Groundhog Day used to be about a rodent predicting the weather. According to folklore, if a groundhog pops out of its hole on this day and sees The Shadow, it will become scared and remain in its burrow for six weeks, allowing winter to continue.1 If The Shadow is nowhere to be seen, however, the groundhogs will all emerge from their holes and start spraying their aerosol cans everywhere, initiating global warming and heralding spring weather six weeks early.2
But all that changed with the 1993 movie of the same name. Now, thanks to Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, Groundhog Day is synonymous with "do over." If you haven't seen the movie, first of all, go watch this movie. Seriously. Second of all, it's about a meteorologist who keeps reliving the same day over and over until he finally gets it right. Most people would love to have this ability: to be able to go back and fix their mistakes. To redo a decision, or a conversation, or their living room. But, alas, it's just not possible.
Unless you're a writer.
Sadly, we writers still can't right past wrongs in our own lives (or our living rooms), but we can perfect our characters' action and dialogue. Maybe even our entire manuscript.
In Groundhog Day, meteorologist Phil Connors changes his actions every day. He may just tweak one little remark, to see what difference that makes, or he might go somewhere he's never been before and interact with someone new.
We should be doing the exact same thing in our novels and stories.
If a passage or chapter isn't working, make a change. Try the first thing that comes into your head, no matter how peculiar or random it may seem. One simple altered line could bring your story in a whole new and unexpected direction. A more dramatic change could mend the plot hole you've been struggling with, or introduce the perfect subplot. If it doesn't work, toss it out and try another one. Even if it does nothing else for you, this exercise might show you facets of a character's personality you've yet to explore.
I've tried this multiple times at the beginning of my novel. Mostly, I've attempted minor edits: wording changes, rearranged phrases, the occasional new line, that sort of thing.3 Sometimes it's an improvement, sometimes not. Then yesterday, after reading through the top entries in Nathan Bransford's 4th Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Contest, inspiration struck. Minor wasn't going to cut it anymore.
I scrapped everything on the first page (except the opening line), and came at it from a different angle. Now I start with two people in the room, rather than introducing the second later, and I've given the main character something new to think about. I'll have to rewrite the rest of the chapter to match, but it now has the voice I've been seeking all along. After months and months, I think I finally got it right. And you can, too.
Fellow writers, are you stuck? Let Groundhog Day be your guide.
I got you, babe.
1 Although The Shadow only knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, groundhogs aren't taking any chances. They are evil, evil creatures.
2 And this is what happened this morning. I suspect The Shadow was stuck behind a snow plow and couldn't get to the event in time.
3 Interestingly enough, much as Phil Connors always wakes up to the same Sonny & Cher song, my opening sentence has never changed: "At 4:17pm on a Tuesday, Sean Greyson lost his fingers."