If you’d like to receive my blog in your in-box each week, click here.
I know what you’re thinking, authors: There’s no such thing as a good first draft. The concept of the s***** first draft has become so ubiquitous that it’s accepted as a basic writing truism.
On one level that’s not a completely invalid characterization. Your first draft will rarely be a publishable thing, and I suspect the idea was born as a way to inculcate in authors that drafting is just the first part of the process of writing a novel. The bulk of the work is always in editing and revising, where your story comes to life and becomes the best version of itself.
Read more: “Write Like a Writer; Edit Like an Editor”
But the idea of a less than perfect first draft can be wonderfully freeing. It’s too easy to get hung up trying to make a story perfect as you’re writing it, and it often puts strictures on your creativity—like trying to write with the editor hanging over your shoulder and judging every word. Giving yourself, as I call it, “permission to suck” can neuter the inner critic, open the floodgates, and let the muse swim freely throughout your imagination.
Yet a main reason editing can often feel overwhelming or daunting to authors is that launching into a first draft without a clear idea of at least the main tentpoles of the story you’re creating can result in a first draft that’s so muddy, underdeveloped, or unfocused that revision can mean extensively reworking, rewriting, and rebuilding the story almost from the ground up—a prospect that can make all the effort of drafting the story feel wasted.
You can create a first draft that’s well developed, structurally sound, and offers you the strongest possible building blocks for the editing and revision process—one that has solid bones, so that in editing you can focus on deepening, clarifying, and fine-tuning rather than a total overhaul.
It simply involves a level of forethought about your story.
Creating a Story Road Map
Don’t worry, pantsers, I’m not suggesting you create an exhaustive outline. Personally I can think of nothing more guaranteed to stifle my own creative impulses: If I know exactly how the story goes I no longer have an interest in writing it, and for me the process of creativity is about discovering the journey as I travel it with the characters.
But just as you wouldn’t hop in the car for a road trip without knowing where you want to go, what you want to see and do, and at least some idea of a route that will get you there, sitting down in front of a blank page without considering some of the basic landmarks of your story is setting yourself up for running into dead ends, unnecessary detours, losing your way, or stalling out completely.
Before you dive into drafting, consider the major mile markers of your story:
- inciting event
- major highs and lows
Setup and Resolution
You won’t get far in a trip unless you know where you’re starting from and where you’re going. In fiction you can think of this as your character’s point A and point B that form the endpoints of their journey.
You may be a writer who discovers character growth as you’re writing, and that’s fine. For the purposes of creating a road map to keep you on track, you don’t have to fully define the characters’ emotional journey before you begin drafting. But it’s useful to have at least some idea of the external journey that they’re taking.
What’s your character’s situation at the beginning of the story? Where are they stuck, or struggling, or experiencing some crucial lack, whether they are aware of it yet or not? What is it that they want and don’t have, or have and don’t want? What is keeping them at the beginning from changing that situation? And how is that situation materially changed at the end?
If it isn’t, how does it affect them or the world or the people around them? If nothing changes we have no reason to take this journey with your characters, so in stories where your character situation stays the same or they even fail to achieve their goals, we need to know what effect pursuing them has on them or their lives that makes the story meaningful.
Understanding what is driving your character forward from where they begin and where they’re headed is one of the most crucial parts of setting yourself up for success in the first draft. If you don’t know what your character is striving for, your first drafts are likely to meander, get derailed, or grind to a halt.
This is usually referred to as your character’s goal and motivation: the thing they want, or want to avoid, and the longing or lack pushing them toward it. These driving forces are most useful if you can define them externally and internally.
For example if they want love, that’s a strong driving force, but it’s squishy–it’s hard to define and readers don’t know when the character has reached that destination. Attaching it to some more tangible manifestation of that goal will keep your story on track—maybe it’s marrying their soul mate; maybe it’s reconciling with an estranged sibling; maybe it’s winning the part that will make them a big Hollywood star.
Read more: “Is Your Protagonist Focused on the Wrong Goal?”
What new and unprecedented thing happens in your character’s life that forces them out of their initial situation, or interrupts it, or disrupts it, or changes it?
There is a reason that your characters have not taken this journey toward what they want before now, despite their longing or lack, and we need to see the thing that encourages or forces them to start down a path they have been hesitating before until this moment.
Why must they take this journey, and why now? What changes in their normal status quo that pushes them forward? Defining that inciting event starts the story’s engine and gets the wheels in motion.
Major Highs and Lows
Because you have defined clearly what goal your character is working toward, now that you are going to put them into motion it will serve as a guide to help you find the route toward it.
Strong narratives aren’t about a character who has toward a goal and then smoothly goes out and gets it. Instead they’re a series of steps—smaller goals necessary to achieve that ultimate goal: ups and downs, progress toward what the character wants and setbacks away from it.
You don’t have to know every one of those as you begin drafting, just as you don’t have to painstakingly chart a road trip turn by turn. But sketching out the main steps required to move your character closer to her goal creates a route to get her there.
What must the character accomplish in order to get where she’s going—and what obstacles might present themselves that threaten to prevent her from attaining each one?
In The Hunger Games, for instance, Katniss wants to protect her sister—her main goal. That means, first, she must volunteer for the Hunger Games in her place; second, that she must survive them to come home to care for Prim, since their mother isn’t able to.
If you are a die-hard pantser, that loose sketch might be enough to get you drafting, moving the character forward in incremental steps you may discover as you go that move her toward that ultimate destination.
Or you can dig a little deeper and break those steps down further before you start writing: Surviving the Games means Katniss must train to fight; procure adequate weapons; avoid the other participants trying to kill her; find water and food; evade the dangers of the woods; outwit Snow’s mercurial rule changes.
And if you are a Jeffery Deaver–style meticulous outliner, you can break each of those steps down into the even smaller steps required to achieve each incremental step, and create turn-by-turn GPS instructions for the character’s journey.
Whichever level of preplanning works for you, as long as you have at least a sketch of the route that will get your character to her final destination, you’ll keep moving steadily toward it.
Keep your character always pushing forward toward the next required step on the path toward to ultimate goal, and the triumphs and setbacks along the way create a solid story structure.
The greatest of these setbacks will serve to set up your story’s climax, that moment when the character faces the greatest possibility of failure to reach his goal, the most difficult challenge of his journey.
Considering your character’s ultimate, main goal, what is the worst possible thing that could happen to threaten its attainment? Make that happen.
This is the character’s greatest challenge yet, his biggest setback, the black moment when it seems all may be lost. How will your character overcome it? That battle—whether your character succeeds or fails—is your climax.
And the effect of that outcome on the character and their life is the story resolution, the character’s point B: the shift they experience—in their external situation, internal arc, or both—as a direct result of how they’ve changed, grown, or what they’ve learned over the course of the story in pursuit of their goals.
Read more: My “How to Prepare for NaNo” blog post series digs deeper into this process.
And if you want to dig even deeper into how to set yourself up for a successful first draft, I’m presenting my most popular course, “Five Steps to an Airtight Plot,” as a live 2.5-hour workshop July 20 with Lorin Oberwerger’s Free Expressions Writing Success Series.
In this practical, hands-on workshop, together we’ll explore each of these steps and work through them for your individual story, using personalized worksheets.
At the end, you’ll have created a clear, solid road map for a smooth, cohesive first draft—whether you’re on a publishing deadline, prepping for NaNoWriMo success, or just wanting to learn how to write first drafts that actually work.
If you’d like to receive my blog in your in-box each week, click here.