If you’ve been writing for a significant amount of time, chances are you’ve dropped a story idea that you enjoyed at least briefly. Maybe you’ve gone back and looked at it since and thought it was garbage, but there’s an equally decent chance that there have been pieces of it you’ve thought are really interesting. After all, something had to grip you when you first wrote it, right? So maybe you have a really cool setting, but flat characters. Or maybe the premise is good, but your prose is cringe-worthy. How do you salvage the good and leave behind the bad?
Identify what’s good about the story
You can’t save an old story if you don’t yet know what’s worth saving. Do you like the characters? The setting? The overall premise? Bits and pieces of everything? Maybe you even have terrible prose in most places, but there’s one paragraph of awesome description that you want to keep. Make note of everything you like about the original, so you can utilize it when you revive the story.
Once you have that list, make sure you know what’s weak about the good parts so you can make them even stronger. Do you have characters with awesome personalities and backstories but no goals? A premise that’s really interesting but lacking focus? Make note of these weaknesses so you can improve them as you plan.
Identify where you’ve grown
Maybe it’s been only a few months since you dropped this story, maybe it’s been five years. Either way, I can about guarantee that you’ve grown in some way since then. See if you can identify in what areas you’ve grown, so that you can play to those strengths when rewriting this old story. Have you gotten better at writing organic dialogue? At developing characters? At plotting? Use these new strengths to build a stronger story.
Determine what made you stop in the first place
At what point in the story did you peter out the first time? Why? Were the characters dull? Was the setting under-developed? Did you run out of ideas for where the plot could go? Figure this out and make note of it so you can focus on fixing that in the planning stage.
Make a plan
Start with the strengths you pulled from the original story and build off of that. Fill in the gaps left from cutting weak characters or scrapping a flat setting, and expand on what you do have. Plan just like you would with a new story, with the benefit of having extra starting material. Ask yourself questions (and answer them), develop your characters, plot, whatever works for you.
In most situations, I’d suggest starting with a blank slate and producing an entirely new draft. Depending on how old and decrepit the original story is, however, you may be able to get away with simply editing the pieces you wrote before and starting from there. I’ve used both methods. For me personally, starting over is generally more effective because I don’t have the same beginning and I’m less likely to fall into the same rut as before, planning or no planning, but do whatever works best for you.
Have you ever gone back and revamped an old story? How many story beginnings do you have gathering dust in the depths of your computer files? (It’s okay; I won’t judge. I have >90 myself.)