Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writer’s Toolkit: the Placeholder

Often in the writing life, we’ll be cruising along in our story until we come to a place where the dialogue (or description or whatever) just doesn’t ring true at first draft. Suddenly the entire flow of your story comes to a halt and you’re faced with a dilemma: fix the flawed dialogue, but lose all the momentum of your story; or leave the flawed portion and continue with the story, hoping you’ll be able to fix it in re-write, (providing you can remember what, where, and how you originally wanted it).

How many fantastic ideas have been lost over the years because of this? I know I have lost many, mostly because I have a horrible time coming up with names. It doesn’t matter what kind of name I need: a character, a town, a business, even a rock band once. All have caused my creative flow to screech to a halt.

It was a problem.

The solution to this dilemma is so simple I find it amazing I hadn’t thought of it earlier. Just insert a placeholder into the spot in question and move on. A placeholder is something (a symbol of some sort, easy to remember later or to find in a search) marking the place for further attention, along with a brief sketch of what you want in the final product.

I first used placeholders (consciously) in my most recent novel for character names. As I’ve said before, I have an awful time coming up with good names and the story will often languish for days while I try to decide what to call my main character’s best friend. This time, I smartened up. I just typed XX or AA where the name should be and moved on.

It was a wonderfully liberating development. Now I could just move on as fast as the story would come to me without worrying about it. After all, this was just a first draft and the most important goal here was to get the basic story down on paper. The time for anguishing over a character name is during re-write, not while you’re constructing a first draft.

However, the placeholder is not just a tool for managing our character names. It can be used wherever an imperfect part of the story threatens the story as a whole. Dialogue, description, even plot problems can be marked for further work and then left for later while you continue with the momentum of your first draft intact.

I also used placeholders (unconsciously it turns out) in the dialogue of the new novel. One of my beta readers pointed this out after reading an early draft. Her exact words were “everybody sure is nodding a lot.” Really? I hadn’t noticed. As it turns out, I had someone nodding six hundred thirty-five times in one hundred thousand words, about one nod every hundred and fifty words.

A tad excessive.

So I examined the usage more closely and discovered I wasn’t so much saying that the characters were actually nodding as that they weren’t responding immediately to whatever the other character had said. It was about the rhythm and pace of the conversation. The word “nod,” as I was using it, was place holding for some other form of activity. During the next re-write I fixed that, replacing “nodded” with what I really wanted to show them doing.

In both cases, I used an easily-found symbol (XX, “nodded”) to mark a passage for more detailed work in revision. In ongoing projects, I am continuing to do something similar. I am still using the XX to mark character names I don’t know yet. The “nodding” thing I’m not sure of yet, but that is always a possibility.

In my opinion, the momentum of a story is too important to jeopardize over some detail you can always fill in later. Face it, we’re going to re-write the whole thing anyway. So use a placeholder and keep the flow going.


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