Storyville: Stop Pulling on Threads

One of the most destructive things you can do when working on a short story (or novel, which is even worse) is to continuously pick at your work, pulling on threads that eventually cause your story to come undone. Don’t do that—obviously. So, what do I mean by this, what does that look like, and then how the hell are we supposed to edit our work, Richard? I have some thoughts. Maybe it’ll help.


That’s right, I’m revisiting this classic nugget. If you write your story with the Freytag Triangle (or Pyramid) in mind, then your rough draft will deal with those elements—the title, the narrative hook, the exposition, internal and external conflicts, rising to a climax where there is a resolution (and change) as well as a denouement. If you do nothing else with your first draft, make sure you nail those elements. When you go back to edit, these are things you need to address first. I don’t see this as pulling on a thread, more as laying more paint on the canvas—do we have a complete visual, have you done everything you need to do, do the parts complete the whole?

Chainsaw to Scalpel

Pull on that thread and the whole thing can unravel. Keep picking at your story, and it will just create more holes.

One of the things I tell my students when it comes to editing, is to think about where you are in your editing process, and then use the appropriate tool. Start with a chainsaw, then move on to a hatchet, then a chef’s knife, and finally a scalpel. So what does that mean, exactly? A chainsaw is for major edits, cutting off entire tree limbs, making big moves—removing characters, cutting chapters, removing the ending entirely. (I also call this a tectonic shift—moving those massive plates around.) Do those things first, as there is no point in doing line edits on something that may not make the final cut—pun intended. The hatchet is the next level—less about cutting down the whole tree, or a limb, not as drastic, but more like making a notch, hacking off smaller branches, cleaning it up. A chef’s knife is for more precise work—everything from chopping and slicing to dicing and mincing. And then there’s the scalpel—that’s for the final round, everything from commas and periods to a singular word or phrase. Work from the outside in, from the largest and most destructive to the smallest and most precise. This way, you won’t tug on any threads that end up unravelling the whole story.

Picking at Your Story

If you’ve followed Freytag as well as the chainsaw to scalpel process, you should be in good shape. Avoid picking at your story. What does that mean? It means you keep changing things for no reason. If you set Freytag as the foundation and the structure, and then worked your way from the outside in, you should fine. But don’t randomly decide now that you want to add another brother or change the POV to third-person for no reason or set the story in 2330 instead of 2000. Those are things you should have done a long time ago. Don’t start picking—changing tenses, shifting from horror to fantasy, suddenly deciding to cut it down from 5,000 words to 500. Those are painful edits.

Pulling on Threads

Picking at your stories, that’s similar to pulling on threads, but this is much more dangerous. What do I mean? The idea behind pulling on that lose thread of your sweater is that it can unravel the whole story. What might that look like?

  • Cutting out a character. You then have to go back into the story and find every scene that this character, Bob, was in and remove them, and then look at the void created by their absence. What did they represent? Should you do this after feedback in your workshop, when you turned in a rough draft? YES! Because the story is still shifting and changing, but not now.
  • Changing the genre. Do not go from horror to straight literary fiction. If you have to remove every speculative element, every bit of ghost story or werewolf or cosmic horror, what’s left? I don’t know—probably a mess.
  • Changing the plot. Did you take this story set on a distant planet and just realize that the whole thing was a dream, and not by a human, but by a pair of socks? No, please no. Do not do this. If you are already deep into your story, and the demon turns into schizophrenia—fine, but you were working on that the whole time, and as it changed, you changed with it. Do not make this radical alteration to the story NOW. Just go write another story later, tell that demon possession another way, another time.
  • Changing the theme. Was the previous theme the color blue and now you want to make it about a fox, who happens to be red? Well, that’s going to be a painful edit. You now have to either go through and remove all of the blue, and shift it to red, or leave the blue and hope it isn’t a distraction—blue meaning sorrow, or sadness, or water, or serenity.

In Conclusion

It’s like playing Jenga—sure, you can pull out that one piece, but if you keep going, the whole thing can come tumbling down. Pull on that thread and the whole thing can unravel. Keep picking at your story, and it will just create more holes. There is a right way and a wrong way to edit—so look at the process, structures, and methods I’ve mentioned here and figure out what works best for you. Make those big changes early on, and then leave it alone. Part of revision and editing is figuring out what works, and then not touching it. If the Freytag system works, and the rough edit is solid, work from chainsaw to hatchet to chef’s knife to scalpel. Look at those five scenes, and start eliminating the ones that need work, checking things off the list—more setting, more emotion, more depth—and then go back to the places where it’s still weak. Five scenes to three scenes to the ending—you’re polishing them up, making them shine, getting the story to sing. So that final round of edits—scalpel in hand—should be precise, minor, and satisfying—addition by subtraction. Not red, but garnet; not tired, but spent; not a werewolf but a wendigo. Best of luck! Keep going.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of eight books—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate, Staring Into the Abyss, Herniated Roots, Tribulations, Spontaneous Human Combustion (Turner Publishing), and The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). His over 175 stories in print include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), Lightspeed, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Shallow Creek, The Seven Deadliest, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), PRISMS, Pantheon, and Shivers VI. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker (twice), Shirley Jackson, Thriller, and Audie awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor. He was the Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press and Gamut Magazine. For more information visit or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.

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