Discovery Drafting: What it is and How to Turn it into a First Draft
This post is fondly dedicated to Sarah Jacobsen and Katie Brown—here’s to discovery drafting, friends!!
What is a Discovery Draft?
A discovery draft is essentially a brainstorming method that writers use. They sit down to tell a story and just wing it (or “pants” it) from page one to the last page. When they are done, the draft is a mess, but they know their story and their characters much better and have a grasp of what they are writing about.
Many writers say this is the only way they CAN write and that anything else stifles the story--and to those writers, I say keep it up!! Other writers simply choose this method because they can’t find another method that works well for them (plotting kills their soul). If you are considering using this method, here are some pros and cons to the process--and also some tips about how to take your discovery draft and turn it into a solid first draft.
Pros of Discovery Drafting:
It’s fun not knowing what happens next.
It makes writing when you are inspired very easy.
You make progress quickly because you aren’t spending tons of time planning before you write.
There is less censure and self doubt because you don’t have a measuring stick you are working with--you are just writing!
You uncover amazing surprises in your story that you didn’t even know were there.
Cons of Discovery Drafting
It’s stressful not knowing what happens next.
It makes writing when you aren’t “in the mood” very difficult.
You look like you are making progress, but your first draft ends up not being much of a first draft and is more a jumble of ideas that you then have to mold into a first draft.
It’s easy to go off the rails and write lots of scenes and characters that aren’t relevant and will end up getting cut.
It can be hard to actually finish the story (getting stuck at the middle and end is fairly common).
How Do You Turn the Discovery Draft Into a Solid First Draft?
Tip 1: Don’t revise your discovery draft.
This is more a mental shift than anything else, but it is important. If you approach your discovery draft like it’s a first draft that you want to revise, you will probably pull your hair out.
Instead, you want to treat it like a treasure hunt. You aren’t trying to take the chapters and scenes you pounded out and make them work, you are trying to take the major characters, places, themes, and conflicts that you discovered and give them a story shape. You are sifting through rubble and chucking the useless stuff and setting aside the diamonds to use in your first draft.
Tip 2: You need to give your story meaning.
One of the biggest flaws in discovery drafting is that often events and conflicts are random and disconnected. Sure, they follow a certain cause and effect trajectory, but they often lack story meaning.
Even if you are dead set on never planning a day in your life, you want to be sure your story has meaning, otherwise it will never compel and interest readers (and I assume that’s a goal you have).
How do you give your story meaning? You take those diamonds you mined--those unexpected themes you uncovered, that one conflict that blossomed halfway through the book and you give them their proper place in the story.
Maybe that conflict is actually the main conflict and it needs to come center stage. Maybe that theme renders several other scenes moot and you need to cut them loose while giving more attention to the scenes that develop your theme.
How, exactly, do you do these things?
Step 1: Read your draft.
(Pro Tip: Let your draft rest in a drawer or in a file on your computer for at least three to four weeks before you touch it again.)
Print out your draft, get a blank notebook and some highlighters and post it notes and get cozy. Then reread your discovery draft. Look specifically for the following:
What is the main conflict?
Who is really the main character?
What is their internal struggle?
What themes are developed in this draft?
Step 2: Decide what story you are telling.
After you’ve noted these down, take a good hard look at them. You need to decide what story you actually want to tell. Answer these questions in order:
What theme stands out to you as the most important theme in your story?
Is the main character’s internal struggle related to that theme?
Is the main conflict (the external conflict) related to that theme?
Alright--by now you should already see your story taking shape and you will probably start to see extraneous scenes that you will end up cutting out (Side note: Just because you are cutting a scene, doesn’t mean it was a waste time. Often you learn things about characters from writing a scene, so the scene will be present in your draft in ghost form ;). Don’t cut any scenes just yet, instead move on to the next step.
Step 3: Choose your beginning and your ending.
Lisa Cron says that finding the beginning is like making a series of tick marks, where pressure builds until the main character is forced into action. Try to go through these tick marks until you find the scene where the story really starts. In some cases, it might be a scene that isn’t even in your discovery draft. This is okay. Don’t be too attached to that discovery draft. Make sure you are serving your story well, not the discovery draft well.
Once you know where the story starts, figure out where it ends. Where does the main character’s internal and external struggle collide? At what point does everything change? (Note: In order to be sure the ending is not random, or simply the highest point of tension, make sure the ending connects to the main conflict, the main character’s internal struggle, and the theme you are focusing on. If it doesn’t do these things, then it’s not the right scene.)
(Pro Tip: The end of the story isn’t necessarily the last chapter. Remember that plot diagram you learned in middle school? The “end” of the story is the climax--everything after that is the wrap up.)
Step 4: Reread your discovery draft.
Cross out scenes that are no longer relevant.
Copy scenes (or sections) that are still relevant to the story into a fresh new document titled “Discovery Draft Chunks.”
Cut out the clutter that doesn’t relate to the story you are going to write.
When you are done you are often left with paragraphs here and there, a few mostly whole scenes (perhaps with deleted characters who need to be cut out), and a strong idea of what direction your story is headed.
When you are done, you might feel despair because your “first draft” is now chopped up and dissected into pieces so it’s almost unrecognizable. That’s okay. The discovery draft should look like this--it has done it’s share of the work and now its time is over. Remember, it lives on inside of you and inside of your story, even if whole chunks are deleted and never seen again.
Step 5: Start writing your first draft.
In a clean, fresh document, with blank pages, start writing your first draft. Write your first scene (and if you want, write the last one too). Then start filling in the gaps, all the while keeping tabs on how the story is developing as it compares to your main character’s internal struggle, the theme, and the main conflict.
As you write, you will get to places where you feel like “hey, I already wrote this scene!” Open up your file titled “Discovery Draft Chunks” and copy and paste that scene right into your first draft document. Then keep writing forward.
Have any other great tips for using the discovery drafting method? Share them below! And don’t forget, you don't have to do this alone. You can do this with a certified book coach and few great writer friends in my Drafted group, which starts in January 2019. Learn more about that program here.