Writing is a messy business for most of us—even if you’re one of those people who outlines everything in advance, there’s always going to be some parts that you make up as you go. And sometimes, a first draft will include stuff that you know you’re going to have to change later. But what happens when that stuff takes root?
First drafts are usually full of garbage, one way or the other. And some of that garbage is the stuff that makes you think, “Wow, I’m a genius,” while you’re actually writing it—and it’s only later, when you come back to it fresh, that you realize your brilliant inspiration was actually junk. But there’s also the garbage that you add to a first draft, knowing it’s garbage and figuring you’ll just replace it on the second or third draft.
Placeholders can be all sorts of things. They can be character names, or minor details like where people went to school. They can be plot devices, or literal McGuffins, which you figure you’ll replace with something cooler eventually. They can be whole characters, or whole subplots. They can even be plot points: “The hero escapes from this impossible situation in a clever fashion TBD.”
And a lot of the time, these things are fine—in general, with a first draft of a story (or screenplay, or whatever), you’re storing up trouble for yourself later. (Unless you’re one of those freaks whose first drafts are nearly perfect.) One of the things that makes revisions such a pain is having to go through and exterminate misfires, darlings, and things you knew were placeholders.
But sometimes those placeholders become permanent, for one of two reasons. 1) You put in a plot device, thinking you could replace it later, but then you started connecting it to more and more stuff—so now, you can’t change that one thing without changing a dozen other things that are dependent on it, which means ripping up half the story and starting over. 2) You just got used to it, and now it’s the way things “really” happened in your mind.
How you deal with this situation depends on what kind of placeholder it is, and especially how much you ripped someone else off. If you basically just lifted the sonic screwdriver out of Doctor Who or had your characters go to Hogwarts, you’re going to have to find some ways to change it up, at least enough to be unrecognizable to most people. If you put in something that you know is a total overused trope, then a lot depends on how much you value originality or the appearance of freshness.
On the other hand, if you considered something a placeholder just because it’s kind of dumb, that can be okay—every story has dumb stuff in it, and sometimes the cleverest stories include some of the dumbest elements. It’s all in how you use them.
When a placeholder becomes a permanent element of the story, that means it’s somehow claimed a spot in your imagination. This thing that you thought was just a generic “insert idea here” has actually become a real thing to you, one way or the other. And that, in turn, means that it has more substance than you thought at first, or that your story has a major weakness that you’ve convinced yourself to stop seeing. Or both, probably.
So dealing with this temp-to-perm item in your story means grappling with the hole that it’ll leave behind if you remove it—or else finding a way to keep it, but mutate it until it’s something better.
But either way, you’re going to have to figure out why that placeholder got tenure in your story. Is it because it represents something you really wanted to have more of in there—like a cool sonic-screwdriver, gadget-y feel? Is it because you kept referring back to it, and it acquired more significance as you went along? Or is it just part of the backdrop of the story now?
And if the placeholder is doing more work than you originally intended, then part of the solution is probably to streamline and simplify until it’s doing less work. Once the placeholder is doing less work, it’s easier to cut. Or to put it another way, if a subplot winds up depending on something you intended as a temporary fix that you now can’t find a way to replace, you might be able to kill that entire subplot.
In his great book About Writing, Samuel R. Delany says that revising a story always requires convincing yourself that the new version is how it “really” happened, and the original version was just you remembering it wrong. And when it comes to an item that you always meant to replace, part of the problem is that your memory is not just faulty, but kind of crappy. Like, you’re remember a TV commercial you used to see, instead of a thing that actually happened to your own family.
In any case, once you figure out what work the placeholder is doing in your story, or what weight it’s holding up, you can start to rework it. Ideally, one way or the other, you end up with something in that space that actually feels intentional, and like an organic part of the story. That’s really the ultimate goal: for things to feel like they belong, organically, in the story you’re telling, rather than being grafts or stock props.
And finally, it needs to be said: There’s no such thing as “permanent,” anyway. Anything can be changed, at any stage in the revision process, and you can’t get too attached to any one thing. It just gets harder and more painful to tear out parts of the story, the longer you’ve been working with it. But it’s important to remember that nothing’s sacred, and that anything that makes the story less shitty is worth any amount of pain.
A big part of the revision process is just pulling at loose threads in the work until you find the exposed seams, and then reworking them until they’re tight. Finding these loose threads can be a pain, which is why outside readers can be so useful—but the stuff you left in, knowing you were going to have to change it, is an obvious place to start. But either way, the hard part is when you pull on a loose thread, and it keeps coming and coming, until you feel like the whole thing is going to unravel. The good news is, that’s usually an opportunity to make something way stronger and neater out of the frayed parts.