning book page

Sometimes it seems like a story just isn’t going anywhere. We’ve worked and reworked it a hundred times, but it never seems quite right. Agents and publishers alike perpetually reject it (something I discussed last week), and it’s getting downright disheartening. At this point, it may be time to do the unthinkable: to go ahead and let the story die.

There may be many reasons a story simply isn’t working out. It could be that the core story structure just wasn’t that great to begin with. This is especially true of stories we may have started many years ago and only recently picked up again. It could also be that it’s time simply hasn’t come yet (or has already passed). Maybe you simply aren’t feeling the passion for the project that you once did–or else you never really did. Whatever the reason, there are times when you simply have to give it up.

Now, what do I mean by die? Put simply, it means setting a story aside. But rather than setting it aside because you need a break or want to come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes in a month or two, it’s a matter of setting it aside in favor of pursuing projects with more potential (or in more extreme cases, giving up writing altogether, though I certainly hope that’s not the case). This is a story that is simply not worth putting any more effort into.

Whatever your reason for letting a story “die”, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. After all, when you decide not to pick it up anymore, you probably won’t just destroy the manuscript or file completely. That means that the ideas contained in that manuscript remain. And perhaps someday another story will come along that needs a little something to fill in the gaps. Something that can be supplied by that old manuscript, whether it be characters, setting, or various plot elements. This process, known as “cannibalizing”, can be a very useful way of taking the best elements of a story that couldn’t stand on its own, and using them to make a good story into a great one.

So, as you can see, there is really nothing wrong with letting a story die now and then. If there’s naught to be done for it, then there’s really no point trying to continue with it. But even a “dead” story can become useful, and in recycling its best elements, it can even find a way of living on through another, much better story in the end.

Published by J. S. Allen

J. S. Allen is a writer, linguist, historian, and nature-lover from Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of the young adult series Sauragia and the 'Woodland Tales' anthology for children, as well as several shorter works in various online and local venues. In between writing and publishing, he likes to draw, spend long hours outdoors, and read. His favourite authors include M. I. McAllister, Brian Jacques, and Alexandre Dumas.

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